One Teenager in Ten


“In this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld/ In this life, you’re on your own!”—Prince

High school is a laugh riot.  It’s a jolly funhouse where the unpopular and the unusual are punished for their crimes against conformity with a topsy-turvy ridicule.  Here, overweight boys have “due dates”, homely girls are proposed marriage by homecoming kings, underwear waistbands are wedgied into easy carrying handles for Special Ed students, and exchange students, (regardless of country of origin) are addressed in mock Chinese.  In this swarming mosh pit of ha!rassment, powered by sweaty insecurity and raw, smelly fear,  homophobia stands as the indisputable height of hilarity.  At least that’s how I remember it.

“Gay” was the Golden God of Comedy at my Iowa high school back in 1985.  It was the sun that shined down on an otherwise unfunny and frighteningly confusing world and made it all worthy of a ridicule most amusing.  Anything could be “gay”, and therefore hilarious: a pack of Lit’l Smokies dog-piled on a cafeteria tray, “True” by Spandau Ballet, the color green and all who wore it on Thursday.  Behaviors were “gay”, too: raising one’s hand in class, missing a foul shot during a gym class basket ball game, wearing one’s backpack over both shoulders as opposed to the heterosexually-mandated right shoulder.  The entire marching band was apparently gay, and so were the Choir and the Drama Club.  But they called themselves the Glee Club and The Thespians, so weren’t they just asking for it?

The Golden Gay God of Comedy was capricious.  His ways were mysterious.  Amazingly, not even heterosexuality provided an adequate defense against The Gay.  Prince was a perfect example.  Anyone who’d heard his Purple Rain album, (and only the Amish and the deaf hadn’t) had witnessed Prince’s very vigorous love of the ladies.  Its most notorious track,   “Darling Nikki”, was an epic ode to boy/girl frottage practically tailored to the heterosexual fumblings of the typical teenager, yet the man who had composed and performed it?  Gay, gay, gay.   It could be argued that, like the Glees and the Thespians, Prince had in his own way “asked for it.”  He did, after all, wear high heels and make up, but so did Vince Neil of Motley Crue.  Yet nobody called Vince Neil gay.  And thus was the delightful cruelty of the Golden Gay God of Comedy.

When I moved from Ohio to this Iowa High School, I found myself a permanent inhabitant within the crosshairs of the Golden Gay God of Comedy.  My favorite paisley shirt was gay.  My red hair was gay.  My glasses were gay.  My inability to put a ball in a hoop was gay.  I was president of the Student Librarians, a post I’d accepted with the purposeful solemnity worthy of the Gayest of the Gay.  As fate would have it, I really was gay, which put a weirdly embarrassing spin on my relationship to the Golden Gay God of Comedy.  How unfair, yet undeniably dead-on he was!  He had called a duck a duck, and what could I do but quack “You got me there, bub!”?

I paid dearly for my hilarious gayness, and my own personal bill collector was comedian Chuck “Smith.”  Who at my Iowa High School could deny his uproarious stylings?  The spectacle of the redheaded new girl in the weird shirt with spit in her hair, getting groped by a “lezzie!”-squealing Chuck, filled the hallways with deafening laughter.  Such rollicking high jinks!

Since the story I’m telling is sarcastic, satirically-tinged autobiography, I’m going to skip over the part where I cried when I got home and was afraid to go to school and hated the entire world for what had happened to me.  In fact, I became physically ill while reliving 1985 in the writing of the first draft of this story.  Because there is no crying allowed in sarcastic, satirically-tinged autobiography, I’ll jump right over the abundantly obvious fact that what happened to me was very, very painful and will now mercifully deliver us all to the part where I decided to turn things around and fight hilarity with hilarity.

The fact of the matter was: I was much funnier than Chuck.  Even though I was too inward and awkward at the time to let anyone else know it, I knew it.  It galled me to be on the outside of the joke, looking in at its heart and soul, which was ironically enough, my own victimization.   The Golden Gay God of Comedy may have ruled the school with his nonsensical and pitiless jurisprudence, but it was plain to me that he had a very sub-par servant in Chuck “Smith”.  I mean, really: calling a lesbian a lesbian?   It was the most uninspired put-down, ever.  The personal disappointment was bad enough, but how was I expected to hold my head up amongst the pregnant fat boys or the portable special ed students?

Which brings me to the book One Teenager in Ten: Writings by Gay and Lesbian Youth.  Published in 1983 by Alyson Press and edited by Ann Heron, the book was packed to bursting with the testimonies of people like me.  One Teenager In Ten had unceremoniously arrived at the Library of my Iowa High School one spring day, innocuously packed in a cardboard box along with over a dozen paperbacks of sundry and disparate subject matter.  As was my duty as the President of the Student Librarians and the Gayest of the Gay, I had glued the pocket in the front cover myself, and never dared to ask where it came from or who had ordered it.  I snuck it home without committing my name to the check-out card and read it in one night.

