Inside-Out and Backwards

Sophomore year was the year of Learn by Watching, and this worked out, because watching was what I was good at. I learned about rules very quickly, mostly because I have always had an unhealthy obsession with them. And what I learned was this: even though they told us that the rules applied to everyone, it was not actually true.

That fall, I went through an ill-advised phase where I borrowed my dad’s clothes a lot—especially this one particular T-shirt from Flying Dog Brewery, with a Ralph Steadman drawing advertising Road Dog Porter. Due to the shirt’s alcohol related message, coupled with Flying Dog’s PG-13 marketing slogan, the dress-code violation was twofold, but I was never once told that I needed to cover the shirt or turn it inside out, or even to stop wearing it in the future.

So yes, I’d begun to suspect that rules did not apply equally, but I didn’t know it for a fact until this happened:

The scene – As with most of the more dramatic scenes that first semester, it takes place in English class.

The star – A boy who sits at the back of the room and typically sleeps through class. Apart from spotty attendance and a general lack of involvement, he’s remarkably well-behaved. He rarely does the work, but is never unruly or impolite. He holds doors for people. He never draws attention to himself, which is something that sophomore Brenna identifies with to an excessive degree. The class is the last one of the day, and is basically an exercise in chaos.

Other players in the drama –

  • Nick has the desk directly behind our reluctant star. Nick is very tall, very loud, and can usually be counted on to be the one instigating the chaos.
  • TS sits next to me. She likes Punky Colour hair-dye, Vans skate shoes, and Kevin Smith movies, and is the closest thing I have to a real friend.
  • Lucas, who early on cemented his role as resident humanitarian and classroom advocate, is unable to resist getting involved, and in a misguided attempt to secure justice, kind of makes things worse.
  • M is still M, but becoming more so every day.

She stopped right in the middle of a sentence and said, “Brian Number Four,* what is that on your shirt?”

It was one of those graphic T-shirts, with all the stuff on it—snake-eyes dice and eight balls and playing cards. It took me a minute to even see what she was talking about.

“It’s a tomato plant,” said TS. Not loud, but not a whisper either.

In front of me, Lucas made a strangled sound.

“Take it off,” said M.

And this happens. It’s normal. It happened two weeks ago in Geometry. Watch-Thief’s shirt had a Hennessy ad on it and the Hobgoblin told him to turn it inside out and Watch-Thief did. But I can’t even list all the ways it was different. I think he liked it. Not in a getting-pleasure-from-it way, exactly, but liked it the way he liked taking my watch. A personal-satisfaction way. It made him show his teeth in that @#$%ing not-smile. It made him flex his muscles and prove without having to say anything, that he’s the lead-dog and the Hobgoblin is just nothing.

With #4, it was different. He didn’t look angry. Or, he did, but not a normal way. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell how people are feeling just from their expressions. He was red all the way down his neck. His ears looked like they might catch fire, but he didn’t do anything. He was clenching his jaw and it made him look like he was getting ready for someone to hit him.

“Take it off,” M said again, and people starting laughing because it took that long to realize she really wasn’t joking.

She said, “You may take off your shirt and reverse it.”

Lucas stared at her, leaning way back in his seat. “Wait, you want him to put it on backwards?”

She got much angrier then, like it was filling her up. “You may remove your shirt and turn it inside-out, or you may go to the office. Now, mister.”

Nick leaned on his elbows and whispered, “Jesus, would you just do it?” Which sounds mean, but he meant get it over with and then she’ll let it go and we can all stop being embarrassed for you, but #4 just stared at his desk, and Lucas was shaking his head like he knew it wasn’t that easy.

M kept telling #4 to take the shirt off and turn it inside out, and he didn’t move, and TS was kicking me across the aisle, giving me looks and humming a stripper theme-song. “Dude, what a pedophile,” she whispered. “She just wants to see him get naked.” And then she switched to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” I didn’t want to laugh, but I did it anyway.

#4 was just sitting there, not looking at anybody. He asked if he could change in the bathrooms, but she told him no. She told him that if he absolutely must he could go out in the hall.

When he didn’t come back, M said, “Lucas, please see what’s keeping him.”

Lucas went out into the hall, and came back in alone. “He’s just sitting out there. He says he won’t take it off unless he can go down to the bathrooms. Ma’am, why won’t you just let him do it?”

“Dude,” TS whispered. “That kid is my new @#$%ing hero.”

And I know she didn’t mean it, but it is brave to sit on the floor and not give in or do what she says. That’s brave in a different way than Watch-Thief. Braver, because #4 is really shy and Watch-Thief’s eighteen. It’s easier [for Watch-Thief], I think. The boys in my grade all wear two T-shirts, like to cover up how skinny they are. They just layer on so many clothes. Except #4. Maybe after this, he will.

As I recall, #4 was eventually allowed to go down to the bathrooms to change. I don’t remember if he came back. I think now that he didn’t. When I try to recall the details I didn’t write down, it gives me an anxious feeling and I catch myself wincing, even though when it happened, I only sat at my desk, wide-eyed and fascinated.

