This past quarter, I took a freshman seminar called “The Art of the Memoir,” where we read a lot of memoirs, and wrote two of our own. I figured that since what most of what I write in this blog is like a memoir anyway, I might as well post my memoirs.
Here is the first one I wrote (I’ll post the second one later).
The assignment was basically to “write a 4-6 page memoir.”
I sat in the classroom with Ms. Honan and Andrea, crying.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not the weekend I had worked so hard to plan. My fellow eighth graders were supposed to be in awe of the Jeopardy! program I wrote. They were supposed to eagerly absorb the knowledge contained in my carefully thought-out clues while laughing together and making new friends. After the program, they were supposed to run up to me, the Treasurer of Student Council, and praise my brilliance in creating such an incredible program. After the amount of work I put into this weekend, I imagined myself to be the most popular girl in school.
Instead, my eyes were wet with tears and my nose was red.
Andrea (the Student Council President), Adina (the Vice President), and I had met every week for months to plan this weekend, an overnight convention at school for our entire class. The teachers had prepared some of the programs, but we were to be in charge of several important sessions. We had designed a round-robin program, and each of us would lead one part of it. Andrea and Adina planned to lead an improvisation exercise and a relay race, and I prepared the trivia game.
After dinner, while the other students changed into gym shoes, touched up their lip gloss, and discussed whether or not Stephanie and Garrett were indeed holding hands, the Student Council triumvirate sprinted to our assigned classrooms to set up the programs. I had designed a scoreboard to look as good as Alex Trebeck’s, emptying nearly every drop of dark blue ink from my printer cartridge. I carefully taped up the squares that said $100, $200, $300, $400, and $500 under each category, ranging from history and religion to movies and musicians. I checked to make sure that I had all the questions and answers in my folder, and that the red, white, and blue poker chips that we would use to keep score throughout the evening were neatly stacked. I felt a twang of nervousness in my stomach as the first group of 30 of my peers bounded into the room.
They were chatting and laughing, still hyper with anticipation of the all-nighters they thought they’d pull later that night.
“Okay, guys, we’re going to start now, so please sit down.”
My words were lost in their squeals and songs.
“It’s time for Jeopardy! Are you guys ready?” They didn’t seem to be.
I looked at the teacher who had walked in with the students. She wasn’t helping.
“Can you help me quiet them down?” I asked her. Her feeble attempts were no match for the enthusiasm of the eighth graders. She demanded respect neither here nor in her own classroom. The students knew how to get away with anything in her presence. Why was she the one teacher assigned to my station?
I stood on a chair and some of the students began to gather around me. Maybe this will work out, I thought. Speaking loudly, I briefly explained the rules of the game, and began to read my Jeopardy! clues.
At first, my peers got into the game. They shouted out the answers without “buzzing” in, but that wasn’t so bad. After a few questions, though, they began to lose interest. The standing contestants wandered around the room, and the sitters stood. When I offered a clue they didn’t like, they told me how stupid it was. The people who weren’t interested in the first place became louder and rowdier. The smile on my face slowly disappeared.
When I saw the first blue poker chip fly through the air, my program collapsed in front of me. The chips were no longer in perfect stacks of equal height, but were being tossed across the room. And then it hit me. Literally. They were throwing the poker chips at me.
I could feel my eyes well up, but no tears came out. I wouldn’t cry in front of these kids. That would be suicide. I would be the butt of all jokes for the rest of the year. I kept looking at the teacher hopelessly. She was just a fly on the wall in a chaotic room. I felt alone and helpless.
The time for the groups to rotate could not have come sooner. That first group left, and two more came in. The other two groups were not as bad as the first, but they weren’t much better. I led the sessions half-heartedly, counting down the seconds until I could just leave and blend in with a crowd.
After the third group left, I found myself alone in a room trashed with papers, pieces of a blue scoreboard, poker chips, and desks and chairs scattered around the room. I cleaned up, disillusioned, and went to find Andrea and Adina.
Adina’s program went well, or maybe it didn’t, but she was the kind of girl who would make the best out of anything. She was confident for an eighth grader—nothing seemed to affect her.
Andrea and I commiserated about our unsuccessful attempts to lead a group of our classmates, and we let all of our emotions pour out. When Ms. Honan, the Assistant Principal, saw us, she brought us to an empty classroom and shut the door.
