Note: all names, other than those of the interviewees, have been changed for this story.
by Amanda Ann Klein
Let me start this way: I’m an asshole.
I don’t mean that I’m a bad person. I compost and tell my daughter she can marry a girl if she wants to and I always give money to my local NPR affiliate. But I’m still an asshole because, whether you trip up the steps or fart or mispronounce a word you really shouldn’t mispronounce, I’m going to make fun of you. I also like to catalogue these indignities and bring them up later, so that a new group of people can laugh at the stupid shit you did, too.
But for a long time, I didn’t know I was an asshole. I thought I was just someone with a really great sense of humor, a person who could laugh at herself and others—especially others—when the situation required it. I assumed this behavior was normal, even healthy, because everyone I went to school with was like this too. We made fun of each other constantly. We assigned cruel nicknames to those who did stupid shit and used those names with impunity until someone else did stupider shit, and then we’d all make fun of that for a while. In this way, our bullying resembled a really shitty game of tag: the only way to get people to stop calling you by an unpleasant nickname was to give someone else an even more unpleasant nickname.
All of my friends in high school, at one time or another, had been given a nickname, because everyone in high school has to be given a name that is not their own. Among them were “Big Draws,” “Fat Rob,” “Half Pint,” and “Dumb Gear.” That last name was mine. I earned it because I wore something that somebody thought looked “dumb” to school one day. I was given a worse name once, too, one that made my stomach cave in on itself whenever someone said it, but I won’t talk about that name here. After all, even assholes can get hurt feelings.
Our high school teachers thought we were assholes, too. At the time, I erroneously chalked up their distaste to jealousy. We were smart, we were going places. We felt entitled to all of the good things the world promised to give to young, upwardly mobile teenagers. But those teachers? They had to stay in central Pennsylvania forever teaching assholes like us. This is what we told ourselves, though the truth is that we were just assholes.
For example, we had a Spanish teacher in my high school, Mrs. Smith, who walked with a limp. At the time, I had no idea why she limped. It never occurred to me to ask. What I did do, though, is laugh whenever my classmates gave her a hard time, which was pretty much all the time. This was partly her fault, of course—Mrs. Smith had a bad perm and spoke too softly. You have to be loud to teach high school. You have to be strong or the assholes will tear you apart. We tore Mrs. Smith apart:
Liz: “[Mrs. Smith] always tripped over trash cans and we assholes laughed about it. But she had some disability so that was a dick move in hindsight.”
Luimbe: “[Mrs. Smith] had polio as a child, so she was permanently crippled. People would move the trashcan where she wouldn’t expect it and she would trip over it. She caught on and would check the trash can every day before coming into class.”
Matt: “Jim and some other kids in Spanish class, with great gusto and great regularity, would belt out the word ‘dick’ while Mrs. Smith was trying to teach. At one point, Mrs. Smith told us that she would be absent because she was donating bone marrow to her sister who had leukemia. She had barely finished the words when ‘bone marrow dick’ was broadcast across the room. While I feel terrible for Mrs. Smith now, I am a little ashamed to admit that this still makes me laugh. Another time in Spanish class, Jim brought in a universal remote control and kept turning the television on while Mrs. Smith was trying to teach. We couldn’t stop laughing. I still don’t know why she didn’t murder us.”
As someone who now teaches for a living, I can’t imagine what it must have been like teaching assholes like us. I’ve had students fall asleep during my lectures, watch YouTube videos, chat with their neighbors, roll their eyes, suck their teeth, and, on just a few occasions, question my authority. But in my 14 years of teaching I’ve never had a classroom filled entirely with assholes. But that’s what my high school teachers faced on a daily basis.
I recently spoke with a former high school classmate, Joey Laws (Class of ’95), about being an asshole in high school. He had a lot to say:
Joey: We got away with murder. We got away with things that no other classes got away with. When I tell people about our high school, they think I’m lying.
Me: Or we’re exaggerating.
Joey: I remember Mrs. Miller [the social studies teacher] reported us to…what was that called…it was like a system where you could report people for substance abuse? And they told her to leave us alone.
Joey: Because you know, she told them about how we were drinking beer and stuff, and they told her, “Look, these are the good kids. They’re not getting in trouble. Leave them alone…”
Me: …they’re just assholes.
