SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 18, 2013

Unaffiliated Geeks

 

I’ve been wondering of late about the small circle of friends I had in high school. It isn’t a question of where they’ve gone or what they’ve been doing with themselves. To be honest, with the exception of one, I don’t much care what’s happened to the rest at this point, and might well go to some dangerous lengths to avoid them were they to reappear. What I’m much more curious about are the mechanics of what brought us together in the first place. Because, see, I can think of no logical reason why it should have happened at all.

            We weren’t jocks. We weren’t the rich kids. Lord knows we weren’t the good-looking kids. We weren’t the retards or the artistic kids. We weren’t the computer geeks. We weren’t the heavy metal burnouts in their homemade Dokken denim jackets and we weren’t the punks. (Well, I was a punk, but there weren’t many in my school, and the other two had their own game going.) We weren’t the band kids or the Christian kids or the ones who were exploding with school spirit. We weren’t even the traditionally smart kids. The traditionally smart kids tended to be, y’know, nice and polite and straight. The traditionally smart kids were planning on becoming engineers, so that was comprehensible and everyone liked them.

            Once you got all the standard well-established affiliations out of the way, you were left with, well, us. We were the unaffiliated.

            Unbeknownst to any of us, I think, we’d all been quietly and individually ghettoized by everyone else in the school as being the Weird Kids. We didn’t realize this at the time, and in fact didn’t see ourselves as weird at all. Still, being ghettoized like that was fine by me. I was about as interested in being associated with any of those other collectives as they were with me.

            I only came to start understanding that I was considered less than normal one afternoon during my junior year. School had just let out and I was heading for my locker when a chubby little sophomore who was in my German class passed me and shouted, “Hey Knipfel, ya fuckin’ weirdo!” I was a bit startled by this (only because the little troll had never spoken to me before), but somehow wasn’t in the least insulted. If normality means being a loudmouthed dumbass, well, I’ll stay on this end.

            So over the months the unaffiliated and the weird slowly gravitated together on a corner of the first floor between the art wing and the English wing, a handful of kids who had absolutely nothing in common except for having nowhere else to go.

            It only struck me in retrospect what an odd mix it was. There was a greasy little rat-faced right-wing extremist who loved computers, a nihilistic chess whiz who tormented Christian girls, drew pornographic parodies of cartoon characters and showed up to school only when he wanted, an athletic Dungeons and Dragons geek who wanted to be a naturalist, an intense, fast-talking kid who wanted to be a behind-the-scenes political flak, a couple of funny-looking girls who were into science, the world’s most perfect student aiming for a Ph.D. in Classical studies who remains one of the quickest wits I’ve ever known, the school’s three gay kids (though it never came up in conversation and I suspect they didn’t know even if everyone else did), and the depressive, misanthropic punk (me).

            Although there were no religious types (the would-be naturalist at turns claimed to be a Unitarian and an Odinist, but no one took him very seriously), most if not all of us were political to some degree—a dangerous way to be in high school during the Reagan years—but even that was an incoherent jumble. Among the above were the neo-fascist anxious to send the missiles flying, a couple of anarchists, some plain old liberals, a revolutionary Marxist, a Republican, and that nihilist. I wanted to see the missiles fly myself, but for different reasons than the fascist kid. And the kid who wanted to get into politics would espouse anything that was both expedient and contrary. Even the musical tastes skipped across the spectrum, from the baroque era to metal to Irish folk music to Mahler to hardcore to obsessions about one and only one musical act (ABBA, Asia, Pat Benatar, Fleetwood Mac, Simon and Garfunkel).

            Somehow, though, from the depths of that mess we all became friends. Maybe because individually we all found ourselves tormented in the hallways by the normal popular kids, or maybe because as radically different as we all were we still respected one another. Everyone brought something different to the table when we got together, and it kept things lively. You never knew what anyone was going to say at any moment, which was unheard of among the comfortably affiliated. I think the real bond, though, was that we shared an actively absurdist perspective, which struck us as a necessary quality when you were, say, one of the very few gay kids in a public high school in Green Bay. Or a punk, or an atheist, or goofy-looking, or . . .

            We were all painfully straight at the time. None of us smoked or drank or did any drugs. That seemed so damnably commonplace. We didn’t go to football or basketball games, we rolled our eyes through the obligatory pep rallies, and somehow managed to skip the prom. Instead we just did things we thought were funny. We never set out to be consciously weird in anyone’s eyes—we were just trying to entertain ourselves. So we created a religion centered on canned meat, and a complex revolutionary political and social philosophy built around the idea that the world was an illusion (this was even before I’d read any Schopenhauer). For a short time I found myself married to a drinking glass, and we found office supply stores the funniest damned places on earth. There were birthday parties for Einstein and Richard Wagner, and another party, for reasons no one was quite clear about, to celebrate He-Man and She-Ra cartoons. Every week something else would come to mind, and when it didn’t we just drove.

            Then a very strange thing happened. After all those years of insults and abuse and bullying in the school hallways, during our senior year the snotty popular kids suddenly got it in their pointy little heads that weird was cool. Much to my horror, they started being nice to us. The jocks and the burnouts were the same, as dumb and pathetic as ever, but the sudden shift among those well-dressed and good-looking popular kids gave those final months in school a bizarro feel, and had me looking for buckets of pig’s blood every time I went through a doorway.

            I’m not sure what brought it about, and I neither trusted it nor wanted it. The really sad thing was when they tried to be “weird” too. God, it was painful to watch. Graduation was a relief in that it meant I’d be able to get away from all the creepy unwanted attention.

            The unaffiliated stayed in touch through the first few years of college (a number of them even living together), but then the inevitable began creeping in: the arguments, mental illness, sex, other friends, changing attitudes. By the time I graduated we’d all but completely splintered. At this point I don’t know where any of them are save for one, don’t even know if they’re still alive. That’s okay. We’d had ourselves a fine and strange couple of years.

 

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