I have moved a lot of times. Like, a witness-protection number of times. By the end of my freshman year of high school I had moved across the country eight times — twice in that one school year alone. I whipsawed between various small communities in Maine and Alaska, spending the preponderance of my time in Alaska.
But 1988, my sophomore year, was a real cake-taker. I lived in three different cities, and attended two separate high schools in two states. I moved from Juneau, Alaska to Kennelwick, Maine in early November. Kennelwick is not a real place, by the way — just in case I inadvertently reanimate anyone else’s decades-old trauma.
Changing schools in November is like showing up for a surprise birthday party at the same time as the birthday girl. It doesn’t matter why you’re there, or how awesome you are, you’ve arrived with such impossibly shit timing that literally no one is happy to see you. To whit: The school year was well underway and the brutality of the initial social sorting process was fading, but the blood was still drying. The cliques had already galvanized, defensively, prepared for the inevitable breakups and infighting bloodshed typical of a closed, captive society. High school is like the Thunderdome, only with less clothes made out of human skin.
It’s important to emphasize how much I didn’t want to be that latecomer blowing the whole thing asunder. I’d already experienced the Thunderdome in another city, with another group of skin-clad blood-spattered adolescents. I was as unenthusiastic about rustling their social order as they were to see it rustled. I didn’t want to get back into that arena either. But there I was.
Even that level of melodramatic, histrionic abject resistance to restarting sophomore year at another high school didn’t come close to how bad it actually was, and that’s really saying something. I have been known to produce histrionic catastrophic scenarios that would make Kurt Vonnegut feel weird. What followed, however, was a Lars-Von-Trier-escapade through 10th grade, complete with yucky sex stuff and violence, plus pimples. Jesus, it was awful. It was so awful that I started secretly smoking cigarettes. It was so awful that I briefly changed my name in hopes I’d pass for the much more likeable twin of the horrible girl who broke the school social code in fucking November, of all things. If high school was Lord of the Flies, I arrived as dead Piggy. (I’m sorry if you haven’t read that yet.)
I’ve spent years figuring out what went so terribly, terribly wrong, and finally elected to compile my analysis here, for you, unsuspecting and innocent reader, in hopes that my experience will somehow protect you or your offspring from similar disaster.
The following list of a few important rules might not save your life, but then again, it might. Also, I like writing lists of rules. It pleases the part of my brain that realizes the whole world is a carbon-based mass of writhing chaos.
Without further ado, I present “New Kid Rules: A Starter’s Guide to Not Getting Killed by the Lacrosse Team if You Change High Schools in Both the Middle of High School and the Middle of the Year.” It’s a working title.
Rule 1. Do not engage.
Watch everyone secretly for at least two full weeks. Seriously. Eat lunch in the bathroom, crouched on a toilet in a locked stall like Gollum, and then go to the cafeteria well after everyone is eating and carousing. Spend an inordinate amount of time making yourself a cup of hot cocoa and just observing. Do not interact. This is very important. You are like Jane Goodall, and every one of these beasts, however docile they seem, horking down their chicken fingers and Doritos, could tear your arms off and beat you to a bloody pulp with them, if provoked. You are one dumb science joke away from death, and for the love of God, don’t mention anything about any sport you ever played. Just drink your fucking cocoa and get out of there, like you have somewhere to be. It’s a good idea if that place is the library. When the very avante garde kid who works at the library asks you what you’re doing at the library during lunch, explain that you’re really behind, because you just moved to the city from another town. Under no circumstances should you reveal the name of said town. You don’t know who he knows.
Rule 2. Do not sit.
You must somehow vet and make a couple of friends before you commit to any cafeteria table. This is critical. If you fail to follow this rule, you might find yourself standing awkwardly, staring at a thrumming cafeteria full of sweaty monsters, and catch the eye of a beautiful well-dressed girl who seems to be about your age, and is waving welcomingly to you to join her and her comrades at their table. You’ll be so relieved to finally not be standing in front of that room that you’ll march over and plop your sloppy-joe tray down right next to her without ever asking yourself why someone so lovely and friendly has two empty spaces beside her at an otherwise full table.
