Boys & Books

Warning: Oddly, this is the first post I’ve written that I’m actually self-conscious about, and the first to come with apologies. What am I apologizing for?

Oh. Nevermind. Got it.


What I love about having an amazing, brilliant, driven, ass-kicking bunch of friends is that I can go, “So… Law School, what do you think?”

…And Jenn the Ph.D. social psych student goes, “Yea, I have a study book for that. Let me have my friend send it over.”

…Alec the I-just-finished-a-1500-page-novel- and-now-I’m-going-to-grad-school goes, “Thought about doing that. Read Scott Turow’s One L. It’ll give you an idea of what the hell you’re getting into.”

…Ph.D. Bill (ever cynical), “I used to oversee those on test-taking days. Most of the people who take them are idiots. You’ll do fine.”

…And Ph.D. candidate-at-Oxford Julian, “As long as you’re not doing it to be a scum-sucking lawyer, but pursuing it for academic reasons, I think you’d be really good at it. Really.”

…And MA-Stanford-just-accepted-kick-ass-writing-job-at-Bioware (Yea. Neverwinter Nights. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That gaming company) Patrick’s sister has taken the LSAT and he’s like, “Are you good at logic problems? No? Better work on that. “

I just love these people.

So I’m reading Turow’s One L. At this point, I’ve decided to take the LSATs in June as a definite. That’s all I actually have to decide for now. The rest can wait until after the results. From what I’ve heard, if I even want to get in anywhere OK, I need to score in the 90th percentile.

You can fail a fifth of the test and still get in the 90th percentile.

The plan is to spend Sunday mornings going over LSAT practice tests, and teaching myself logic problems; which, yes, I suck at.

Like this:

Buses 1, 2, and 3 make one trip each day, and they are the only ones that riders A, B, C, D, E, F, and G take to work.

Neither E nor G takes bus 1 on a day when B does.

G does not take bus 2 on a day when D does.

When A and F take the same bus, it is always bus 3.

C always takes bus 3.

Traveling together to work, B, C, and G could take which of the same buses on a given day?

(A) 1 only

(B) 2 only

(C) 3 only

(D) 2 and 3 only

(E) 1, 2, and 3

My buddies tell me the trick is scratch paper: make a diagram. Write it all out. I’ll be spending the next five months getting over my trepidation regarding questions like this one.

I tend to think I’m bad at testing, because what they’re testing is how you’ve been taught to think, and I need to teach myself to switch modes when I’m test taking, and – if I score well – when I’m in law school. Because I don’t want to become a scum-sucking lawyer.

This is a tool. I’m pursuing an education, another language, not making this my way of life. It’s a tool and a language created by old, white, rich men, and not knowing it or how it works when they’re using this tool to tell me and my friends what to do with our bodies, and how others use our bodies, pisses me off.

That’s the passion that’s driving me toward it.

I have no illusions: I know they’ll try and beat all the passion and fire out of me, and get me down to cold, logical fact, and I know I’ll have to portion out and box off the cold/rational side and box off the “me” side just to stay sane. But if I can get through this test, and the admissions process, and the first year of law school… then I’ll know another language, I’ll know that heavy-handed, coldly logical language that people use against me when I go off on my tirades, and I’ll be able to speak back to them in that language.

That’s the drive.

It’s funny, because thinking about testing got me to thinking about my lazy academic history.

I remember that it seemed to take me forever to learn how to read. I was incredibly impatient with it. I was always in the second-level reading group in the first grade, never the first, and it frustrated me. My mom says the reason I was so frustrated was because I was ready to learn how to read long before I was finally taught to.

My parents both worked, so our social time together was reserved for dinner and nightly movie watching, and though I have some fond memories of being read to, it didn’t happen often, due to the sheer logistics of getting everything else done to make the household run.

Though I do have some memory of my French grandmother reading to me, she’s always been really self-conscious of her accent (one of my biggest regrets is that my grandmother didn’t speak to us in French the entire time we were with her during the day – she was trying so hard to be a Good American, and was so intent on speaking English well that the only French I learned from her were the cuss words), so that didn’t happen often either.

Instead, I struggled over impossibly dense marks on the page in the first grade, fretting and fuming at my brain’s inability to make the groups of letters into sounds, and the sounds into words that made sense.

That was when Matt came into the picture. Matt was admitted at the beginning of the school year into kindergarten and then bumped up a grade a couple weeks later because he could already read.

When we had one of those “story-reading-times” in the first grade, it wasn’t the teacher reading to us – it was Matt, this little kindergarten kid who was reading us a fourth-grade level book.

Oh, you better bet I was drawn to him.

Matt and I became good friends in the 3rd grade, when we were both put into an “experimental” 2nd and 3rd grade “split” class. The idea was to put these really “smart” 2nd and 3rd graders into one class and have them work together to be better.

By then I was a 3rd grader, reading at a 7th or 8th grade level. The first thing my dad said when we went to the orientation about this “experimental” class was, “This sounds more like you’re putting really smart 2nd graders with 3rd graders who’ll teach them. How can they be at the same level? The 3rd graders will fall behind.”

The class only lasted that year, likely for above-mentioned parent complaints, which were reiterated by most of the other 3rd-graders parents.

