Electives 101

Quiet Conversation. That’s what they called it. Everyone knew it was really just a social hour, even the teachers. But that didn’t stop every eighth grader in my junior high school from wanting to be there. If there’s a place where image is truly everything, it’s ‘gotta be junior high.

So, one day way back when, a few of the “boat rockers” among the faculty got together and decided to offer an elective period every three weeks. (Although I can’t give myself credit for knowing it then, I’m sure that being an overly idealistic teacher in that town might not have been the smartest move.)

I guess for some kids the idea of new electives offered an excuse to sneak out of school for an hour to either run into town or maybe get high. But for those of us who were too chicken shit to ditch, we got to pick from about ten different activities. And no one cared too much for any of them. Except maybe for
Quiet Conversation.

Even though it was designed to be the fairest thing in the world, the selection process for the elective period didn’t quite work out that way. Although we all knew that the elective period occurred on a certain day of the week, we never really knew in which period it was going to take place.

For example, you might arrive at your social studies class (which in most cases wasn’t your homeroom), and instead of finding the combatants in the First Punic War written on the chalkboard, you’d find a list of electives. And yeah, the choices were almost always the same.

Let’s see…There was Chess. (Never much of an option for me; even after all these years, I still have yet to complete a full game.) And there was also Art, where the teacher made you carry a bass drum to the can if you dared have the audacity to say you needed to go to the bathroom during his class. (In fact, the sadistic bastard had the words “Lav Pass” written on the drum in big red letters, just to let you know he was for real.)

I suppose Trivia Hour had some potential, but the notion that some eighth grader could come up with a question that would stump a panel of tenured teachers just never quite worked.

The list went on to include other notable failures such as Magic Hour, hosted by a gaunt science teacher named Mr. Wilkins. But since there were no guarantees that you’d get the same elective every week, while Mr. Wilkins was gearing up to teach the really cool tricks, you could conceivably be stuck hauling a fucking bass drum down the hallway from the art room.

Quite simply, there were only so many teachers and only so many slots available for each elective. So, if you did happen to arrive at that social studies class to find that list of possibilities on the chalkboard, you sat poised in your seat, ready to pounce. And that was really it. You just raised your hand. There was no drawing of lots, no order of merit, based on class standing. Nothing like that.

I don’t even think a healthy dose of ass kissing would have made a difference either. If you raised your hand and were seen first, you got your elective. If you weren’t seen in time, though, you were pretty much screwed. And then you’d probably soon be off to the Chess elective, likely watching old file clips of Bobby Fischer’s title bout with Boris Spassky. Riveting.

And like I mentioned, Quiet Conversation always topped the wish list. There was only room for 20 of us out of a class that numbered nearly 250, though, and if you deducted the few kids that might have been out sick that day plus the dozen or so rebels who either ditched or went into the woods to blow some pot, it still only gave you about a 10 percent chance.

Yep, getting the right elective was easily the most important thing in our junior high world. And no one I knew had too much else to occupy their thoughts. I guess perspective isn’t part of your vocabulary when you’re 13.

Back then, I had this buddy named Doug Thomas. He was a tall, quiet kid who had only lived in town about a year. A fine athlete, he had earned instantly popularity. And once you got to know him, you could tell that he probably deserved that kind of treatment. After all, it wasn’t so easy to be the new guy.

Doug’s adjustment, though, just seemed easy and unforced. And that was clearly a tall order in the junior high world where petty jealousy was king, and everyone was basically downright shitty to everyone else. It seems weird to say this after so many years, but Doug somehow seemed above it all. It was sort of like he’d already done the awkward teen thing once and now was just enjoying his second go-round. Maybe his two older brothers helped make things easier for him, but even at 13, I could see it. Doug had a leg up on everyone else. And everybody liked him.

One day in late October, I got the last slot for Quiet Conversation. In those days, I always found myself on the outer perimeter of the “in crowd,” and I remember being particularly excited about the elective period. I guess like most kids my age, I just wanted to feel like I belonged.

