Monday, September 26, 2005

Most Likely to Be Gladys

This entry isn't going to be one of my picture-heavy, multimedia extravaganzas.  It's just a little story about a high school student named Karen Funk, on the night on one last high school humiliation.  I'll try to make the story uplifting.  Or something.

My senior picture, taken at the end of junior year.

Fayetteville-Manlius Central High School in Manlius, NY has always been considered an academically superior public school, populated by privileged suburban kids. That's probably a fair assessment, but I was never all that fond of the place.  I was fat, shy, smart, a little awkward socially, and not at all fashionably dressed.  I wore a lot of polyester, partly because this was the 1970s, but mostly because that was the kind of clothing my mom liked.  She therefore bought for me, to the exclusion of all else.  The only shred of pride I had in my appearance came from the jeans that I bought for myself, and wore as often as possible.

It would not be true to say that I'd known the kids in my graduating class all my life, or even since kindergarten.  For one thing, there were many comings and goings of families, transferred in and out by GE, or moving around for other reasons.  Some of the kids I graduated with were certainly there by second grade or so, but not all that many.  But the main reason it would not be true to say that we'd known each other for many years was that they didn't really know me, and I didn't really know them.  I probably know Carly and Becky, neither of whom I've ever met in person, better than I ever knew Jack or Tom, Sharon, Cheryl or... well, to give any more appropriate examples, I'd have to dig out my high school yearbook again.

A quick anecdote will serve to illustrate the point, before I move on to tonight's main story.  I was in the high school choir, but I was never good enough to make the Swing Sixteen singing group, or do solos or anything like that.  I think I made the Choraliers, but I don't remember for sure.  But I did audition for All-County Chorus and make it, twice; and once I got into Area All State, auditioning with Sunrise, Sunset

That year, the Area All State concert was held in Fulton, NY, home of a Nestle factory.  It was only 37 miles from Manlius, Google tells me, but it seemed more like 75.  It was far enough that I stayed overnight at the home of a kid in the choir who lived in Fulton, as did all the other kids from F-M who made the trip.

My visit with the girl from Fulton and her family was pleasant enough, but the following evening before concert time, I had a problem.  My peers were washing their hair in the school bathrooms, putting on nice clothes, and doing their make-up.  I became acutely aware that my hair needed washing, but I had no shampoo, and didn't dare ask to borrow any.  I just brushed through it with water, and hoped it would help a little. 

But even that wasn't the main problem.  My parents always came to my concerts, and this was my most important concert ever.  Where were they?  I couldn't find them in the crowd. 

Concert time came.  I scanned the crowd as the rest of the choir and I sang selections from Godspell, conducted by the famous choir director Gregg Smith.  There was no sign of my parents.  The concert ended.  No parents.  Kids were leaving with their families.  Not me.  I would have taken the school bus back, but they'd deliberately not provided one, in order to make the parents come to the concert.

I called home on a pay phone.  My mom was there.  She explained that they'd been to all my concerts, but since this one was so far away, they'd decided to sit it out.  She was distraught to hear that I was both disappointed and stranded.

Enter a couple who were about the last parents from Manlius to leave the concert.  They gave me a ride home.  Their son was one of those obnoxious boys who liked to stand in the hall outside the cafeteria, and make rude remarks to passersby.  But in the car with his parents, he was a perfectly nice, intelligent guy, with college plans and everything.  I even kind of liked him.

At school on Monday, of course, he turned back into a jerk.  If anything, he was even more obnoxious.  But now I knew his secret: he was only human after all, more complex than his hallway behavior would indicate.

But high school society doesn't deal much in complexities.  The other kids knew how I looked, and how I reacted to teasing, that I was smart, and that I liked Star Trek.  Some of them probably remembered the skunk incident from second grade, and other social gaffes I'd made over the years.  That was all they needed to know about me.

Now, if I'd been more self-confident, more socially savvy, I could maybe have laughed off any teasing, taken more care with my appearance, worked to overcome my shyness, and made some friends.  A perusal of my yearbook shows a lot of kids that I barely remember, or remember only as being smart and nice.  But I never got to know them, any more than they got to know me.  In some ways, things haven't changed that much since then.  How many people at my company, or my church, know about my novels?  And how much do I know about their lives?  Not much, in most cases.

But I digress.

There was a nasty little tradition at F-M, in which the senior class put on a little awards ceremony, the F-Emmys.  I was nominated in two categories: Most Likely to Succeed and the Gladys Ormphby Award.

picture from tvacres.comFor those of you who may be too young to remember, or who didn't watch tv in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gladys was Ruth Buzzi's most famous character on Laugh-In.  She wore a hairnet, a big brown sweater, a big brown skirt, oversized hose that gathered around her ankles, and oversized shoes. She was quintessentially frumpy, and had an amazing woeful frown.

