Two years and four months before George Plimpton died in his apartment at the age of 76, I received the George Plimpton award from my Junior High. It was not your average award; no statue, no cash…just a book. Chicken Soup For The Writer’s Soul, including stories by Plimpton and others. It was a “Teen Ink Book Award,” and I was recognized for “Exceptional Improvement as recognized by the English Department.” I was fairly excited about putting a smile on my parents’ faces, but I was more affected by the self-satisfaction of knowing I’d earned the approval of my English teacher, Ms. Frances.
Ms. Frances left the Coupeville School District to parts unknown not long after I left her class and went next door to Coupeville High, accentuating my good fortune in having had her as a teacher for two years. I was introduced to her when I took her art course as a 7th grader. I’d only lived in Coupeville for a year at that time, and I hadn’t seen anything like Ms. Frances since moving up from the Bay Area. She burned incense. She dressed like an individual, in long purple dresses, and it seemed to me that she was the only member of the faculty who made a regular habit of smiling.
I needn’t go on in explaining Ms. Frances. She was the archetype - a caring teacher in a school that never did. She was a real-life coagulation of Jaime Escalante in Stand And Deliver, John Keating in Dead Poets Society, and Karen Pomeroy in Donnie Darko.
Giving the math or science teachers a headache felt like playing God, personally dishing out karma to the disgruntled old men and women who had so unjustly robbed us of our innocence with busy-work and indifference that broke our spirits. But Ms. Frances was different. We were in that stage where all it takes to crack you up is some eye-contact or a well placed grin from a buddy. Whenever my youthful energy got the best of me and my friends and I turned her class into a circus, it yielded a terrible feeling, something like pissing off your mom. It wasn’t quite guilt, suffice to say there was a feeling we were on the same team. It seemed whatever insidious force the school wanted to apply to us, she wasn’t for it, and that by fighting her we were fighting ourselves.
She cried at the end of nearly every book she read with us, most of which she’d read dozens of times before. Her warmth was derived not of her preparation with books that meant something to her. That was a nice gesture, but what I loved about Ms. Frances was that she never hesitated to show that emotion. Something told me she knew it was the best way for us to learn that the books held real value and were not just another hurdle between us and our next childish venture.
Coupeville Jr. High is essentially the same building as Coupeville High, and so 9th grade was just the next step on a stairway I couldn’t yet see the end of. Consequently, I felt none of the pressure that may or may not accompany the psyche of the average 8th grader, standing on the edge of a cliff they call High School. Nascent turmoil, raw emotion, and hormones…all in an age in which they decided high school should take greater action to prepare kids for college. An assembly here, a seminar there…feeble attempts to prepare kids for that which cannot be prepared for: real life. Meanwhile, the kids, by and large, don’t give a rat’s ass about college, so they spend the assemblies and seminars daydreaming, passing notes, or, in a last-ditch effort to turn work into play, making fart noises. Anything they can do to escape the instruction manual of class for the poetry that occurs between classes, they will.
It’s a beautiful time to be alive when everything is planned and neatly laid out for you.
In 9th grade, you know what’s coming next year. 10th grade is coming next year. You don’t have to worry about things like finding a career, upright mobility, or financial stability. And yet, there are girls, sports, learning to drive, and all sorts of other excuses not to know or care about all the knowledge waiting to be soaked up by our young, sponge-like minds.
When Senior Year finally comes to a close, that certainty is pulled out from under us like a rug. We’re asked to do all sorts of impossible things, like judge colleges by their websites or perhaps a short visit, and know instinctively which is the one for us. We’re supposed to “have in mind” what we want to do; that is, what kind of career will make us happy for the next 40 or 50 years. Most unreasonable of all, we’re asked to say goodbye to the people who’ve defined our existence and our environment, the people we’ve grown up with. Relationships are left to hang from a thread, dying slowly from long distances. Phone calls between friends get shorter and less frequent.
For big city kids, it can be hard to figure out why their new college roommate from the far off land of Whidbey Island is so slow to make new friends and so quick to waste away their Friday nights on the phone, rekindling old flames, clinging desperately to songs they’ve already heard, a movie they’ve already seen, a life they’ve already lived.
Seeing everyone roam around campus in the June sun, wearing shorts, holding hands, laughing, crying, hugging…their fates have all been sealed, and whether it be Community College, a University, the Military, or the workforce that awaits them, they all know the ride is over.
Prom is no small thing in the life of an islander. In a town where small stories make big news and boredom is always in steady supply, Prom can be the highlight of a young girl’s life. Some of these young men and women will never leave this place, and for these poor souls, the Christmas lights strung around town hall is the closest they will ever come to seeing the bright lights of the city.
For many of us, this is just the beginning. It will start with college and before we know it, Coupeville will be spoken-of only in the past tense; a faraway memory, drowned out by success that will make our one-stoplight town seem even smaller than it does now.
The morning after Prom was a fitting allegory. We all stayed at Stacy’s place. Many of us camped out front, and there seemed to be at least somebody sleeping in every room of her house. As we all slowly congregated in her kitchen the next morning, recapping the night over coffee or cereal, everything, for a moment, was perfect. But like Senior Year, it didn’t last long. Everyone had somewhere to be, eventually, so we trickled out of the kitchen and on to the highway, one by one, slowly, until only Stacy remained. I was one of the last to leave, and when I did finally leave, it was only because everyone else was taking off. All of us in that kitchen seemed to know what was happening, and even the less attuned of us seemed to understand the symbolism. But no one could stop it, so no one gave it mention. We just sighed and smiled politely at our glory days as they passed us like a stranger on the street.
As though by the grace of God, nobody was hung-over. Nobody was hurt. Nobody left upset. Considering the alcohol consumed and the emotions that were on the line when Prom was upon us, I feel that can only be accounted for by divine allowance. Nobody even blacked out. We giggled to ourselves sporadically as we recalled the adventures, still fresh in our minds. But the giggling is over now. All that remains is the memory. I can still remember the look on everyone’s faces. It’s easy, because I see those same expressions whenever we’re all together again. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it reminds me how lucky I was – how lucky we all were – to have been apart of a high school that taught us nothing, and a town that taught us everything.
We all trade stories, and everyone’s made new friends who all seem nice enough…but none of our new college friends eagerly anticipate “Goin’ Home” like we do. And while we’ve grown to love the new families we’ve established away at school, we all seem to love our Coupeville friends with a deeper love, that cuts to the center of who we are at our core, derived of the building blocks that can only be rediscovered in our quaint island town, where teachers like Karen Frances flash by like shooting stars, leaving lasting effects they can never imagine.