Later, I told my mom about it and the look she gave me was incredulous, like she was more shocked than I was, and she hadn’t even been there. I told her about #4, how he was red-faced, embarrassed, but he still wouldn’t take his shirt off in front of the class.

“Good for him,” she said, and it was comforting to know that she would forgive me if I ever got in trouble for standing up to a teacher. That she maybe even expected it.

At the time, I was scared of M. She seemed like a gorgon, a dragon, much scarier than she seems now, but also more distant. The whole scene was vaguely appalling, but like something appalling that happened on TV. I thought she was so mean, that she liked seeing the bad kids squirm.

I think now that she didn’t. I think she was jaded and tired—that bone-tired that comes from working diligently for years and never seeing a real result. Even the very best students didn’t reveal their best until they got out of her class and moved on to more challenging work. I tell myself now that she didn’t understand what she was doing to him or what it meant to be fifteen. How easily one can be mortified.

Mostly, I’m glad that remembering this makes my heart beat too fast, my face get hot in sympathy. It seems a shame to forget the things that shock and trouble you at fifteen, when those are so often the things that shape you.

*There were so many Brians in the class that she made us alphabetize them and then refer to them by their numerical rank in the alphabetization.

31 thoughts on “Inside-Out and Backwards

    • I don’t actually think it’s remotely appropriate either, but it is kind of interesting how much more upsetting I find it now, as opposed to when I was younger and it was so easy to just chalk it up to having “a mean teacher,” and move on.
      Now it’s like there’s this other level to it that seems extra uncomfortable because I have to make room for the idea that she probably didn’t even perceive herself as being mean.

      • It’s very upsetting either way. I mean, that could’ve been traumatizing for the student. I know I would’ve most likely been scarred for life being the sensitive type and all. You should put all of these little vignettes together and turn them into a novel. It all sounds so fascinating and I like the writing style a lot. I would love to read more.

        • Yes, now I’m kind of shocked at how, when it happened, I wasn’t upset *enough* (despite being the sensitive type as well, and yeah, knowing that I probably would have been scarred for life if it had been me).
          I’m really glad you like it, because all these little stories are very important to me in different ways–which I supposed is why I wrote them down in the first place–and I’m always looking for the exact right way to tell them.

          • :) You sort of remind me of Harriet the Spy. I would say all these exercises really helped you become a better writer, but your writing was so good even back then so I’m not sure if that’s the right way of putting it.

  1. That is…very strange and rather inappropriate. Though I will admit I fixated on the number detail because, wow, that’s rather specific and impersonal.
    It reminds me of something that happened during my sophomore year, in my History of Popular Music class–as did a lot of my favorite stories, actually–which involved a kid in a with a collection of inappropriate t-shirts (the one in this story, I believe, was a list of ‘Best Things About A Girl’ that listed only body parts, by the you-can’t-say-that-on-television names), and the awkward student teacher with very little authority looking at him, blinking, and commenting, completely deadpan, “Wow, you just have an endless supply of shirts that are insulting to women, don’t you?” He did not, however, send him to the office. I don’t think it had occurred to him that he could.

    • That is…very strange and rather inappropriate.
      That’s pretty much exactly what my detached-self says, word for word. And I got very hung-up on the number thing too, because it was so . . . literary. I mean, it was so quirky that it sounded fake.
      I love how every teacher, in every situation, has a completely different threshold and reaction to things. And a *very* different expectation for how their authority (or lack of) is going to be received.

      • Very much so. Some things you just can’t make up… Especially the fact that they were numbered in alphabetical order, I find that bizarre. This uncreative town just uses last initials, generally…
        That’s definitely a very interesting study, as is watching people try and push that authority to the limits. Observation is definitely the only upside to my ridiculous gift for getting placed in classes full of random upperclassmen. Pop Music was one of my favorites ever, as it was taught by an older student teacher with no faith in his own authority, and the actual teacher never showed up, so it often consisted of a lot of people who’d ended up randomly placed in the class messing around with marching band instruments while four or five people had intense debates about The Beatles.

  2. *shudder* It’s true, though. I see a lot of people who work with teens now and it’s amazing just how . . . fatigued they get. Really what she needed was for someone to point out that what SHE was wearing was inappropriate and be made to take it off. But after awhile, our skins stay stuck on.

    • This doesn’t excuse bad behavior *at all* but I think that fatigue is a good word for it–it must be so hard to combat. I’m always SO appreciative of the teachers who do manage to stay engaged and compassionate even after twenty or thirty years.

  3. I just love that you post these excerpts.. They are so fascinating. I kept extensive diaries for years (from when I was 15 to probably 19 or 20) and am tempted to snag your idea and do some of these posts myself. I might not be brave enough though.
    High school… >shudder<
    Anyway, poor Brian #4. :( I’m glad he stood up for himself. It’s kind of terrible how little power of self-determination you have when you’re in high school.

    • It’s kind of terrible how little power of self-determination you have when you’re in high school.
      I’ve thought this too many times to count, but never so pithily :)
      If you ever do get up the nerve to share some of your own archives, I for one would gladly read! Half because I am the nosiest person alive, and half because I think it’s so interesting to see how adolescence shapes a person in both little and completely tremendous ways.

