It’s been ages. Ages…
In celebration of the release of Duran Duran’s newest album, Paper Gods, and publication later this year of an essay that ties into and completes the following story, I’m reprinting my 2000 essay.
It originally appeared in Syracuse University’s Intertext, and can be found here — but be warned, it’s maddeningly formatted!
The D.I.Y. Aesthetic at Work in American Education
by E. S. Brath
The American middle-school system has imbedded in my brain that writing sucks. From an early age I was bombarded with assignments, and texts, and papers, and — the worst — term papers. There is nothing more ominous than the threat of a looming term paper just when the hell of another half-year is almost over. It’s cruelty at its finest.
I learned early on to hate having to count words, agonize over how to say as little as possible about the most boring subject known to man; double, triple, quadruple space, text size 20 including a bibliography more inflated than the salaries of all the members of Congress combined.
It is no surprise, then, that it is less than 24 hours until I have to turn in my current assignment: Why do I write and how the hell am I doing to get this done, tonight. Thanks to my expert skills of extreme procrastination learned in kindergarten, I have suffered countless all-nighters and sudden bouts with mononucleosis and pneumonia that were mysteriously cured by the weekend and still managed to get through school. Unfortunately, writing has become a chore.
When I think of a time when writing was something fun and pleasurable and done without the threat of a report card looming above my head, I think of triangles. I’m not sure when it started, but at some point between Malibu Barbie and my bachelor’s degree I developed a strange twitch that caused me to write entire tomes devoted to the latest object of my pre-pubescent desire and fold them in fourths lengthwise and over, and over, and over, and over until they were a little tiny triangle which I then passed to my best friend.
I never saw any boys making tiny paper triangles, although their biggest pleasure, aside from snapping the training-bra straps of the girls in front of them, was to intercept said triangles and read them aloud. It was mortifying in that desperate, panic-ridden preteen way, but it was also exciting. The notes were always about boys and, in retrospect, embarrassingly naïve compared to what I know now.
Lord knows there are still days when I am ready to throw my hands up and pass a tiny little triangle to that cute bartender asking him to the prom. Thankfully for my sorry dignity and me, the triangles gave way to something far more covert and sophisticated: The Notebook.
The Notebook was and still is the crowning glory of my teen angst coupled with an almost criminal obsession with Simon LeBon. That’s right, Simon LeBon: the leather clad, New Romantic, sexy, English lead singer of Duran Duran. The man who caused countless teenage girls to ignore the bra-snapping, pimply-faced, big-footed teenage geeks all around them and settle for nothing less than a bleached blonde demigod sunning himself on the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv. He was older, intelligent, romantic, rich, famous and completely unattainable. With the exception of unattainable I’ve yet to find anything even remotely close in real life.
It was at this point my writing took a drastic detour from cutesy hearts and flowers to something that I wouldn’t comprehend until years later. While Simon LeBon’s entrance into my psyche may have forever ruined my love life, it also expanded my horizons and heightened my expectations of life, love, and the pursuit of English men. It also caused me to spend inordinate amounts of time writing about such pursuits in a blue spiral notebook.
It began in the summer between ninth and 10th grade. My best friend at the time was also involved in the Notebook conspiracy. Teen Alienation Central was located in the shed off the back of her parents’ house, a shed we had turned into our fortress of Brit Pop lust. We lived out there, listening to “Rio” and “Hungry, like the Wolf,” emerging only to refill our iced tea and Oreo supply, painting double D’s (one straight, one slanted) all over the walls and taking our turn at writing stories about what our lives would be like when we grew up and married Simon LeBon. We would be wildly popular, incredibly rich, travel to exotic locales and adored by Simon while millions stewed in jealousy.
Of course, this meant that we would, essentially, both be married to Simon, and that was not only illegal but also unacceptable. Therefore, as we switched off writing chapters of the ongoing saga, each of us was forced to outdo the other in sheer inventiveness and audacity in a contest for the same mythical husband.
My feelings for The Notebook bordered on obsessive-compulsive. I couldn’t wait to continue writing; all my thoughts were on what I would write next, what twisted turn I would take in my quest to be the better storyteller. It was this obsession that brought The Notebook to school in the fall. I couldn’t be without it. When I was supposed to be taking notes I was pouring my heart out. When I would pass it off to my friend in the hallway between classes my heart would skip a beat wondering what it would say when I saw it again.