The very existence of this book was an enormous comfort, because it was tangible proof that even though I was by myself in my Iowa High School, I was by no means alone.   The book also gave me a sense of perspective.   As bad as I had it, there were others who had it even worse.  They would escape their own Chuck “Smiths” at the end of a school day, only to be harassed by their own families and members of their churches.  Some had been institutionalized.  Others had attempted suicide.  For the first time in my life, I counted myself  lucky to be the beloved daughter of 2 unrepentant hell-bound atheists for reasons other than not having to wear a dress for Easter.  But as valuable as a source of solace One Teenager In Ten was, the book actually turned out to be an even better blunt instrument of pure comedy vengeance.

On the night that I had temporarily stolen One Teenager In Ten from the library, the Golden Gay God of Comedy came to me in a dream.  He took the form of a paisley-clad Prince, tottering in the sauciest pair of F Me Pumps I had ever seen in my life.  He wagged a sassy, lace-encased finger at me.  “You’ve abused your post as The Gayest of the Gay,”  he scolded in a surprisingly deep voice, “A crime most uncool and worst of all–unfunny.”   He regarded me with those Bambi eyes ablaze within their Mabelline confines, so I knew he meant business.   “Someone needs that book much more than you do,” Prince admonished me, and punctuated his disapproval with a nut-cracker split on the foggy floor below us.  He sprung up before me, did a cyclone-spin, swept the curtain of curls out of his right eye, and said, “Someone named Chuck ‘Smith’!”   He departed into the clouds with a chirping little shriek.  I believe it went something like this: “Owwww—ahh!” which I took to mean “Don’t get caught!”

So the next day, I kept the book and returned the card to the library.  I’d never seen Chuck’s  handwriting, so the Golden Gay God of Comedy had guided my hand in the forgery of his signature: the plodding jumble of widely-spaced upper and lowercase letters you might find on a “No Girls Allowed” sign.  I stamped the due date on the card and filed it away accordingly.  And I waited.

Which brings me to Study Hall.  Located at the left corner of the right-hand serif perched at the top of the U-style-layout of my Iowa High School, the Study Hall was ensconced in the end-of-the-line Gay Ghetto also inhabited by the Library and the Band Room.  The white ceramic bricks that comprised the entire school were never whiter or shinier than in the Study Hall.  Like teeth.  Were we trapped inside the mouth of the school, I would often wonder.  We were made to sit at desks set in skittish rows, and expected to ignore the lumpy loudness of the biggest hits of last year emanating from the Band Room next door while we ostensibly caught up on our studies.  The clock on the wall was perpetually set on Anchorage time, and every minute was a shiny white eternity.  It was the perfect setting in which to contemplate suicide.  And receive overdue notices.

They were delivered from the Library next door, every Wednesday, and handed out to the offenders trapped in the Study Hall.  The overdue notices looked harmless enough: innocent white pieces of paper, lovingly cut into slips.  But the dot matrix derision they harbored left a stinging welt.  “You have betrayed the trust invested in you by the Library, as well as the entire intellectual community of this Iowa High School,” the notices announced, “and therefore all will know your shame!”  That was how I took it, anyway.  Nobody else seemed to mind much.  I had Study Hall with Chuck (naturally) and I would sit in the back of the room, watch as he writhed in boredom over his unopened books, and instead of suicide, I would think about One Teenager In Ten.  And I would quake with suppressed laughter.  It was an excruciatingly delicious wait for Wednesday.  No matter what happened to me in the hallway or what would be thrown at me in Study Hall, I had something to laugh at and something to live for: Wednesday.

The only thing that trumped waiting for Wednesday was, well, Wednesday itself.  The look of utter bafflement on Chuck’s face upon being presented with that first overdue notice is perhaps the most cherished memory of my youth.  A cow confronted with a curling iron, a chimp with a chess set, a trout with Tommy Tune tickets– none of them had anything on Chuck’s goggle-eyed bewilderment.  Stunned, he hesitated for a moment before accepting the notice.  He blinked as if to shake it off, and regarded the slip of paper with the puzzled disgust one might exhibit upon being bestowed with a piece of freshly-wiped toilet paper.

The notice in and of itself was clearly an effrontery.  Chuck would never do anything as gay as set foot in the Library, let alone check out an actual book.  That stuff was strictly for fags.  He protested loudly to no one in particular but to everyone all at once: “This is STUPID!  I don’t go to the stupid Library!”  He let out a gasp of exasperation and rolled his eyes.