      • Hahaha–demons negate the value in everything, but I can’t help it, I love them anyway.
        Also? BEST ICON EVER!!!
        Do you think I can get a bracelet like that? (even though it might be rather impractical.)

        • It’s one from that batch of icons I sent you the other day. It reminds me of your Seven Deadly Sins charm bracelet, too.
          Maybe it would be less impractical if it was dried. And shellacked.
          I bet you could sell necklaces with dried and shellacked bird hearts or something. I mean, I have mink jaw bone earrings, so why not? Hmmmm.

  4. I also wonder if #4 had scars or a rash or something else he might not want to reveal to the world by taking off his shirt in public. This possibility does not seem to have occurred to the teacher; I remember how often, in school, the privacy needs of students were not
    respected, or even considered to exist.

    • This is exactly what I was thinking. And so beautifully written, Brenna! I’m glad Tess pointed it out; it seems like I keep missing bits of my f-list for some reason, even though I scroll through diligently.
      Anyway, yes, please do go be Sandra Cisneros when you’re done w/demon-hunting. ;)

      • Someday, I’ll tackle some realistic fiction because at this point, I think I can’t avoid it–I was too irrevocably affected by being a teenager :)
        Yes, the idea of someone having a good reason for not wanting to take their shirt off in public (I mean, beyond *not wanting to take their shirt off in public*) didn’t occur to me until my mom brought it up, but when she did, it opened up a whole new level of discomfort with what had just happened.

    • scars or a rash or something else
      You know, my mom said something very similar at the time, and I think that’s when I started to really feel upset about it, because before it had just seemed like a matter of pettiness or inconsideration. Even though I knew it wasn’t small, I still just thought it was stupid. But thinking about the it like that, it suddenly became much more about basic human rights.

  5. In my school, the popular girls with short skirts and belly shirts were ignored, the popular guys were asked to duct-tape over the inappropriate parts (drawing attention to them even more) and the ‘deviants’ where sent to the office and made to change into their PE cloths, things in the lost and found or sent home. I think teachers are more careful now because people are so sue (is that the right sue?) happy. I’m student teaching next semester and I really hope I don’t turn out like this. This is really kind of a horror story on so many different levels. We had a teacher in 5th grade that, as punishment for the boys, she would make them sit on her lap, hold her hand, and I herd rumors about kisses on the cheek. I swear, school is the best house of horrors. What am I getting myself into? And I agree that stories like this would make for a great story. Everyone can relate to the misery of high school.
    PS: is there a way to contact you about an interview? Sorry to ask here, but I can’t seem to find another way!

    • the popular girls with short skirts and belly shirts were ignored, the popular guys were asked to duct-tape over the inappropriate parts
      That’s exactly how it was at my school, too!
      I’m student teaching next semester and I really hope I don’t turn out like this.
      I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’m devising this theory (possibly wishful thinking) that since people change jobs a lot more now than they used to, maybe the ones who discover teaching isn’t what they want to be doing won’t feel pressured to stay. If it feels like you’re there voluntarily, I think that sense of autonomy might just cancel out any sort of resentment and change . . . everything. And I’m sure you yourself will be great :)
      Wow, I should really get my contact info up on my website like a responsible person! I’d love to do an interview and you can email me at brenna.yovanoff at gmail dot com

  6. Beautifully written! Makes me so sad… I had a whole slew of rotten teachers from 4th-6th grade. They were all in their last year before retirement, and it was my bad luck to be one of the kids that didn’t make the favorite list. The humiliation of being singled out in front of an entire class is so damaging!
    Poor Brian. So inappropriate for your teacher to act like that!! :(

    • They were all in their last year before retirement
      10th grade was my year of questionable teachers, and I think this pretty much applied across the board. I always think, why do something if you clearly don’t enjoy it? But then, I figure people must feel like they don’t have any choice.
      Yes, having a teacher single you out can be the most awful thing!

  7. The Mouse
    As I was reading, I kept thinking, “He’s got a nasty scar or a birthmark or a third nipple or something.” And so true … your observation about the difference between a shirtless sophomore and a shirtless senior. It’s night and day.
    I was in eight grade when the whole “micromini” skirt thing happened (a weirdly long time ago). We used to have an assistant vice principal named Mouse Wallace. Small guy, balding, with sharp features and a high voice. Mouse.
    We also had a rule in my school that skirts couldn’t be too short. So Mouse had a test: he would drop a pencil and ask the girl’s to bend over and pick it up. If he could see their underwear, he’d call their parents.
    Imagine that. This practice lasted for a surprisingly long time before an outraged parent finally called and put a stop to it. I always wondered if Mouse was as creepy in private as he seemed …
    JVZ

    • Re: The Mouse
      he would drop a pencil and ask the girl’s to bend over and pick it up. If he could see their underwear, he’d call their parents.
      I feel like at this point, I shouldn’t be shocked anymore. But I always am anyway! And yeah, it’s surprising how long things go on sometimes. Sometimes I think it’s because everyone else is shocked too.

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