The life before us

March 3, 2021, 9:33 p.m.

Middle school. A man named Mr. Ron comes to our class to give a talk about the dangers of drug use. He begins with a list of slang terms. If anyone offers us “angel dust” or “nose candy,” we are to say no. Hippies and layabouts have spent millions of dollars trying to convince society that marijuana (also known as ganja, kush, Mary Jane, pot, grass, reefer or chronic) is benign. Nothing could be further from the truth. He wasn’t much older than we are when he took his first “hit” (slang for an inhale from a marijuana cigarette, also known as a blunt or a joint or a stogie). Five years later, he was spiraling into despair and on the verge of failing out of school.

Kids ask questions. When might people offer us drugs? What’s the appropriate response to someone who tries to force us to get high? Mr. Ron speaks at length about conflict resolution. Gandhi and MLK had lots to say about nonviolence in the face of coercion. He pauses. Who would have thought that a trail of salt could bring the British Empire to its knees? We stare uncomprehendingly. Our teacher speaks up. They’re still learning about the American Revolution. The man turns to us. George Washington? Valley Forge? We nod. A boy who has been taking notes raises his hand to elaborate. We’re doing a month-long colonial simulation. Everyone was assigned to one of the thirteen original colonies, and each colony was given fixed resources based on its size. We have a list of priorities and we barter with other colonies. Pennsylvania is about to declare war on New Hampshire, but it looks like Maryland will intervene. New York is bankrupt and the King won’t bail them out. Our teacher clears his throat. The state of Pennsylvania sets the general history curriculum. Ancient world in sixth grade. American in seventh. Contemporary world in eighth. Gandhi shows up near the end.

Back to drugs we go. Mr. Ron projects a series of pictures onto the smartboard. Here are the nostrils of a lifelong cocaine (also known as coke, blow, snow, dust or toot) user. Here’s what happens to your teeth when you smoke meth (also known as speed, crank, chalk, Christina or pookie). A girl named Christina wants to know why people call meth Christina. This is an excellent question, Mr. Ron says, but he doesn’t have a response. People come up with all kinds of strange words for things. Isn’t it weird that we call sprinkles “jimmies”? Don’t we know that most people who aren’t from around here wouldn’t know what “jimmies” means? 

Mr. Ron isn’t interested in our response. (One day, we will learn about rhetorical questions and appreciate the noble tradition that connects Mr. Ron to Cicero.) He turns back to his slides. We still need to talk about the three Rs and do a roleplay. Does anyone feel confident in their ability to Recognize, Resist and Report dangerous substance use? A long silence ensues. Finally, the boy who explained the simulation raises his hand and offers to participate. 

The roleplay begins with the two pretending to eat lunch in the cafeteria. The boy holds an invisible tray in one hand and an invisible water bottle in the other. Mr. Ron doesn’t hold a tray. He’s playing the role of a kid who wants to go to a rave, which is a type of concert where everyone screams and takes drugs. Does the boy know where he (Mr. Ron) might get some MDMA (also known as molly, ecstasy, X or E-bomb)? The boy shrugs. He doesn’t, but maybe Mr. Ron can ask another kid. The roleplay ends.

Mr. Ron thanks the boy for his participation and turns to the class. Do we think that was the right way to handle the situation? Did we see the three R’s in action? (These, incidentally, are also rhetorical questions.) He clicks to a slide that says “RECOGNIZE.” The first step whenever we find ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation is to recognize that we’re in a potentially dangerous situation.  Once we’ve recognized this, we can begin strategizing how to effectively resist the threat…

Somewhere between “Resist” and “Report,” we stop paying attention. What could Mr. Ron possibly know about life? Little to nothing, we suspect. Today is Thursday, which means that tonight the Saint Kevin Parish hosts its weekly dance. Right off I-476 and sandwiched between a retirement community and a hospital, there’s a small gymnasium attached to a church. At 6 p.m., kids from all over the Main Line congregate in the church parking lot and wait for chaperones to open the gym doors. Parents try futilely to drape coats over our shoulders before we plunge into the night. We shrug them off and escape. They couldn’t stop us if they tried. 

At St. Kev’s, there’s an unofficial but universally respected uniform. Boys wear t-shirts and basketball shorts. Girls wear v-cuts and short shorts. In line we triple knot the laces of our Converse and take selfies to check our appearances. We chomp gum and talk about the news of the day. Has anyone seen the trailer for “Project X” or “Ted”? The coolest among us shrug. They’ve already worked up the courage to sneak into several R-rated movies. It isn’t so hard to do if you know the guy at the ticket counter. Or if you have high school friends with fake IDs. We nod and feign understanding. Secretly, the idea of a fake ID thrills us. R-rated movies, high school friends, fake IDs: All of this belongs to the coveted pantheon of Adulthood. 

Ten minutes into the dance, the gym smells so strongly of Axe body spray and sweat that many chaperones pull scarves over their noses. We don’t notice a thing. For the next two hours, an amateur DJ from Springfield High will play the clean versions of every song on the Billboard Top 50. Most kids spend the night gyrating (or dirty dancing, grinding or freaking) against a rotating group of partners. Other kids huddle near the edges of the dance floor with a group of friends. They sip soda and talk about their impossible crushes. Some don’t dance at all, but instead slink around the bleachers in pairs. They’ve come to St. Kev’s just to get “depruded,” which in Philly tween slang means to have their first kiss. 

But few can resist the music forever. The crescendo that heralds a well-known chorus sends us into a frenzy. We grab our friends by the sleeves and pull them onto the floor. We fall into hysterical laughter. The music makes us heroic and generous. We chant lyrics and profess our love. We become best friends with perfect strangers. The beat drops and a shiver of bliss runs up our spines. Here, life gets distilled into the thing-in-itself — sound, warmth and breath. 

 No one grasps the irony in the fact that a Catholic parish hosts these dances. We won’t understand that until years later. We won’t understand lots of things until years later. Then, we’ll catch a whiff of Axe body spray and remember Mr. Ron and the American Revolution and resisting drugs and waiting for the bell. We’ll hear an old song on the radio and think of wearing short-shorts in the freezing cold. We’ll figure out that “deprude” is a clumsy imitation of “deflower” and marvel over the weird sexual norms that shaped our worlds. We’ll remember all the triumphs and agonies that come with being caught between childhood and adolescence. (Was there really a time when we spent two hours getting ready for a dance in a gym?) 

For an instant, we’ll give ourselves over to nostalgia. Life used to be simple. We wanted only to fit in. The world revolved around brief jolts of euphoria: hearing the bell ring, passing a test, having a first kiss or dancing with friends. Then we’ll come to our senses. That life has ended. And thank God it’s over.

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