It’s generally a good rule not to sit with the first kids who invite you to sit with them. Especially if, looking at their motley assembly, there is no discernable single binding characteristic amongst them. Look around you. Every other table has something in common, does it not? There, regard the table of people, all with similar haircuts and burly muscular physique. They are all eating hamburgers and laughing loudly. Note the way their heads simultaneously bob when an attractive person walks by, unashamed and in unison. Note the excessive frequency of high-fives, marking a percussive thwap! beneath the cacophony of teenaged conversations and chewing. These are sports people. And over there, the kids with uniformly perfect hair and teeth, smiling viciously at each other but scowling at you and anyone who gets too close to their table? Those are the beautiful and popular people. And over there? The table full of people shaped as though their parts came from some kind of appendage lost-and-found bin, stitched together with rubber bands and ham hocks? Note the gigantic Charles Nelson Reilly glasses on not one, not two, but three of them. Note the presence of game manuals. Note the fidgety, trough-style eating and constant argument over healing power and hit points. Those are nerds. But this table, where the pretty girl waved you over and you guilelessly sat, without regard for your own survival? There is no common denominator in this group. This is a bad thing. This table is The Twilight Zone table. Look around. See the super-Christian girl who never stops quoting The Goonies and wears a vintage varsity jacket perpetually zipped up to the neck over a floor-length denim skirt? And the skeletally thin girl with black eyeliner from her eyebrows down to her nasal folds who truly believes she sold her soul to satan and, more importantly, truly believes this was the best way to get a Volkswagen Jetta for her birthday? And the guy who looks like he might be Kirk Cameron’s brother if Kirk Cameron was carved out of butter? They all sit approximately one human space apart from one another, and the conversation is never cohesive. They are not friends. They are cellmates. And that girl who waved you over? She’s a junior, but she’s having sex with (although she would prefer you said “making love to”) an eighth-grader in his parents’ bonus room. Enjoy having your first interaction with the school nurse be attempting to report a sex crime.
Rule 3. Don’t make friends with administrators before kids.
If you do have to report a sex crime the second month you attend a new high school, fastidiously avoid running into any of the adults to whom you reported said sex crime in front of any other student. The adult will want to make you feel welcome and comforted, which will give other students the impression that you are — Jesus forbid — friends with the staff person. You can be friends with the cool, attractive art teacher and the rogue, rebellious English teacher, but that’s it. Under no circumstances should you ever be friends with the principal, vice principal, or gym teacher. School secretaries are considered on a case-by-case basis, since they are actually who is running the school. Being friends with the school nurse just tells the other students that you have chronic bladder infections. And if you do, in fact, have chronic bladder infections, trust me, it won’t help at all for everyone to know about them.
Rule 4. Do not have any particular style.
This rule is especially important if you have moved from a city of fewer than 20,000 residents to one of more than 40,000 residents. If you are from an island in rural Alaska with 2,000 people in the boom season, it’s safe to assume you are dressed like a crazy person. And not a Zooey Deschanel kind of quirky crazy. A feral, I-shouldn’t-have-taken-those-75-hits-of-acid-before riding-this-bucking-armadillo-to-Burning-Man kind of crazy. Nothing you know about your own style is right. I don’t care if you have cable television. You’re still wrong.
You need to turn yourself into a neutral palette — a blank canvas. Nondescript jeans, black T-shirts, and whatever shoes are the most like what a serial killer or life coach might wear. You want to look confident but hard to catch. I know you have a delightfully eccentric sensibility and just got a pile of excellent clothes to wear to the previous high school you were at. That was then. Those clothes are dead to you now. Burn them in a pyre behind your house. Over the next few months you will have to slowly introduce your style one component at a time, much in the same way someone slowly inoculates against an exotic poison.