The series of sketches she used to appear in had a simple premise. Arte Johnson's Dirty Old Man character, Tyrone F. Horneigh, would sit beside her on a park bench, forcing her to move over to avoid him. He would, of course, scoot closer.  Then he would try some strange, silly, relatively innocent pick-up line on her, something that sounded filthy but wasn't.  She would hit him with her purse.  He'd say something else.  She would hit him again.  This would continue until he fell off the bench.

Being named the class Gladys Ormphby was the most insulting award in the whole ceremony.

In a way, though, I'd invited the comparison.  Dan Cheney and I had done a sketch in 10th or 11th grade, in which he was Bobby Fischer and I was kind of a Gladys character.  I played chess with him in order to win a date with him - and I won using Fool's Mate.  The punchline was, "There won't be any cameras, will there?"

For this reason and others, I fully expected to win the Gladys Ormphby award.  I hoped to win Most Likely to Succeed as well.  I decided to make the best of the situation, and laugh along with the class, instead of letting myself be hurt by this.

That was the plan, anyway.

I dressed almost as I had dressed for the sketch.  I even carried a bunch of school books, so I could struggle and drop some as I came up for the award.  I chickened out of going all the way with it, though.  And as I came up the aisle, the auditorium was filled with catcalls and rude remarks. 

My prepared speech was this: "I can't imagine why you chose me for this award."  I don't think I ever delivered it.  I was too demoralized by the walk up the aisle.

Part two of the plan was to ditch the frumpy clothes after that, and collect the Most Likely to Succeed Award  with grace and confidence.

Somebody else won.  What can I say? It was a bad night for me.  And the faculty sponsor, one of my former French teachers, thought it was all in good fun.

But here's the thing.  If I'd learned how to take teasing and give it back without feeling crushed, if I'd made more friends within my graduating class, if I'd paid a bit more attention to the outward appearance stuff I disdained as being shallow and unimportant, that night would have been very different for me.  Too bad it took me 20 more years after graduation to learn this.

At my office now, there's a guy who teases me at least twice a week about the one part of my job that is excruciatingly tedious.  He's basically a good guy, and I mostly take his teases with minimal annoyance.  Only once have I been hurt by what he said, when he kind of crossed the line.  Even then, I didn't act like high schooler Karen Funk.  I handled it, and then griped to someone else later in order to vent.

Take that, Gladys.



ryanagi said...

So many similarities... Except I wore a school uniform, so no one could knock me for my fashion choices. There were a couple of girls in my class I would chat with on occasion. The smart/bookish ones. One went on to be our class Valedictorian and the other won the award for "most unknown student". I came in second place for that award. I've never gone back for a reunion. Why? No one would know who the hell I was. My best friend was two years behind me and I had a boyfriend at my work. I didn't need to make an effort with my classmates, so I didn't. I just got through my day so I could get out of there and to my work where the real fun was. :-) I don't know them. They don't know me. Is it really such a loss? I used to feel badly that I had no friends in my own class and I was never invited to parties and didn't hang with them at sporting events or at lunch or dances. But I did have one good friend, good grades, my church youth group to give me enough activities to make me attractive to colleges...sure it would have been nice to go on that Senior Class trip to Florida. My parents wouldn't pay for it. Maybe then I could have made some friends. It was hard to find a table to sit at for the prom. Good thing the smart girls went. But hey...we turned out ok!

ondinemonet said...


Very poignant story. I find that we just never stop learning lessons. Having genuine feelings that are able to be hurt makes you the best kind of human as far as I can see...a real person who isn't shut off from the world in bitterness and hardness. I like who you are now, and I bet I would have liked you then.

Always, Carly

aurielalata said...

As a general defense, I wore my geekdom like a badge of honor. I hung out with other geeks, wrote my stories, acted in my plays and did my think. It's funny, after all was said and done and I went to college, I had former classmates come to me and say how much they admired me for being such a bohemian. They admired me for not bowing to the "cool" things and the "cool" people. Too bad those folks didn't say anything in high school.

Something I've learned through all of this is that even though our culture has this idea that high school is the best time of our lives, in the over-all scheme of things the experience isn't necessarily life-defining. It refines us a bit--we learn about ourselves, but it isn't this end all experience we like to pretend it is. I went to college and suddenly I wasn't a geek anymore. I was cool because I was smart and funny and all those things that adults find enchanting about a person. And those high school people--I imagine they found their ways too. I went to my twenty year reunion last year and the thing I discovered is that most of those people didn't matter to me, and I didn't reallymatter to them either. We shared a common experience, but then we moved on.

I guess what I'm prattling on about is it seems to me that you were humiliated in that moment, but you are not the Karen you were (this is illustrated in the fact that people are interested in your journal)--you are better. And this guy at work that thinks you're tedious--maybe he just has a bad case of ADHD.