Helen Chappell - May 2009

Is There Life After High School?
by
Helen Chappell

   I have a theory that if you were successful and popular in high school, you’ll end up a miserable mess in real life.
    I’ve seen the cheerleaders, bitterly divorced from the big jocks, now not quite as thin or pretty or mean as they were back in the day. And I’ve seen the jocks, as men of forty or fifty, having a couple or four drinks and reliving the highlights of their football days on someone’s living room rug.
    I’ve seen the class president desperately selling cars for his father-in-law, and the shiny-nosed, tattletale valedictorian, having hit the glass ceiling, doomed to a career in middle management and poly-blend dresses. Ah, la jeunesse dorée! Golden lads and lassies must, like chimney sweeps, come to dust, as the poet says. Or at least life as a divorcée granny raising your grandchildren in a doublewide. Or in and out of rehab so much they hold a bed just for you. Or...or...
    Bitter? Moi? I’ve never attended a class reunion because I would pay good money to avoid seeing most of those people again. They weren’t very nice to people like me back then, and I can’t think of any reason why I’d want to hang out with them all these many years later. But my spies are everywhere, like Cardinal Richelieu’s, so I hear things. Lots of things.
    And if I feel just a tinge of Schadenfreude now and then, well, what’s the harm in that? After all, Eastern Shore Alzheimer’s is the ability to forget anything but a grudge, just like the obituaries are the Eastern Shore Sweepstakes.
    I know it’s been forever since high school. Tectonic plates have shifted since the day I got my diploma and shook the chalk dust from my shoes forever. Unlike the mean girls and the bullying jocks, I knew real life started the minute I flipped the tassel on my mortarboard.
    Yes, the people whose lives were defined by their happiness in high school rarely found anything quite as intoxicating in the real world.
    But then there were the rest of us. The ones who weren’t in with the “in” crowd, or maybe any crowd at all. The artsy, folksy ones, the AV geeks, the trade school and home ec. majors and, Lord help us all, the hoods.
    Call them hoods, greasers, whatever. Even private schools had them, so don’t pretend you didn’t see any where you went. Compared to the white-bread preppie kids, in their baked potato colors, hoods were resolutely noire, and sometimes as dangerous as they pretended to be.
    Hippiedom was just starting to happen in those days, but it hadn’t filtered out into the dreary provinces and leveled the playing fields quite as much as it would. So the world was mostly divided into two types. The preps and the hoods, and ne’er the twain would meet, or at least acknowledge meeting.
    A hood’s idol was Elvis. The slick, greased-back hair lovingly sculpted into a pompadour, the tight jeans, the thick black motorcycle boots, the pack of Marlboros rolled into the T-shirt sleeve. This was the hood look.
    They spent a lot of time taking apart cars in shop class, and hanging out in the student parking lot smoking those Marlboros. They were the ones who got some adult to buy them beer on Saturdays, and roared around in their souped-up muscle cars doing I have no idea what. Stealing hubcaps and fighting with their mother’s newest boyfriend comes to mind, because they were no strangers to the seamier side of life. If they knew who James Dean was, they would have emulated him. But they only went to movies to make out with their hoody girlfriends.
    The preps didn’t need to fix up an old muscle car because when they turned 16, Mom and Dad bought them a new one. They didn’t need to get some doofus to buy booze for them because all the gin, vodka and scotch you would ever want was right there in the liquor cabinet at home. And while there were probably a ton of fights about mom’s latest boyfriend, the threat of being sent off to some school run by killer nuns was enough to keep it passive-aggressive.
    If a hood family’s domestic violence got out of hand, the neighbors and the cops were right there. In a prep family, you kept the hitting and the screaming behind closed doors like decent people. Hoods went to church and confessed their sins. Prep families went to church, then sinned quietly afterwards, with a very dry martini.
    I was really fascinated by the hoody girls. The Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film Cleopatra had caused a sort of Egyptian revival, at least in makeup. The ideal of beauty for a hoody girl was white lipstick, about an inch of pancake foundation, blue eyeshadow and eyeliner. Lots and lots of eyeliner.