It’s no surprise, then, that I never dated in high school; I was too involved with a life far removed from the poor excuse for a high school experience I’d been dropped into. I no longer have The Notebook; I destroyed it many years ago in post-pubescent embarrassment, but its effect remains.
My literary career began on a high note. I remember quite clearly the excitement of going to kindergarten and knowing I’d finally be taught for real how to read. I also remember, at the end of my first day of kindergarten, the fury and disappointment known only to a five-year-old that they didn’t teach me to read that very day. Unfortunately, once they actually taught me how to read it was all downhill.
I read very fast, and would often finish far ahead of the teacher, busy enunciating at the front of the classroom, and would entertain myself by either staring out the window, drawing pictures or reading ahead. This meant by the time they got to where I’d already been, I was distracted with something else. Thus began the torrent of “Erica needs to pay attention in class” reports. After countless letters, warnings, and episodes of discipline in front of the class, including being kicked out of my math and honors reading classes for good in front of the whole class, an unsuccessful entrance into the public school system, and an endless stream of exasperated “please pay attention” warnings, I gave up.
By the time I hit high school I was no longer attending classes, having managed to make it so that no teacher ever paid attention to me. I would sit in for roll call, and as soon as the teacher’s back was turned I’d slip out. I’d also perfected the persona of quiet innocent and began writing notes to get out of school for various doctors’ appointments and forging my mother’s signature.
Through some minor miracle of oversight, I graduated high school in June of 1989 and figured I should go to college. It was, for the most part, a continuation of high school. I had, with the help of a long line of educators, convinced myself I was academically deficient and became an art major. I’d always run off to the art room in school when I was avoiding class, and art was a natural ability I’d inherited from both sides of my family.
So I went to art school. I managed to transfer to five or six different colleges and universities before finally earning my BFA in May 1997.
Funny thing is, when I got my BFA and was free to go off into the wild blue art-world yonder, I became a bike messenger. Then guilt got the best of me. I wasn’t using my skills. I landed a job as an art guru at a company that printed bicycling jerseys. Two weeks later I was back on the bike, rolling up and down the San Francisco hills delivering packages and trying to figure it all out. I had never before questioned my going into art, I had never thought there was any other option, but the path I’d set myself on I was avoiding. I was lost. I began to write.
I have been writing my whole life. I’ve always liked to write, it’s just recently that I’ve dedicated myself to actively pursuing what’s I’ve wanted to do all along. When I was in high school and all through my multiple-college career I’ve either worked on or been editor of the newspaper.
When I took over my high school newspaper my English teacher commented to me that I’d “found my calling.” I brushed her off. I knew I’d never make it in the academic world. I was a poor student and only did assignments sporadically. I wasn’t academic material. I put the blinders on. Last summer at the height of my misery over what to do with the rest of my life, two events caused me to take them off.
I had been working at a horrible, depressing communications company, the kind where everybody’s miserable and takes their misery and disgust at the path their lives have taken out on the hapless peon below them, on and on until the janitor shoots everyone. I was unsure as to what to do when one fateful Friday afternoon at 4:50. I was called into Human Resources. I’d been laid off. I briefly wondered if it had anything to do with the sign on my cubicle touting suicide as the answer to all of life’s problems but immediately chalked it up to fate. I was free. I freaked out. My path had been severely altered, what would I do?
A week later I decided to take my parents up on their offer to crash on their couch, eat their food and drive their car. I was moving to Syracuse. Two days before I left, my best friend took me out. We went to a concert: Duran Duran. As I stood there surrounded by gaggles of overweight middle aged parent types obviously out on their own for the first time since the labor pains began, I experienced an epiphany.
Not because my best friend reminded me that we were actually the same age as the shell-shocked L.L. Bean crew and just happened to still look 15 thanks to a daily regimen of Starbucks and Clearasil. Not because we were far enough away from the stage so as not to see the lines of age criss-crossing Simon’s face. It was because, on the way home that night, we stopped at the 24 hour CVS on a toiletries rage, and I bought a blue spiral notebook.