July 8, 2015
Three of the most awkward years of my life were spent in the halls and classrooms of Hermiston Senior High School in Eastern Oregon. I was a Christian, but a weak-kneed one. My dad was a pastor. People assumed I was a goodie type of a guy because of that. I was not a strong and confident spokesman for what I knew of God’s good news. That version of me does not make me proud.
There are good memories. English composition and high school band are two highlights. I loved writing, and in band got to march in home football games and parades in nearby towns. I enjoyed playing the cornet and having the friendships in band.
I had my share of crushes on pretty young girls that I knew, or at least believed, were way out of my reach.
So there was that normal teenage angst, along with a basic lack of self-confidence and self esteem. Extracurricular activities? Other than night football games, not for me. I just wanted to be home when school was done.
Daily moseys up and down the halls between classes yielded a feel for the personality and values of the community. (I have no recollection of where my locker was, but I believe it was the same all three years.)
There were cliques.
Oh yes, there were cliques. We had the jocks, the academics, the “hoods” and the “skags” as they were usually called (most often by the popular people). There were the cool ones circulating breezily about campus – Nehru shirts, Madras plaid, skin-tight stretch jeans, turtleneck dickies, and narrow ties. Most looked up to them.
We had our share of farmer people. One fascinating memory: guys drove to school in pickups with occupied gun racks in the rear window. (They’d probably be confronted today by a SWAT team and hauled off in handcuffs.)
One year an odd little game appeared. Here’s how it played: a phalanx of popular people would congregate in a central hallway. They would line up on the sides, occupying about 30 to 40 feet of linear space (seemed like a mile). Anyone coming down the hallway had to walk that gauntlet. (You dare not run, thus revealing fear or embarrassment.) There was no alternate route.
These people had lots of fun with this game, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, it was probably harmless in their eyes. Clapping and cheering would ensue anytime someone who was not in their group passed through. These would be the boneheads, skags, generics, and other assorted non-cool types. In a way, this could be taken as encouraging. How often did these people get that kind of adulation?
But when a member of the in crowd passed through the corridor, he got thumbs down, boos and derision. It was intimidating to approach that section of hall, with no escape route possible. I vividly remember my turn. Guess which response I got? Perversely, the boos and trash talk would have felt good.
I didn’t hear them.
Cruel terms passed around our school. One particular class in which I participated was known as “Bonehead English”. This was a reference to the fact that some of the smart people were stuck in a class with students who were considered inferior in skill and coolness.
One year we had a new teacher – fresh out of college. To my regret, I cannot recall her name. She seemed bright-eyed and eager to start her teaching career. She exuded energy as she entered the building each day, as though on mission.
In the culture of Hermiston Senior High School, she was not popular. She was not considered to be attractive by the standards those students held.
It did not take long for the cutting remarks to start passing around among the students. I abhorred the things that were said. Yet, because of my self-perceived standing in the student body and flat lack of courage, I never spoke up. How cruelly this dear lady was judged simply because of physical appearance. I was ashamed of my school in that regard. I was ashamed of myself, because I wasn’t courageous enough to give counterpoint.
One day, mid-morning, passing down a deserted hallway, I saw this dear woman burst out of her classroom, running awkwardly in her high heels, wrenching sobs tearing at her throat. She beelined for the girls’ room. My heart went out to her.
I never saw her again.
Evidently she resigned her position. What happened? No reports were given to us. No one talked about it in my hearing. But I am certain that someone, or more than one in that class, said something cruel to her face and that was the end of her career at Hermiston Senior High School.
The students fired their teacher.
Because of such things, damaged goods walk all around us. It was true then. It is true now. Our words and our attitudes have far-reaching, sometimes permanent effects.