    I used to watch these girls in the school bathroom in the mornings, both fascinated and repelled, as they took black liquid eyeliner and outlined their entire eyes with it, then drew long, comma-like lines extending out to their temples. The look was sort of superficially Egyptian wall painting, if the wall painting was of an old pharaonic drag queen raccoon.
    Even more fascinating to me was the enormous bouffant hair that was so popular in the mid-’60s. From time to time, you can still see old ladies with those styles of yore, and it has not improved with age. Whether it was the beehive, the airlift or the bubble, the whole philosophy for any serious student of hoody was to tease the hair up as wide and high as possible. Once it was all backcombed out about a foot from the head, several layers of Aqua-Net were sprayed to keep this thatch stiff and sticking straight out.
    There were so many hoody girls in my school doing this in the mornings that the first floor girl’s bathroom had developed a permanent sticky residue on every single surface, and you needed a gas mask to walk in there. Many of them could use half a can of spray a day to keep their ’dos in place. I am serious about this. My high school alone was probably responsible for depleting about half the ozone layer.
    Once she had the hair (preferably dyed a Superman blue-black) completely bouffed, the hoody fashionista would proceed to take a thin layer of top hair and comb it over the underlying backcombed structure. The result was sort of like a toxic topiary.
    One girl I knew could get her bubble up to about two feet off the crown of her head. Add a rhinestone tiara to that on prom night and you have something Marie Antoinette would have envied. The total effect of these bouffant ’dos was amazing. They were huge, towering works of art and artifice that required constant upkeep throughout the day.
    Gym class was always interesting, as there was a constant war between the butch phys. ed. teacher and the hoody girls, who didn’t want to do too much activity and ruin the hair. Preppy girls got a pass because they were all disgustingly good at sports. But it was war to the death between Miss Mann and the hoody girls, and she used to make them run extra laps just to see them ruin those towering hairstyles. She just really enjoyed making young women miserable. It was part of her thing, whatever that was. But I liked that because it kept her from yelling at me about being inept and clumsy, which I was, and am to this day.
    But at least I’m alive to tell the tale. The well-dressed hoody girl wore a black vinyl jacket, a sweater with a sword point bra beneath, a tight skirt as short as she could get it without violating dress code and these wonderful winklepicker shoes. They were like ankle boots, but they had these very sharp pointed toes that you wouldn’t want to be kicked with.
    But the piéce de resistance was the industrial size black vinyl purse. As big as a suitcase and just as ugly, this was an accessory no hoody girl would have been caught dead without, anymore than her hoody boyfriend wouldn’t have his comb. They toted these enormous purses everywhere. I always wondered why they needed such big bags. I figured it was for all the hair equipment. Suffice to say, the total effect was pretty scary, especially when you ran into one of them, as I did once, at the movies.
    Darlene (we’ll call her that) was in the bathroom when I walked in, attending to her hair as usual, completely focused on the reflection in the mirror. Her giant industrial strength black vinyl bag rested on the sink beside her.
    As I came out of the stall, who should have joined us but the sadistic gym teacher, Miss Mann. The two of them grunted at each other, and Darlene continued to work on her tower of hair. She was experimenting with spit curls that year.
    As Miss Mann moved in to wash her hands at the sink, she knocked Darlene’s giant purse across the counter. I couldn’t swear to it, but I think that gym teacher was just mean enough to do it deliberately. All that testosterone.
    Of course, the contents of Darlene’s big black bag went spilling across the counter. Three or four hairbrushes, a professional size can of Triple Hold Aqua-Net, several containers of eyeliner and a rather large-looking black automatic.
    The gun just sat there for a moment while we all looked at it.
    Darlene shot Miss Mann an impassive look as she swept everything – hairbrushes, eyeliner, handgun back into the depths of her bag.
   “It’s my boyfriend’s,” she explained casually, going back to making spit curls. “I just hold it for him.”
    I don’t think Miss Mann ever gave Darlene a hard time again.
    It was shortly after that that Darlene ran away with a married math teacher and went to live in Baltimore. I heard they were very happy.
    By then, I was into wearing sandals, going to folk clubs and experimenting with what would become known as the ’60s, but that’s another story for another time.