Joey: So you’re interested in the Mr. Brown story?
Me: Yeah, I thought that would be another good example of how we were assholes in high school.
Joey: So, Brown was one of my favorite teachers and math was one of my favorite subjects… But yeah, there were a couple things we did to him. I was taking this new elective that he had started called “Discrete Math.”
Me: I remember that, yes!
Joey: And you know, he treated the guys in his classes differently from how he treated the girls. He didn’t make no bones about that.
Me: Yes, he was sexist for sure.
Joey: So the people in that class were [here Joey lists a group of male students]…One day in Discrete Math, Brown got up to make some copies. And we thought it would be funny to pivot everything in the room by 90 degrees. We moved all the desks…
Joey: That’s funny, right?
Joey: We had played pranks on him before…we used to go in and change the grades in his grade book…remember he would give us those pop quizzes in Calculus? Well we would just change the grades. It was so easy to turn a “0” into a “10.”
Me: And wait, would he ever notice?
Joey: I think we did get in trouble for it once and then we stopped. But I think we made it kind of blatant so he would notice…
Me: Like you really wanted to get caught?
Joey: Yeah. ‘Cause we thought it was funny, just like moving the desks would be funny. Because, you know, we were his boys.
Me: Right, you were his boys.
Joey: We almost failed that class. He was irate with us after that. It wasn’t just like a passing rage. He wouldn’t talk to us after that.
Me: So when he came into the room, what did he do?
Joey: When he came into the room he slammed the copies down on his desk and he like, cursed at us. And then he just stormed out. We didn’t see him again for the rest of the period. He wouldn’t speak to me after that.
Joey: No. I don’t remember ever having another conversation with him.
Me: Really? But you were his favorite student. After all that, he was done with you?
Joey: Yeah, it was really sad. I even tried to look him up on Facebook because I wanted to let him know that his calculus class helped me get though engineering in college…
Me: You know everyone said that about him—that the first years of college math were easy because of his class. He was a good teacher. A misogynist, but a good teacher.
Joey: Yeah, well he never spoke to me again. And he really crushed us on the final, he gave us a really hard final that semester. You know, we took that class because we thought it would be an easy A. “Oh Brown’s gonna teach us some cool math stuff but we’re really just here to fool around…”
Joey: But at some point it just, it just got to him…
Me: That seems to be the pattern in all these stories from our classmates: we would push it and push it and push it until our teachers were like “Fuck it, we’re done with you people…”
Joey: We used to mess with Walters [the physics teacher] a lot too. We had him his first year of being a teacher. Part of his long-term plan for teaching was to use the same test in all of his classes. And he was so silly. At first, he would just have them up on his desk! And we were like “Holy shit, there’s the test!” So we would sneak one out and make a copy.
Me: When were you able to steal the exams?
Joey: In between classes, or we’d go up there during lunch. I mean, he wasn’t even trying to hide it. And then it became, like a game, to see if he could catch us. He knew we were tying to steal his tests. So then he started locking them in his desk drawer. And somehow, I don’t remember how, we got the key to the drawer…
Me: Of course you did…
Joey: And he would tell us that he knew how many copies he had made, so that we couldn’t steal one. So we just unlocked his desk, grabbed a copy, snuck downstairs and made a copy, and then stuck the test back in his desk.
Me: Holy hell.
Joey: Again, at the time, we thought that even if we got caught, we wouldn’t get in trouble because it was like a challenge…
Me: I vaguely remember that, and you always did well on the exams…
Joey: Everybody did well. Remember we used to study together?
Me: I don’t remember seeing a stolen test though.
Joey: We weren’t telling people we had the test. We would just present the problems. And then you all would say, “Wow, you guys really knew what was going to be on the test!” But after we stole the key to his desk, he hit his limit. He made it so we couldn’t cheat, challenge over.
It’s true. Pushing our high school teachers to their breaking points was a specialty of my graduating class. My favorite example of this happened during in the spring of 1995, my senior year. At that point the faculty at STHS must have been counting the days until graduation. My gym class that semester was composed primarily of fellow seniors who were enrolled in the same classes I was taking: AP Biology, AP Calculus, AP English, etc. This—and the fact that many of us lacked simple hand-eye coordination—led our gym teacher, Ms. Jones, to refer to our class as “Honors Gym.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment.
