In high school, our lesbian (? no one ever really knew for sure) English teacher had us write short, freestyle essays over the weekend to turn in on Monday. She called them “Monday Musings,” though a good handful of us thought “The Late Sunday Night Pain in the Ass” would have been a more fitting name. I liked the idea of them (even though I waffled in and out of the Pain in the Ass group), because it was a guaranteed page and a half that I had to write. I did it for the grade, the same reason for which I did most things in high school, but sometimes I’d stand by the printer and realize that what was coming out was something I was quite anxious to turn in.
The questionable lesbian wasn’t the best teacher, but she liked me (the first in a longer-than-it-should-be line of questionable lesbians) and wrote encouraging remarks on my papers with her blue felt-tipped pens. She had the loopy, elegant script of female English teachers and if one were to judge her by her penmanship alone, would never question her femininity. She enjoyed reading our work and wrote at a slant in the margins her thoughts on a particular line or paragraph and at our papers’ end, would suggest how we might further develop our ideas thought. Most student’s musings were half or quarter-assed, but for those who showed promise and who were unwittingly carried away by the writing itself, Ms. M’s slanted lines were some of the earliest encouragement us budding writers would receive. Sometimes she could be harsh if it was too obvious the student had written the Monday Musing during Monday lunch (which was at least an hour) or worse, during Morning Nutrition, which was just ten minutes.
“Please turn in something of better quality or nothing at all,” she’d write.
In her AP English class, I was the student who was always tired in a sad, mysterious way. I was an exhausted senior who had realized a little too early on that perhaps college wasn’t the answer to all of high school’s trivialities. That trivialities (pointless assignments, projects, etc.) continued in college and often, depending on the sort of job you landed, well into one’s career. Sometimes, trivialities followed people to their graves and were, just short of being engraved on one’s tombstone, worked into one’s eulogy. “So and so was a great colleague. Did great work, etc. Etc.”
Alright, perhaps I hadn’t thought so far…but I was dreading the murkiness I saw in front of me. This dread tired my young face and it showed. In the way unhappiness attracts nosy wonderment, I bathed in the Ms. M’s pity and concern whereas other exhausted students (such as my cheerleader friend Grace) only incurred her wrath. When it came time to turn in our senior projects, I had nothing despite that we had the entire year to work on it. The night before our projects were due, I sat in front of my computer and a blank poster board with a glum look on my face, a muted worry churning in my chest. I cared about my grades. But I didn’t really care. I had spent five dollars on that blank poster board, gone through the motions at Staples, stood in line and paid for it and drove it home, wondering how something so thin and light could feel so heavy. The intent, I suppose, was to fill it with lies. Back in September I had proposed to a small committee of over-enthusiastic teachers that I would learn the basics of Japanese. I would keep a weekly log, charting my progress and have knowledgeable adults (my father’s friend Greg Takino) sign off on my reports.
I did none of it. I knew the first five letters of the Japanese “alphabet,” and to whip up a log of all the rest that I hadn’t learned at 10PM sounded downright exhausting.
The poster board was a blinding white, yet I had never seen anything so abysmal. At eleven PM I decided that staring at the poster board for an hour was a good indicator that staring an hour more was useless. I shut my computer off and, if memory serves me right, went to bed or watched a movie or, as I often do in the summers, went swimming. I could have done it, created the project out of thin air, but there were some other things I wanted to do instead. It wasn’t nihilism per se, but in high school, on the edge of college enrollment, it was very very close. Maybe I swam. Maybe I didn’t. But it went quiet in my head and something had been cleared. I heard the faint buzz of the rest of my classmates pounding and pasting and lying away (because really, no one does the senior project) on their own blinding white poster boards, but in my room, there was no such noise. Just the silence of truth about to be delivered.
The next day I seemed strangely alert compared to the rest of my classmates, all of them bleary eyed from having stayed up late to “finish” their projects. A wall of poorly constructed poster boards lined the back of the classroom and sitting in the front of the classroom, I felt almost glad that mine was not there to join their shoddy ranks.
Class ended. I waited until all the other students filed out and approached Ms. M, who sat leaning on her podium. She looked up.
“Betty, I can’t wait to review all these senior projects,” her steely blue eyes stared past me and swept across the back wall. “Remind me again, what was your project on?”
I cleared my throat, “I proposed to learn Japanese. Well, the basics.”
“Oh wonderful! How did that go?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Uh-oh.” She put her pen down, and put on her “I’m concerned about you” face, with widened eyes to match. “Are you doing okay? Do you need more time?”
“Ms. M, I don’t have my project.”
“Okay, do you need more time? All you had to do was ask for an extension.”
“No. I just don’t have it. I didn’t do it.”
“Oh.” She looked crestfallen, as though she would have been the sole beneficiary of my senior project. “Why?”
I twisted my hands. It would have been too easy to cry then. And truly, I did ponder her question. Why? Why didn’t I do it? Why didn’t I feel the urgency or the weight of these final grades? Hadn’t I, at the beginning of the year, planned to finish strong? Hadn’t I promised myself and my parents that senior year was an important gateway to college – and that whatever bad habits I had were to be trampled until dead so I could fly away for college a sleek and disciplined bird? I didn’t know why I did not do the senior project. Or I did. I did not care.
What I said was almost that. “I don’t know Ms. M. I don’t know. I just didn’t and I didn’t want to lie about it. I’m sorry.”
She stared at me long and hard. I watched her irises contract and widen, doing a quick calculation – what was wrong with this Betty? Was she depressed? Most likely. I had her for ninth grade English and she was a good student then, and still is, despite this senior project snafu and her occasional falling alseep, a good student now. It must be trouble at home. She wrote that one Monday Musing at the beginning of the year about being tired because she was arguing with her parents about her SATs.
It wasn’t that I had a particularly tough year. I went through the college admissions wringer along with the rest of my class, though “escaped” four months early by applying early decision to NYU and was accepted in December. Naturally, I mentally checked out of senior year as soon as I opened the mailbox and saw the big envelope.
“Now I can dick around,” I think, was my exact thought as I opened said envelope.
But Ms. M didn’t need to know that. What she saw wasn’t a student who no longer wanted to invest herself in her studies, but a student who couldn’t invest herself anymore because of unsaid troubles at home.
“Betty,” she said finally, “I’ve been watching you struggle for this whole past semester. I don’t know what is going on, but you can certainly, certainly talk to me any time about it.”
I nodded gravely, though really, there wasn’t much to say. I was staying up late most nights watching movies. My parents had stopped giving me shit about my grades and the SATs a few months back since I turned in my college applications and aside from the occasional warning about wasting their money at an expensive private school and studying something useless like Art or English, had pretty much checked out as well, tucking away their tiger tails.
“I appreciate your honesty.” Ms. M said, “It takes guts to tell the truth like that. I won’t penalize your final grade.”
The senior project was worth ten percent of our grade. had it been counted, it would have given me a B-plus in English, which for a socially awkward, video-game addicted Asian boy would be almost acceptable, but not for me, even in my academically apathetic state. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and put my hands together in prayer, holding them up to my lips to hide my maniacal grin.
“Thank you so much, Ms. M. I know I don’t deserve this, but I’m really grateful you understand.”
“Remember Betty. You can talk to me anytime. I know this is a strange time for all you seniors.”
“It is,” I said, already turning towards the door. Perhaps my next Monday Musing would be an ode to honesty.