“Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity: if you are tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult. I hope it’s worth it.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
Second Semester: South Miami High, Spring of 1981
On the same day that I joined Ms. Owen’s Men’s Choir, I also took on a new job on the student newspaper staff: Entertainment Co-Editor.
To be honest, I would have been content as a staff writer in “The Serpent Tale’s” Entertainment section for the entire 1980-1981 academic year. I liked working for my page editor, an intelligent – if rather eccentric – senior named Matthew, and I didn’t believe that I had the skills or experience to ask for a promotion until I was either a junior or senior at South Miami High.
However, Matthew’s eccentric sense of humor led to a series of events that earned me an unexpected promotion. Two of the editors, Matthew and the Features editor, wrote a “Saturday Night Live”-style humor piece featuring an “interview” with Santa Claus for the December issue of the school paper. It was clever, but its references to sex, drugs, and other taboo topics made the article more suitable for publication in a college newspaper – but not in a high school paper.
I wasn’t directly involved, so I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes during the editorial process. What I do know is that Mr. Bridge, who was the paper’s faculty advisor, politely asked the seniors on the Editorial Board not to run the article because it was a bit too racy for its intended audience.
Matthew was one of the smartest kids I met at South Miami, but his sense of humor was sardonic, even rebellious. He was also stubborn, so instead of heeding Mr. Bridge’s advice, he convinced the editor in chief to let him run the “Bad Santa” faux interview on the Features page. In addition, Matthew and his co-author surreptitiously wrote a CENSORED blurb on the paper’s front page that accused Mr. Bridge and others of censoring the story and infringing on students’ First Amendment rights.
When the December issue arrived on campus from the printer, all hell broke loose. Our principal, Dr. Warren G. Burchell, walked into the Student Publications room and told the entire staff how disappointed he was about the “Bad Santa” affair. He supported Mr. Bridge’s attempts to talk the writers into not going forward with the parody. Dr. Burchell also said that though he encouraged us to express ourselves freely, there were certain standards of conduct that we had to adhere to.
As a result, most of the seniors, including Matthew, the Features editor, and our editor-in-chief, resigned from the Editorial Board and became staff writers. If we didn’t want “The Serpent’s Tale” to be shut down for the rest of the year, some of us had to step into the vacant editorial positions – including the Entertainment section.
I didn’t plan on becoming a member of the editorial staff when Mr. Bridge asked if any of us was interested in taking the vacant Entertainment Editor’s position. I was a wide-eyed and naïve sophomore with no previous experience with designing pages or assigning stories. But when no one else volunteered, I reluctantly raised my hand and said, “If I can have a Co-Editor, I will take the Entertainment section.”
Luckily, my friend and fellow staff writer Maggie Jimenez agreed to take the Entertainment Co-Editor position. I knew Maggie from homeroom and liked her a lot. She was smart, eager to learn new concepts, and wrote extremely well. She could also draw page designs on dummy sheets and use X-Acto knives like a pro. In addition, she could stay after school and work on our page in the afternoon if necessary. Maggie and I treated each other as equals and worked well together. To this day, we fondly refer to ourselves as Co-Editors.
For the rest of the school year, the reconfigured staff of “The Serpent’s Tale” worked hard to put out four more issues. At first, I felt awkward when I had to assign stories to students who had been in leadership positions, but the seniors – including Matthew and the former editor-in-chief – acquitted themselves well and turned in their copy on time and without complaining. And to my surprise, I discovered that I enjoyed the challenges of my new role as Entertainment Co-Editor. I liked collaborating with Maggie and the staff writers who worked with us, and I found that I had decent leadership skills.
“High school will probably be better. I mean, some kids will still be jerks, but it’s not so bad if you have at least one good friend. Someone who gets you.” ― Robin Stevenson, The World Without Us
I wish I could say that I was a good all-around student in 10th grade, but that would be stretching reality a bit. In fact, I only excelled in journalism and chorus, turned in decent but unimpressive classwork in English, and struggled to get by in math and science. So instead of making the Honor Roll and impressing my teachers and my mom, I went through my sophomore year on cruise control.
You’re probably wondering if my cerebral palsy (CP) had something to do with my academic performance during my sophomore year at South Miami Senior High. I suppose it did, at least in some aspects of the daily classroom routine. I couldn’t, for instance, take notes during lectures, and my left hand would get tired and sore whenever I had to write five-paragraph essays in Ms. Brock’s Period Three English class or do lots of problems in Business Mathematics.
I also suspect that I had – and still have – a learning disability that affected my ability to grasp complex mathematical concepts. If so, this cognitive issue could be linked to my physical disability. CP, after all, is a neuromuscular disorder caused by injuries to the brain’s motor center before, during, and even after birth. It isn’t inconceivable that the brief instance of oxygen deprivation that caused my CP also affected the part of my brain that allows me to understand abstract subjects and logic.
But between you and me, most of my academic issues were caused by the twin banes of high school students everywhere: laziness and boredom. CP or no CP, I did well in the courses that I enjoyed – but fared badly in those classes that I disliked or were not connected to my future writing career.
If I was a slightly above-average student (academically speaking) at Cobra Country, I was somewhat better in the social aspects of high school life.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that I overcame my anxieties about romance and rejection. Nor will I claim that I dated a lot and had a high school sweetheart. I liked many of the girls I attended school with, and I even had a crush on one of my teachers. But the only “date” I had during my three years at South Miami High was when Mom coaxed me into inviting Mary Ann (my 10th grade crush) to our house for a candlelight dinner on the night of March 31, 1981.
Surprisingly, Mary Ann accepted, and the dinner – for which we both wore our best outfits – was a gastronomic success. Mom cooked a delicious Italian-style meal for two: eggplant Parmesan, with pasta and garlic bread on the side and a Sara Lee cheesecake for dessert. We even had one glass of wine each. I got a good night kiss on the cheek and a sincere “I had a nice time” from Mary Ann, but our relationship never went beyond the “good friends” level.
However, despite my fears that I would not make friends easily in Cobra Country, I socialized a lot more in 10th grade than I had in my three years at Riviera Junior High. I attended several football games at our home field in Tropical Park – courtesy of some of the cafeteria ladies who befriended me at the beginning of the school year. I also made friends in all my classes, especially in chorus and Newspaper Reporting and Editing.
I couldn’t hang out with most of them after school because I lived too far away from campus and Mom was then working in Sunset Senior High’s cafeteria (she made, among other things, hoagies), but I often had a buddy or two to talk to at lunch or in the halls between classes.
“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” ― Tom Bodett