SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 1, 2019

The (East) Beast Reawakens

 

At my high school graduation, which coincided with my eighteenth birthday (thus completely ruining my eighteenth birthday), a couple of students I didn’t know got up on the stage of the Brown County Memorial Arena and performed a song they’d written earlier that year.

            “It’s Our School” was a rousing and heartfelt number very much a product of early Eighties pop aesthetics. As I recall, the chorus went something like:

It’s our school

And you gotta believe in our school

And you know you gotta believe

Yeah, you know you gotta believe

‘Cause it’s our school

            As the song got underway, all four hundred-plus students graduating from Green Bay East that year stood from their folding chairs and began swaying in time with the music, like they were at a Styx concert or something. All four-hundred-plus, that is, with the exception of me and one other kid, Dan Knudsen, who was sitting about three seats away from me. The two of us stubbornly remained in our seats, arms folded and glowering. We glanced at each other at one point and shook our heads. I wouldn’t stand for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, so there was no fucking way I was standing for some dreadful pop song celebrating school spirit.

            No, when I was a teenager I was not exactly bubbling over with school spirit. I never went to a football game, never went to a dance, and whenever possible ignored all school-sanctioned events. Having come to recognize the virtues of nihilism as a philosophical stance and lifestyle choice, I was no more willing to pledge any kind of allegiance to an educational institution than I was to Church or State. Even back then I realized that any adult who looked back on his high school years as the Best Days of His or Her Life must be a miserable person indeed. I wouldn’t go back to high school or my teen years for anything. What a fucking lousy span of time that was. No wonder I kept trying to off myself back then. A couple of times when I was visiting home from college, some of my old friends from high school suggested stopping by East to visit a few of our old teachers to catch up and reminisce, and my immediate reaction was “fuck no.”

            That said, and though there’s no way in hell I would ever relive it, Green Bay East wasn’t that bad a place despite its reputation at the time. In fact, and this I do appreciate, it was kind of like the Bad News Bears of local high schools.

            In the early Eighties, Green Bay boasted, I think, four public high schools. Southwest was the most recent addition, a sleek and modern building with an actual Olympic-sized swimming pool. That’s where all the fancy rich kids went if they didn’t go to one of the private Catholic schools. West and Preble were fairly innocuous, generic high schools I didn’t know too much about. I mean, we were indoctrinated that Preble was East’s arch rival, but I never knew why and didn’t care. And in the eyes of everyone else in town, East was considered the tough and scary school full of thugs and drug addicts and dead-end losers because we were situated on the edges of a rough part of town. At least in Green Bay terms. In Green Bay terms, we were The Blackboard Jungle. East even had an actual bona fide black student, which told pretty much everyone in town all they needed to know. East was considered a dumping ground for lost causes, and you wanted to stay as far away as possible—one of those little miscreants might pistol whip you and steal your pants.

            I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time. It was just the public school I attended as a result of the way the city had zoned things. I would only learn about East’s reputation after I left, so most of this comes from hindsight.

            Sure, East boasted a certain percentage of illiterate, dirty-faced little stoner ruffians, kids from poor and abusive households who took great pleasure in body checking me into the lockers. These were kids whose long-term dreams went no further than snagging a job at the paper mill and spending weekends getting stoned while blasting Pink Floyd. Some of those kids I got along with very well, others less so. But for the record, as bad as the school’s reputation was, there were no shootings, no stabbings, and in fact no serious injuries inflicted by one student upon another during my three years there. One kid got stabbed the year after I graduated, but it was never part of my experience.

            So yeah, East had tough dumb kids like any public school. But it also had an unusually high percentage of unusually smart kids, some of whom had come out of those same kinds of poor and abusive households. More shocking still, the school actually catered to the smart kids, something that’s almost completely unheard of nowadays.

            In this (as perceived) hopeless inner-city school, I was able to take Russian history, British literature, calculus, a college-level biology class, physics, advanced English and, two years before the first Mac was released, a computer science class. The school, this supposed dumping ground for losers, also had an orchestra, choir and jazz band, and extensive theater and art programs. For those students, maybe a third to a half of them, who weren’t even considering college, there were trade courses in masonry, carpentry, electricity and metalwork. In academic terms it was a damn fine school with some outstanding teachers, but outside of the school no one seemed to know this, or refused to believe it.

            But when the local university sponsored what they simply called “The Academic Competition” as an alternative to the attention and praise usually heaped on high school athletes, East signed on with math, science, English and social science teams. Every high school in town entered five-student teams made up of their best and brightest. I was on East’s English team. One Saturday in late spring we all gathered at the university to go head-to-head, answering questions and solving problems through a series of elimination rounds.

            When East’s teams shambled onto the campus on the appointed morning, slovenly and haggard and in a few cases hungover, the other teams snickered a little. Why were we even there, wasting everyone’s time? It was assumed those fancy lads and preppie chicks from Southwest would sweep it all. I mean, look at that fancy school of theirs! Which made it all the sweeter that first year when East kicked everyone’s ass. Then we did it the second year as well. I don’t know if it did anything to change the general perception, and maybe that was for the best. We knew we were good, and fuck the rest of them.

            Now in retrospect I think I know what gave us that edge.

            When I was at the University of Chicago, the football team was nicknamed The Maroons, which always confused me. At Madison, of course, it was the Badgers. And Green Bay East had The Red Devils.

            So as an expression of that foul school spirit, the hallways and cafeteria were decorated with floor-to-ceiling murals of . . . SATAN. Everywhere you went in that school, there was Satan staring down at you. And every year the art students added a new mural of Satan to the collection. Green Bay East’s official mascot was . . . SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! Even the costumed character who made appearances at pep rallies and football games—it resembled Captain Kangaroo’s Dancing Bear except it was red and furry and had horns—was known as The East Beast. You think those fags from the Catholic school had a chance in hell against Old Scratch? Fuck no! And the devil loves disguises, so better all around to let everyone think we were a bunch of losers.

            Still, if I were to be sent back recognizing all that I had come to understand in retrospect, there’s still no fucking way I’d stand and sway to that godawful insipid song.

 

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