When I arrived in the cafeteria, “Quiet Convo,” as it had been coined, was already underway. It sounds stupid, but it really was quiet. It was sort of like you were being given an entire hour to bullshit about anything you wanted, and you knew that they could take it from you whenever they felt like it. Jesus, in an odd way, it may have been the only privilege worth fighting for.

I talked quietly with Doug and a few other guys. In those days, Doug and I played on the same Babe Ruth League baseball team. He was our best pitcher, and I was his catcher. I didn’t play a whole lot that spring when Doug wasn’t pitching, but I didn’t mind so much. Our coach had made it pretty clear that every time Doug took the mound, I would catch. (Guess I was a “personal catcher” before baseball actually made it a fashionable thing.)

A few minutes went by, and Doug suddenly lost interest in talking. He nodded a lot and forced a smile or two, but it definitely seemed like his mind was elsewhere. As I got older, I began to realize that sometimes just listening could be very valuable, but in that moment, I didn’t have that kind of forethought. I mean this was Quiet Conversation; you were more or less obligated to talk! I thought I knew Doug well enough to find out what was bothering him. And hey, the coveted elective period – the one we all wanted – still had another 40 minutes to go.

“You OK, man?” I remember many years later, wishing that I’d just called him by his first name, but like most guys my age, I just wanted to sound cool.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” Doug said calmly.

“You sure?” I didn’t mean to press him, but you’re just not blessed with a lot of tact when
you’re 13 years old.

“I said I was OK. Maybe you don’t hear so well, Ray?!” Doug sniped.

Doug Thomas pissed off? Now I was most definitely confused.

As I was busy trying to figure out what the hell I did to aggravate him, an awkward silence followed; and eventually, Doug moved to another table.

John Timmons, who was sitting nearby, didn’t seem to know what to make of it either.

“What’s with him?” he whispered.

“I ‘dunno,” I whispered back.

John Timmons paused for all of three seconds before he rebuked me. “What the hell did you say to him anyway?” he hissed.

Typically, I guess, I fired right back. (I couldn’t help it. I mean what made him think that I had done anything?) “I didn’t say a damn thing.” That was a lie of course, but I certainly didn’t think I had said anything that would upset him.

“I just asked him if something was bugging him. OK?” (Clearly, I must have said it a little
too loudly.)

Right then, a mousy English teacher named Ms. Barrett quickly shushed me from the other side of the room, causing John Timmons to giggle.

“You’re an asshole, John,” I said nastily, though, a lot more quietly. My quick snipe just came on too fast for me to stop myself. (Ironically, John Timmons was one of the rare guys in my class who really wasn’t an asshole.)

“Jesus, man. You ‘woulda laughed at me,” he whined.

Yeah, I remember feeling badly about scolding John Timmons that day. Especially when some years later, he took a punch, defending my younger sister at a party.

As far as I know, not even her husband had done that for her.

By the time the elective period ended, Doug was nowhere to be found. Lunch was to follow, so I thought maybe Doug, who lived within walking distance of school, had gone home for a while.

It had turned into an Indian summer day when I walked outside at around 1:15pm. I still had about ten minutes before my French class started, and I thought I’d just sit and enjoy the sunshine. I looked across the green front lawn of my junior high school and spotted a solitary figure, sitting by a small pine tree. I hadn’t walked very far forward when I discovered that I knew the boy sitting there.

As I approached him, I reminded myself not to talk too much. Even though I was just your average, clueless kid, somewhere along the line, I had learned that some people just want to
be left alone.

“Doug?” I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say next.

It’s funny how you remember certain details of your life like they happened only moments ago. That day, Doug was wearing a pull-over shirt with one of those zippers. You know, the kind that used to have a gold-plated-looking ring that zipped all the way down to the middle of your chest.

He was just sitting there, picking blades of grass, watching them tumble helplessly into the warm breeze. He didn’t acknowledge me right away, although I’m sure I startled him. He tried wiping his eyes on the sleeves of his shirt, but it didn’t really hide much. He looked like he’d been swimming in a pool that had far too much chlorine. But what I remember most about that day so long ago was that he was shaking.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. Doug was not exactly a logical choice to be the kid who ended up sitting alone, crying on the front lawn of Bailey Junior High.