It’s terrible that you have to wear anything, really. If only you could go to school in a gray union suit for the first three months, assimilating the pervasive fashion trends of that school, and moving invisibly through the halls like a pimply ghost. But alas, you cannot. And if you wear your new knee-high leather boots over your jeans like some kind of bedlamite, you will hear snorty horse-neighs and snide giggles behind you in the halls for the rest of your life, even at your job, because that kind of shit transcends the space-time continuum. For all I know, it might follow you to heaven, where St. Peter, not out of spite but more purely from habit, will follow behind your angelic self, making holy neighs and whinnies for eternity.
Rule 5. Do not sport.
I know you were a regional and state ribbon-holder in swimming in your other town. I know you played basketball and occasionally soccer, if you felt like it and your dad wasn’t coaching. But those days are gone. Do not try out for any teams until you have lived in that town for one full season of the sport you are considering, unless you are an actual Olympian. And not one of the lesser-known Olympians, like a shotput person or that one where they ski and shoot. Those sports are awesome, of course, but they are blood in shark water. You’ll have to let them go or be taken down like drunk seals by killer whales.
Rule 6. Do not kiss.
At some point, if you’ve been acreful to adhere to rules 1-5, you’ll be invited to a party somewhere. Probably at some kid’s house that has a pool and a hot tub, which will both be full to bursting with pantloads of horny teenagers, most of whom will be making out by the end of the night. All bedrooms will eventually be filled with randy youth, and even the spillover areas like the formal living room will suddenly become dens of iniquity, not to mention the actual dens, which started out as dens already.
When you get to this party, it’s likely you’ll be offered some kind of horrible alcoholic beverage, such as a wine cooler or a Solo cup of the worst beer ever made, either of which will give you diarrhea within four hours, so upon your first sip, you’ll need to start planning for that eventuality. They also will make you drunk, because although you know who the president is, and have armpit hair and an increasingly cynical attitude, you are still physiologically mostly a child and alcohol will make you drunk immediately. For some reason, teenagers get drunk faster than anyone else. There are toddlers who can tolerate more beer than you. Maybe it’s the uniquely trippy neurochemistry of the teenage brain, maybe it’s the fact that 70 percent of your diet is potato chips: no one knows. But trust me on this: you are as susceptible to alcohol as the cop two days from retirement in the action film is to bullets. Step lightly, or not at all, preferably.
At some point, it’s possible someone is going to try to kiss you. Maybe it will be the cutest person you’ve ever seen, and by your small-town standards, they are a towering inferno of mojo and big city coolness. But they are not. Even if you are the most beautiful creature ever to appear on the Earth, destined for a career in supermodeling or acting (or another line of work where being transcendently attractive is critical), the person trying to kiss you at the party is horrible. In fact, they are probably a murderer, or will be after they kill you. Nobody wants to be the first monkey to try the berry to see if it’s sweet or poison, and you are not the first monkey to spot that berry. If no one has ever eaten it, it’s probably poison.
If you do kiss this person, it’s okay to call the police after they call you one-hundred times from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., making your mother so violently, balefully angry with you that she can no longer utter complete sentences. It’s also okay to pretend like it never happened, even when this person joins you at The Twilight Zone table and clearly has had a previous relationship with the middle-school predator. It’s okay if, for a little while, you change your name to throw him off your scent long enough for you to establish an emergency-contact calling tree and a new bus route home.
This is a pretty good start. It should get you at least through to holiday break, where you can decide if you want to petition your mother to send you to military school, or a juvenile detention facility, just so you can relax for a little while. And all in all, it’s pretty good preparation for the future, where one day, you will have to be that new kid again — maybe in a new town, maybe at a new job, or maybe even in a new family full of in-laws that thinks your entire part of the country is bananas, and you in particular are especially bananas — a suspicion they affirm over and over by (lovingly) reminding you that your name rhymes with “bananas.” You’ll be able to take it all in stride, assiduously preparing your coffee at the kitchen island while you carefully scan the room, looking for the safest place to sit.
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