And then he read it.

A funny thing happened next.  No, make that a fucking hilarious thing: Chuck lept from his seat with such violence, I had to look twice to make sure it was still just a desk, and not the lap of Liberace.   As his empty desk spun into the next row, nearly hitting a cheerleader, the Band Fags next door presciently pumped out a cumbersome cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”  The Study Hall monitor shouted his name over the blaring tuba breakdown and demanded he return to his seat, but there was no stopping Chuck from storming the Library to defend his heterosexuality.  But it was all in vain, as his name was clearly committed to the checkout card, in all its childish glory.

And thus, the Golden Gay God of Comedy was at last properly served.  For several weeks afterward, I basked in a sunlight that rendered an otherwise unfunny, and frighteningly confusing world somehow worthy of a ridicule most amusing.


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8 Responses to “One Teenager in Ten”

  1. Kelly Says:

    Amazing and hilarious, just like you. I think this is my favorite GGH post of yours. Great descriptions of your U-shaped high school and the idiots within.

    Thank you for writing this, Mels, and for putting the delightful image of a cow confronted with a curling iron into my head. And here’s to Prince, the little man who helped both of us get through the hell of high school in his own tiny way.

  2. mandy w Says:

    You write so well…I just laughed my butt off! I also wanted to cry though for your young self who had to put up with that and still have to.

  3. Bacchus Says:

    At about the same time and about the same age, I was a straight kid in a town so small and rural, I was getting bullied because I was the only freak who actually had a vocabulary and liked to read books. Fortunately I was fairly big and male and had a low opinion of my peers, so I survived with nothing worse than a bad case of misanthropy.

    The part of your story that brought back memories for me was the abuse of library cards. My town’s public library was run by a cabal of little old lady volunteer librarians, who loved me dearly (seeing as how I was the most faithful and voracious child reader in town). By the time I was a teen, I was somewhat-inaccurately viewed as a fine upstanding young man by these ancient former school teachers. So they thought it entirely natural that I should volunteer, as they routinely did, to take summer-afternoon librarian shifts at the library, and they cheerfully entrusted me with that sacred duty, notwithstanding that I was the first minor in decades to have offered to do so.

    Which trust of course I abused, most heinously, to “check out” (without the formality of writing my name on the library card for all to see in perpetuity) The Joy Of Sex, Our Bodies Ourselves, and a few similar volumes, and remove those volumes temporarily to a place where they could be perused in absolute privacy. (And then — because those little old ladies basically had my number — return them to their proper place on the library shelf.) And that is how I got my basic sex information. Because it’s for damn sure nobody in that town was going to tell me anything useful.

  4. Peg Says:

    Beautiful, sad and funny. I will never think of Mediapolis the same way again. Not that I ever think much it. Well done!

  5. Barbara Talbot Says:

    Wow. By the time I was in high school I had already repressed (with societal help of course but most subliminally) any crossdressing tendencies. It sure seemed gay to wear girls clothes even if sneaking them on felt nice and had pretty colors and patterns.

    Never-the-less the local kings of comedy persisted in making girrly references and faggot was used interchangeably for anyone with less than masculine appearance..(Oh how much fun my androgyny would be if I had it still, what a drag i could’ve pulled!)

    I was never at the time or really since attracted to anything but the feminine form so despite societies confusing I was and am decidedly straight as we so call it.

    But isn’t it lovely to have those Neanderthals around to remind all of us our place in society.

    I was heart=warmed when unlike my mother my (recently ex) wife was loving and supportive about my sons experimentation. But even still having asked for a Chrissy doll like his mom’s and two older sisters, he hid it out of suvival instinct at the age of 6 or 7 when as far as we know it never came up directly.

    sad..all sad…not gay or happy at all. at all.

  6. William Wright Says:

    Having grown up in a small Iowa town myself (and still living in Iowa today), I’m dying to know what Iowa school this was! Any chance I could find out? Somehow?

    Excellent piece…

  7. dawn bohannon Says:

    i Totally dig this- your writing style flows, puts me right back to my own oppressive, 80’s high school days!

  8. Samantha Says:

    Lovely and funny and smart. I don’t think I followed all of it as it was probably above me a bit. I really felt for your teenage self, so deeply, and I’m sorry if my (unintended) recent facebook comments had any place at all in you reliving any aspect of those feelings, although I’m hoping it didn’t even come close.
    I look forward to you teaching me more about Prince. My love for him is not as deep or long-lasting as yours, but it is real 🙂

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