Tuesday, April 20, 2004


Columbine Five Years On: This one's for Denise

When I was a senior in high school, I didn't have a car. OK, I was a Geek. Picture Anthony Michael Hall in any John Hughes film, only without scripted dialogue. (Or you can picture Donna from That 70s Show if you prefer. I know I do.)

We weren't even called Geeks yet then, so we didn't even get the identity and solidarity of a name.

I rode up to school waaaaay too early in the morning with my dad the gym teacher, and in the afternoon walked myself either back home or to the grocery store where I was a bagboy, clean-scrubbed in a white shirt and a tie.

But lunchtime was a problem. We seniors had Senior Privileges, which basically meant open campus for lunch. Not having a car made the customary McDonald's run difficult, but a mighty SENIOR dare not be seen in the cafeteria for fear of looking Uncool. Even a Geek Senior is still a Senior.

Of course I was Uncool anyway. The harrassment mostly stopped after 8th grade but I was still awkward, trying desparately to fit in with people who wanted nothing to do with me. Right around this time Elvis Costello made an album that he wanted to call Emotional Fascism. (I was Officiallly Weird bacause I listened to it.) The phrase was perfect for High School USA circa 1981. My brother home-schools his son because of shit like that. He doesn't want my nephew's sweet little spirit crushed and tortured by an institution and a peer group that could care less.

Anyway, back to lunch. The only remaining alternative was The Shack.

The Shack was a well past its prime drive-in located just down the hill from school, about a two block walk. They had very salty fries, burgers with lots of onion, and root beer in an old fashioned paper carton with a clip on the top.

I went by myself because my regular friends (picture the geeks from Sixteen Candles. Or picture Molly Ringwald if you prefer. I know I do) Anyway, my regular friends had different free hours. And I kind of kept The Shack secret from them.

You see, The Shack was the hangout for The Dirtballs.

I'm ashamed that I ever referred to fellow human beings as "dirtballs." It's an evil, evil phrase, sort of like "Zero Tolerance". But that's what everybody called them, even the teachers, like it was a proper noun. Just like Butt-Head's given name was Butt-Head. Every school had the type, every school will: smoking cigarettes on the corner between metal shop classes, not good at sports (no matter how skilled you are, skateboards don't count), not good at class, not noticed at all.

The Shack was where the Dirtballs went to cut class. And into this mix of misfits walks The King Of The Dipshits (Molly Ringwald: "That's kinda cool...)

And to my amazement I met... human beings. I remember Conrad who drew amazing pictures, along with a lot of band logos. I talked with my... friends? Too strong a term. I talked with my warm acquaintances for endless lunch hours, talking about music, school, petty gossip, Normal Stuff, sharing our contempt for the mutual enemy of Geeks and Dirtballs: the Jocks.

See, the Jocks partied as much as the Dirtballs. They just didn't get caught, or they had enough mainstream social skills - I'm talking like a grownup now - that they could hide it. (Geeks didn't party. One of dad's jobs was to discipline Jocks who got caught at parties. This was a significant social disadvantage, in that it was widely assumed I was a narc. But Dad usually knew where the party was before I did.)

The Dirtballs and I saw through the hypocrisy and passed the ketchup.

They might have laughed at me behind my back, like the Jocks did. But I never FELT like they did, and that mattered.

But most of all I remember Denise.

She was a year behind me in school but the same age. (I'd skipped a grade back in the days before gifted classes, and I paid a big social price.) I'd been in classes off and on with her since elementary school but never really paid attention to her.

Denise was usually the only girl at The Shack but she didn't seem to be attached to anyone. I'd been in classes off and on with her since elementary school but never really paid attention to her. Denise wasn't the kind of person you would ask out on a Date. She was the kind of girl you would Hang Out With, or in today's terms Hook Up With. She was short and petite, with dark eyes and dark brown hair that was long and feathered back like they did in the 70s. Sometimes she wore big round glasses but usually not. She was blunt and articulate and a lot of times funny. I suppose she was pretty. But by definition there was no such thing as a Pretty Dirtball Girl so I didn't let myself acknowledge it.

The Shack had a jukebox. Denise used to play Alice Cooper and dance, turning slowly, her slim hips swaying in her faded jeans:

It's hot tonight
Too hot for talkin'
It's hot tonight
I sweat tonight
I sweat no sleeping
It's too hot tonight
Dogs are barkin'
Cats are screamin'
Streets are steamin'
Gods own heats the devil' demon
My turn tonight
To burn with fever
I burn tonight
I smoke tonight
I'm all on fire
It's damn hot tonight

I wondered what the smoke on her lips tasted like.

We all used to play the country songs on the jukebox and laugh at them, our own in-joke. Our favorite was "I'd Love To Lay You Down" by Conway Twitty. We'd sing along in mock country voices. To this day when I hear that song I think of Denise.

It started as an awkward necessity, sharing my meals with these people I had no business talking to. But before long I started forward to seeing Denise and the gang. I suppose I had what you would call a crush on her. But the social barriers between Geeks and Dirtballs were too great for me to Hang Out with her. I have no idea what she thought of me and I'll never know. She was just good enough to have lunch with, I guess.

I went to college. All my friends went to college, in my middle class world it was just assumed that's what you did next. She went to wherever it is Dirtballs go after high school: to work, to tech school, the military, to a party, I don't know. I just graduated and turned my back, or maybe the circumstances just changed and the happenstance that forced us together was done. Either way I never saw Denise again.

A few years later I was home from grad school on a break, reading the local paper. I saw a picture of a familiar face in a place it didn't belong.

Denise was killed in a car accident when she was 28 years old. She left behind a baby.

This is not my Great Lost Obsession. It's just a sad story. I don't mean it's sad simply because she died too young. Our story - me and Denise, young and alive - repeats itself year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. People reaching out to each other in adolescent awkwardness and failing to connect, because their imagination is too small to fully reach past their differences. Eventually some of us get to a point where we can try to overcome the class divisions, the cultural expectations. But even then it can be too late. The wounds may be too deep, the moment may have passed, or in our case it's the Big Too Late.

And it's fresh in my mind today because of this anniversary and because I have a teenager of my own now.

I remember watching TV in the fall of 1999 when the kids went back to Columbine.

Some girl was giving a speech about how we should respect each other's diversity and differences.

The camera switched over to the crowd. Everyone was wearing matching WE ARE COLUMBINE T-shirts. Identical. Every kid.

Except for: the CHEERLEADERS.

Nothing had changed.

Last week a kid in Davenport took a gun to school. He wanted to scare someone who'd been bullying him.

Now this kid is in serious trouble. They're talking stuff like federal weapons charges. Zero Tolerance.

The bully is presumably still going to school.

Nothing has changed.