In addition to being filled with smart kids, Honors Gym also happened to be one of the finest collections of assholes in the school. Ms. Jones would drill us in the basics of volleyball (“bump, set, spike!”) and basketball (“a girl has to touch the ball before you can shoot!”), and we would try, I think, to follow her instructions. But mostly we made fun of each other’s lack of athletic ability or recited lines from our favorite movies and TV shows. Gym wasn’t going to get us into our reach school. We were just biding our time until graduation.
Eventually, Ms. Jones gave up trying to teach us how to play real sports and allowed us to do whatever we wanted. So naturally we spent the remaining weeks of the semester playing four-square, Honors gym-style. We developed elaborate rules of play—such as requiring players to touch their bellybuttons or to laugh like Nelson from The Simpsons before touching the ball— that were complicated and expanded each week, turning our four-square matches into masochistic exercises of mental and physical stamina.
I can only imagine how Ms. Jones felt as she watched us play Honors four-square, delighting ourselves with our own cleverness. I’m sure the irony must have registered—that we refused to learn the rules to games she wanted us to play, only to invent our own, far more complicated four-square rules, which we slavishly followed as if our reach school admissions depended on it.
Ms. Jones tolerated our four-square shenanigans for several weeks until one day during class somebody said or did something that pushed her over the edge. It’s worth noting here that Ms. Jones had never been what you would call an even-tempered woman. She was the field hockey coach, and, as we lost nearly every game we played, I was accustomed to being called lazy and useless. But the Honors Gym rant was different; it wasn’t intended to motivate us to try harder or do better. This rant was intended to let us know that we were assholes. Ms. Jones sat us down on the smelly mats in a room we all called “the small gym” (though I’m sure it had a proper name), and delivered an expletive-fueled lecture. The only line I can remember—because it imprinted on my teenage mind like a groove in an old record—is, “You’re all assholes and your parents raised you to be assholes.”
As I sat there in the gym clothes that I had not taken home for a washing since the fall, my thighs sticking to the vinyl mats that had also probably not been washed since the fall, part of me felt shamed and wondered, briefly, if we were as bad as she said we were. I’d like to say that Ms. Jones’ angry rant in the small gym finally made me realize that turning everything into a joke was a bad way to go through life. I’d like to say that it snapped me out of my cocoon of teenage privilege, out of the assumption that I could do whatever I wanted to do or be anything I wanted to be because I was young and smart and my parents were footing the bill for my very expensive college education. I’d like to say Ms. Jones’ lecture taught me to respect authority, to play by the rules, and to accept that sometimes we have to do things in life that we don’t enjoy or that we’re not good at. But instead, I found Ms. Jones’ outrage delightful. I was giddy with power—the power to cause an adult to call me an asshole, and mean it.
Of course, that sense of entitlement and fearlessness that fueled my asshole tendencies in high school was eventually chipped away–bit by bit–by the bottomless well of self doubt and loathing that is a career in academia. But even now, when I know that I’m not special, when I know that I am, in fact, just like everyone else, I’m glad that I’m still an asshole. It’s the one trait I’ve managed to hold on to since high school.
What Ms. Jones couldn’t recognize back in 1995 is that learning to be an adult is not about getting serious, accepting the rules, or learning to eat the multiple bowls of shit that life places in front of you with a big shit-eating grin. Adulthood, for me at least, has been about learning to laugh, harder and longer, at the indignities life gives us. And that’s precisely what assholes like me do best.
About the interviewee
Major (Joey) Laws is Deputy Chief of TITAN Operations, USSTRATCOM Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (JFCC-ISR) at Joint Base Bolling, Washington DC. In this role, he supports the Commander, United States Strategic Command by leading the synchronization and integration of global TITAN planning efforts and the resolution of critical TITAN requirements. Major Laws received his commission from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from West Virginia University. He is married to Rebecca Morgan of Tucson, Arizona. They have two children, Madeline and Jake.
Also, special thanks to Liz Rose Triscari, Luimbe Domingos, and Matt Rovner for providing anecdotes about Mrs. Smith. You are fantastic assholes.
If you’d like to read the first edition of “Tales from STHS: Tammy’s Story” click here.