“Why are you crying?” I was afraid he might shoo me away in anger again, but I hoped for the best. Instead, though, I got the worst.

And with the tears of maybe a thousand teenage nights he hadn’t yet experienced welling up inside him, the barely pubescent teen who could already throw a 75mph fastball, the stranger who had endeared himself to a town that didn’t make much time for new faces, the same boy who we all stood in awe of, finally came clean.

“I’m ‘gonna die, Ray.”

Even though I was just a 13-year-old kid with barely a single speck of life experience, I knew this was no joke. I wanted to be able to fast forward the situation to the near future where I could say something like, “Damn, Doug. You really had me going, man. If that was a gullible test, I guess I flunked pretty badly, huh?” But as I looked in my friend’s eyes, I knew that moment
would never arrive.

Once when I was eight, I went to church with my father. On the way out of mass, an elderly women tripped right in front of us and collapsed in a heap on the pavement. I remember just looking at this poor old lady lying there, a tiny drop of blood coming out of her right ear. My father told me to go wait in the car, and that he would be along in a minute or two. I figured out later that my father just didn’t want me to have to see someone actually die.

That day in the front of school, though, my dad wasn’t around to protect me.

“How do you know for sure?” I hoped that was at least an acceptable thing to say.

“Cause the doctors said so.” Doug sniffled once or twice, and he looked at the ground, as if he was examining his falling tears.

“What did they say is wrong?” I was suddenly very sick to my stomach.

“You wouldn’t understand.” As Doug started crying again, I knew that he was right about that. How could I possibly understand? Like most boys my age, I was still trying to figure out how you kissed a girl like they did in the “R” rated movies I’d managed to sneak into. So, all I could do was sit down on the grass next to him, hoping that it made him feel less alone.

Years later, I realized that Doug didn’t understand it either. How do you explain to someone who has always been the picture of health that they are very ill? And worse than that, there really isn’t a damn thing anyone can do to help.

I tried to get my courage up to let Doug know he hadn’t chosen the wrong person to keep his secret. (At least I thought it was a secret.) Either way, it surely wasn’t the kind of stuff that was discussed along with the Monday morning recap of Saturday Night Live in the school cafeteria.

“Your folks know, right?” I asked.

“Just my dad.” Doug shook some more, perhaps realizing for the first time that this thing he was dealing with was real. “He doesn’t want to tell my mom yet,” Doug said softly and then just looked down at the ground.

“When did you find out?” I asked, hoping that I sounded concerned, yet still calm.

“Last week.” Doug grabbed another handful of grass, as the bell for fifth period sounded. There wasn’t a single person in the front courtyard, and we both just ignored it. That day, I figured out that some things were more important than others.

And then I had to ask the question I probably already knew the answer to. Maybe when you get old enough to be considered an adult, you look back on moments and instances that paved the way for you. You could see certain moments as passages through your youth that somehow made growing up inevitable. Yeah, I’m thinking those are the sort of bridges to adulthood that not even Salinger’s Holden Caulfield could slow down. Not even on his best day.

I had no way of knowing when I awoke that long-ago fall morning that I would be facing a threshold moment just a few hours later. And just as the fifth period bell stopped ringing that day, I realized that maybe there really was a lesson in having electives. Life sure could get awfully complicated – really quickly – and you had to learn to react. So, maybe having to make choices, no matter how insignificant, was a pretty important
thing to understand.

I’ll always remember my friend, Doug Thomas, a boy with two first names. I remembered how on an unusually warm day in Fall 1976, he told me that he had something called Hodgkin’s disease, and that he didn’t have much time left.

I didn’t cry for him that day way back then, when I was a slightly overweight, insecure 13-year-old boy. But in the days since, I have wept for him and tried to live those parts of a life that he never got to enjoy.


Copyright © 1996 by John L. Fischer



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