Back in 1960 in Charlottesville, elementary school went to the seventh grade. High school began in the eighth. As much-anticipated as it was equally dreaded an auspicious life event loomed on Gordy Mackey’s horizon. He was just about to start the eighth grade. On the verge of high school, less than a week, he had grilled his buddy Jack’s older brother for three weeks -they both had- on the ways and means of all things high school. Being ‘with it’ was their primary focus. A simple fact, that neither Jack nor Gordy appreciated at the time was, when soliciting opinions get some basic facts about who you are asking. If you want to know about cool, you get bankable results if you ask someone who is.
You could say that Jack knew his older brother, Butch, but when you get right down to it, what does anyone really know about another? One thing Jack didn’t know about his older brother was that he was a frightened loner. The younger boy knew his brother was prone to being a bully, but he dismissed it sure that it was just something that happened at home, boys will be boys, stuff. Though he might have suspected that, Butch was not leader of the pack; he was the only one either of them knew to ask and that had to count for something.
Butch’s slovenly demeanor, or the lack of basic hygiene, and the absence of friends should have warned the boys that he might not have been the foremost authority on making a great impression in high school. So desperate were they for information something, anything to look like they were hip to high school, they believed every word that older wiser brother uttered. The rendition of high school he conveyed sounded more like prison than school scaring the boys silly.
Besides his desperate need to find out how to be cool, Gordy always looked for a way to needle Sallee. Holding his apprehensions about the coming school year inside took work. He needed an outlet for his growing panic and he knew just where to find it. All he needed to do was make Sallee think she was missing out. If there was a disorder named fear of missing out Sallee had it, a bad case. A few days before school was due to start as they watched television, he shared his high school orientation with her. As he knew she would, Sallee wanted to know all about what he had learned.
Scholastic, orientations are designed to relieve some of the anxiety of a new beginning by giving new students a sense of the ropes. Since little, Gordy thought he knew jived with what he had learned at orientation, it had the opposite effect. To quite his growing dread, he launched a few trial balloons hoping to stir up Sallee, “I get to have my own locker.” She shrugged indifference. “We have gym ever day and get to change into gym clothes.” Her nose curled. Racking his brain, he, remembered how much she disliked cafeteria food. He had landed on just the thing he thought would get under his younger sister’s skin and in the process take his mind off the terrors of high school as told by Butch.
“Lunch!” Gordy crowed, “I get to buy lunch. It is not cool to bring lunch. Everybody buys it. But here is the really neat-o part, they don’t sell that gross stuff like lima beans and that mystery meat. You know that stinky stuff with the glue like gravy? No gooey fried chicken or —.” He grimaced shuddering involuntarily. “Ugh.” Then brightening when he saw that he had hit pay dirt, “They sell pizza and hamburgers, not those gross pattie-things but real hamburgers.”
“How do you know all this?” Sallee wanted to know thinking how unfair life could be. He could buy lunch while she had to tote hers or eat that stuff the school called food. Meanwhile, Gordy would be dining on hamburgers and pizza. So unfair! “Jack’s brother, Butch said. He said he eats hamburgers and french-fries very day. And then he gets an ice cream sandwich afterward too. And they have coke machines. Isn’t that keen?”
“I guess,” Sallee allowed secretly jealous that Gordy was going to high school while she remained in elementary school. She didn’t want to admit to herself much less Gordy that she was going to miss him. “But you don’t get recess. Stuart said that you don’t have recess in high school.”
“Yeah but we don’t have to sit in the same classroom all day either. We change rooms for every class. When the bell rings, we get to walk around the school for a whole five or ten minutes.”
“I’d rather have recess,” she muttered refusing to let her brother know how she really felt. The idea of wandering freely around school did sound like so much more fun more-grown up she thought. “I don’t bet Ethel would let you eat hamburgers and french fries every day.”
“And how is she going to know? I‘m pretty sure she isn’t going to be coming to school to keep an eye on what I eat. Besides, I don’t think they let colored people into the school.”
“I think so. I’m almost positive this is the second year. Don’t you remember Ray was in my class? I liked him. I hope he’ll be coming back. Besides Ethel wouldn’t be going to school if she just came to make sure that you didn’t eat french fries every day. She probably wouldn’t care so much about the hamburgers.” They laughed.
“Yeah wouldn’t that be funny if Ethel came every day at lunch time to make sure I ate right?” Gordy said though he was sure it would not be even close to funny. One thing for sure it would not be cement his position in the in-crowd. He envied Sallee still in elementary school, in seventh grade where you defined cool.