For the first few minutes, we merely sobbed. It felt good just to cry.
I replayed the scene of the classroom in my head.
“I—worked—so—hard—on—this—program,” I sniveled.
“I know,” Andrea said. “I can’t believe how rude our own friends were.”
“They threw things at me!”
Ms. Honan tried to comfort us.
“Girls, don’t let these silly eighth graders get you down. You know how they are.”
“I know, but still, I can’t help it,” I said.
The crying slowed. We sat there silently. Andrea and I went back to our sleeping room to calm down. We joined our friends later that evening for the programs that the teachers planned and for sports in the gym, but it was hard for me to look at my friends in the same way I did three hours earlier.
The rest of the weekend came and went. It was hard to forget about that one interminable hour.
* * *
I sat in the classroom with Mr. Kahan and 14 eighth graders, all listening attentively to me.
It was four years later, and I was back in the same building, in the same rooms, at the same convention. A senior in high school, I had returned to my alma mater as one of six junior staff members.
“Hi, I’m Lia, and I’m a senior at Niles West High School,” I told my group of wide-eyed eighth graders.
“You’re in high school? Wow!”
“My cousin goes to that school, do you know him?”
“Do you get a lot of homework?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Where are you going to college?”
“High school is a lot of fun, guys,” I told them. “Yeah, there’s a lot of work, but you’ll be okay. I’m not sure where I’m going to college. But I can answer all your questions later, at dinner or during free time. Now, we’re going to have icebreakers.”
The six of us had worked with Ms. Honan and two other teachers to plan a weekend for the students to relax, mingle with new people, and learn the kinds of lessons they don’t teach you in the classroom. We looked forward to a scavenger hunt, dodgeball in the gym, educational programming, and more candy than kids could ever need. Each of us was assigned to lead a group of energetic middle schoolers in these programs.
I felt ready, confident in my leadership abilities. I didn’t need to memorize the leaders’ packet. I’d be okay.
We moved our chairs into a tight circle. We started with a simple name game.
“I’m Lia and I like lollipops; that’s Tali and she likes tomatoes,” I started. Some kids had played this game before; they knew which alliterated food item they liked best. Others pondered for a few minutes to come up with a really good answer: heaven forbid the other students would make fun of them for liking spinach or broccoli. Sugar and brownies would be better choices.
Mr. Kahan, the teacher assigned to my classroom, didn’t say a word. There was no need.
This icebreaker game and those that followed woke the eighth graders up, and prepared them for the educational purpose of the weekend. I led a discussion about personal characteristics that we value in a relationship, and, eventually, in a marriage. Do partners in a relationship need to have the same values? Is it important for a married couple to have the same religion? The students disagreed with each other. One even jumped out of his chair to make his point heard.
“You’re wrong!” he told his peer.
“No, I’m not!” she responded.
“Guys, guys.” I felt it was my place to intervene. “Please be respectful.”
As the students rushed out of the room for dinner in the cafeteria, Mr. Kahan and I stayed back to straighten up the chairs.
“You did a nice job there with those kids,” he told me.
I felt the way I had wanted to feel four years earlier.
Why was this time different? The building was the same, the teachers were the same. The programming was similar. The kids’ faces changed, but eighth graders will be eighth graders. What was different?
When I last had walked these same hallways, middle school was a big deal—the lockers towered above my head, the classrooms were huge, and there were so many stairs to climb. Now, I could see over the tops of the lockers, and compared to my huge high school, this building was tiny. I looked at the 14-year-olds. Was I—with my glasses and braces—ever that small?
Throughout high school, I lived to serve on boards, to chair programs, to preside. I worked hard—some would say too hard—but the emotional high I got from running a successful program left me craving more.
If I could go back and talk to my eighth-grade self, what advice would I give? Keep going. Don’t get frustrated. Things will get easier.
Somehow, though, even without my futuristic self as a mentor, I seemed to understand it anyway.
After my Jeopardy! fiasco in eighth grade, I never should have wanted another leadership role. I think I knew, though, that the way that program turned out was not how leadership would always be. Instead of using that night as an excuse to never plan another program, I challenged myself to become a better leader, and I vowed never to be a target for a thrown poker chip.