Monday, June 1, 2009

Positive Steps

In which we see that school spirit can be dangerous to your dignity

The Felix Chronicles, # 30

They catch me as I walk by the reception room after getting my mail, my colleagues – previous victims looking for company – shouting for me as loudly as the members of the pep rally organizing committee. I had hoped to escape this meeting, but I’ve been caught. I won’t be the last. I see our Principal, Mary, is here as well. I remember she performed at last year’s pep rally, and swore never to again. Now she’s complaining and being teased like the rest of us as we await our orders from an impressively lively but focused senior who informs us that we’re to be the finale of this year’s rally and that she’s going to teach us a very simple dance. Yeah, right.

Twenty minutes and multiple playbacks of Rihanna's "Disturbia" later, I’m thinking this won’t be so hard, when she says, “OK, now we’re ready for the next part.” Al, the Senior Dean, seeing and sharing our collective alarm, kindly informs her that this as far as we’re going to go. Some protests from the girls, but quick agreement that we can simply repeat the routine we’ve been taught and that should be fine. After that, everyone is to improvise. There’s lots of joking as we leave the room with instructions to assemble two days later for the big event at the gym.

I am not looking forward to this. And yet I seem to find myself practicing my shovel step in front of the mirror after I put on my tie with school colors on the big day, and experiment with hand gestures later alone in the men’s room. At lunch I ask an older colleague, an alum of the school, if there were pep rallies back in the early seventies when she graduated. “Naaah,” she says. “We were way too cool for that, protesting the war and school policies.” I remark that teenagers somehow seemed older back then, and she demurs with the understated certainty of someone who knew that world too well to be impressed by it. She asks me if there were pep rallies in early eighties, when she correctly estimates I was in high school. It was a transitional time, I say. That kind of stuff was coming back, the reinvented nostalgia of the Reagan era.

By the time the school day is over, I’ve reached a state of positive dread. I wander over, late, to the old gym, which by this point is packed – not with only students, but administrators, staff, and parents. Great. The noise of the percussion ensemble – a string of snare drums pounding in unison – is deafening. I can feel my metabolism rising as I take a stand near my dancing partners, joking in each other’s ears like infantry waiting out the artillery barrage before the offensive assault. But I can’t help but be distracted by the festive air of the event. A towering arch of balloons has been set up at one end of the room, with a series of student emcees at the other. Each team is summoned to walk through the arch to the cheers of the gathering, and the players are ready for their moment. The field hockey team is dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and pause at center court to wield their sticks like swords. The volleyball players are dressed as boxers, and stage brief matches. Boys Cross Country are all dressed like Eminem in Eight Mile, their captain – a tentative student of mine – rapping with verve as he calls out the members of the football team. When it’s their turn, the star quarterback executes his play involving the much beloved cafeteria lady, she catching his nerf-football pass at mid-court to the wild approval of the crowd. My son, donning his jersey and looking surprisingly buff, walks through the arch with two teammates, their deliberate pace reminding me of Johnny Cash. Oh boy, am I going to embarrass him.

We dancers get our cue. I turn my head and see Mary walking in the other direction – I can’t believe she’s ditched us! I’m tempted to call her out, but there’s no time. A few minutes earlier, I was helping my colleagues remember the routine, but once the music starts, I find myself hopelessly out of step. The sudden appearance of the school mascot beside me isn’t helping any, nor is the flash of a camera in my face. Before I know it, the routine is over and I’m thinking about making a beeline for the exit. But then I think: The hell with it. I’ve gone this far and I might as well enjoy it. I start dancing in the now-dated way I did when party music meant Kool and the Gang and Whitney Houston. By now whole clumps of people – the pep rally organizers, field hockey players, the emcee – have joined in the fun, and I find myself struck at just how good a dancer my contemporary Phil, a gray-haired math teacher, is. On my way out the door, I hear kind but insincere compliments on my performance.

Back at the administration building I run into Mary, and tell her that I’m deeply disappointed by her failed leadership. “I suddenly had to go to the bathroom,” she says, not even having the decency to suppress a smile. “I almost didn’t make it.” She pauses, finally rendering a mischievous grin. “But you, I see, were feeling pretty good, bustin’ a move out there. Who would have figured?”

“What the hell,” I reply, heading out the door for home. “You’re only middle-aged once.”