4 min

Back to high school

The big ball of nervous just hung there

Yesterday I spent the day in a high school in Burnaby, telling stories to the Grade 10s.

I was surprised how nervous I was. I tell stories all over the place, often to people who, in real life, are much more intimidating than a couple of hundred 15-year-old strangers should be.

But right from the time the alarm went off it was there, the big ball of nervous. It hung there in my gut, between my ribs and my belly, all waxy and electric.

The face in the mirror looked pale and rumpled. “That’s just perfect,” I told my reflection. “A zit. Right in the middle of your chin. On the first day of school.”

It’s something about the hallways that does it to me, the way sounds are amplified by the polished tiles and painted lockers, all sharp edges and canned echoes. Just the sound of a high school makes me 15 again.

It didn’t help much that all five of us poets and storytellers had to wait in the office for the English teacher to come and escort us to the auditorium.

Lined up with our asses slouched in the plastic chairs outside the principal’s office, in between the photocopier and the water cooler, the rest of them joked and told anecdotes. I was the quiet one for once, trying to breathe around the inflatable lump in my throat and wondering why my toes were sweating so profusely.

The teacher that had organized the reading was cool; the kind of teacher who would think that poetry in high school was a good thing.

Her classroom was the one with the beaded curtain, and the kids who were wrestling or kicking each other in the ass in the hallways didn’t straighten up or act like pretend angels when she came around the corner.

She explained to us over her shoulder as we walked that the crowd for the lunch-hour show might be a little smaller than they had expected, because today the student council was auctioning off elves in the gymnasium, plus a representative from the community college was answering questions and handing out pamphlets outside the library.

We had competition, she told us, but assured us we would have a good house for the afternoon sessions, when attendance was mandatory.

She took us into a place she called the dance room, which meant it looked like a small gym with mirrors lining the walls. She apologized for the fact that we were required to remove our shoes, because they marked up the floor.

For some reason this made me uncomfortable. I was about to tell queer stories to a bunch of teenagers, and I wanted my shoes.

My sock feet left little sweaty tracks behind if I stood in one place for too long. Two of the other poets were wearing odd socks, and this made me blush. We were here to prove that being a spoken word performer was a viable career option, and I felt that not owning a pair of socks that matched might undermine our position.

Then I reminded myself that they had both just come off of a long tour, and I should be glad they were wearing any socks at all.

The kids all had to take their shoes off too, which they did in an orderly fashion as they filed into the room. Quite a few of them had on odd socks as well.

I changed my position on the matter immediately, thinking maybe it would be something we could bond with them over. Odd socks didn’t mean you were poor. Odd socks meant you were a non-conformist.

It turned out that the kids were great. They listened and laughed in all the right places, and asked really smart questions. One kid asked us what the meaning of life was, saying that he had read somewhere that if you asked enough people, one of them might just have an answer.

Then he asked me what my favourite Led Zeppelin album was. I told him Led Zeppelin IV, and he nodded, like I had passed his invisible test.

Somewhere between classes I relaxed a bit and started to have fun.

Sure, there were a couple of kids slouched along one side of the classroom at the back of the room who already could grow sideburns and snickered and rolled their eyes the whole time, but for the most part they were interested, and engaged. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t there to change the mind of the beefy guy in the back with the almost full goatee.

I was there for the kid I couldn’t see yet, the kid who was seeing me for the first time.

The kid who walked the edges of the hallways, one hand trailing the lockers and the walls, hoping they won’t be waiting for him at the bus stop today.

The kid who hides his Muscle and Fitness magazines in a ceiling tile in his closet, when his brothers can read them openly because they are not like him. For the girl who doesn’t know yet but her parents do. That was who I was there for.

The cool teacher escorted us through the woodworking shop in between classes to a patchy corner of lawn you couldn’t see from any windows in the school, so we could have a smoke.

The shop was almost empty because the bell hadn’t rung yet. There was a skinny boy with glasses screwing two bits of wood together with a cordless drill. He nodded at the cool teacher as we shuffled past.

“Hello Vanessa,” the cool teacher nodded back at the kid, and I did a double take. The teacher winked at me, and I smiled.

All day, I had been searching for signs that things were different than they were when I was in school, that things were getting easier for queer kids, that we really had come a long way, baby. I had overlooked the most obvious sign. Of course things were changing. I was here, wasn’t I?