But that’s when me and Matt got attached at the hip. I found the smartest person in the whole class and just sort of imprinted on him. He, and most of the other students in the class, were already taking “Gifted” classes, these “special” before-class classes that only brilliant kids who tested really well “got” to join. I was always very clear that these classes weren’t for me, likely because I felt that I’d had so much trouble learning to read (once I learned, there was no going back, but I can still feel the frustration about it, to this day).

After writing up yet another story about something-or-other in my spare time, for fun, and showing it to my teacher, my 3rd grade teacher recommended that I take the “Gifted” test.

I remember being flattered at the idea, but secretly not believing that I was that smart. After all, that would mean I was as smart as Matt, and that was, like, impossible.

So I went to this big middle-school cafeteria in the area with about a hundred or so other kids, and took the kid-version of these sorts of comprehension tests.

I remember that I had fun doing it, because it was sort of this, “I’m not as smart as those Gifted kids, who cares how I do? This is fun,” thing. I wasn’t really all that invested in it. As much as I wanted to be on par with Matt, there was this part of me that believed the dynamics of our friendship would suffer, as if me being as smart as him (or, fuck, smarter?), would mean he wouldn’t want to hang out with me anymore.

Funny, how early you pick up that idea.

When we got the test scores back, they looked really high to me. My parents went over them with my teacher. In the three areas, I scored 95th, 96th and 90th percentile (90th was in math).

My teacher, however, explained that, as the letter regretfully informed us, getting into “Gifted” classes meant you had to score in at least the 98th percentile in two categories and the 96th in the third.

I will never forget that piece of paper (though I’ve since thrown it away, thank god). I just sort of stared at it like, “Well, I’m a lot smarter than I thought I was, anyway. Just not brilliant.”

And there was some relief in that.

Back to hanging out with Matt.

We’d go into the library, and he’d just pull out books at random. I seriously think he’d read every book in the library.

“Have you read this? You should read this. Have you read this one? It’s about aliens on Mars. Have you read this? You have to read The Phantom Tollbooth. What about this one? Do you know the Redwall books?”

I couldn’t keep up with him. It was great.

As we got older, kids started making fun of me and Matt for hanging out together (“Are you guys going out? Why aren’t you going out?”) and he was a little, dorky guy, so the passive, effeminate “not a real boy” thing came up. By the fifth grade, he’d ditched me for playing kickball with the boys. I tried getting along with some female friends, but they turned their backs on me and made fun of me for reading too much… and then Aryan Adam started paying attention to me.

He was new my 4th grade year, and I was nuts about him the whole time. He actually noticed me in the 5th grade, when I was no longer hanging around with Matt. He liked reading my stories, he enjoyed my book recommendations, he was even willing to hang out with me and, like, talk to me. When I bumped into him years later, he described us as being “friends.” This was the guy who dated every girl in the fourth grade but me. The guy who announced he was “going out” with Angela the new girl.

“She just transferred here two weeks ago,” I said, “you don’t even know her!”

“Well, yea, that’s why I’m going to go out with her.”

So I spent a year being a beautiful boy’s intellectual whore.

There are worse sorts of whores to be, I suppose.

I switched schools between the fifth and sixth grade, and sixth grade was pretty much just the worst thing ever. Ever.

I started putting on puberty weight, discovered I needed glasses (too much reading), was advised that I had an overbite that needed to be corrected, and got hooked up with braces and headgear, and… entered a new school. The one I’d been to before was the one across the street from my grandmother’s house, slightly more diverse than the one in rural Battle Ground where I ended up once my parents deemed I was old enough to stay home on my own and look after my younger brother and sister.

All of the sudden, I was surrounded by Apostolic Lutherans (when the women who follow this religion turn 16, they get married and drop out of school because it’s God’s will that women bear as many children as possible – they have a big colony out in Battle Ground) and lots and lots of white trash boys who would later grow up to work pumping gas at the local Texaco.

Being smart was a liability.

I had a horrible misogynist of a teacher three years away from retirement who found the fact that all the boys in the class teased me to be really funny. I had chew and Tabasco sauce dumped in my hair, and had story notebooks and regular books stolen by these amazingly asshole boys who thought watching me run after them was really fucking funny, and the one time I stood up for myself and tripped a guy who was playing catch with one of my personal items (again, all of the male teachers ignored this “boys will be boys” behavior on the playground), I was summoned to the principal’s office and berated for my “lack of remorse” when confronted with the bruised knee of the asshole I tripped.

You better bet your ass I had a lack of fucking remorse.

I was disappointed there wasn’t any blood.

I launched into a really tearful, passionate, pissed-off response to the vice principle about the lack of supervision and discipline from asshole male teachers, to which she responded with an equal lack of remorse for my predicament. Over and over again, I was told that I shouldn’t have taken matters into my own hands. I should have told the teachers. But I did tell the teachers, I told them over and over and over — but I was the smart fat girl that everybody made fun of, and those male teachers had made fun of girls just like me when they were in middle school. They could give a fuck.

I got detention.

The first time I’d ever been in trouble at school in my whole life. I was terrified to tell my parents. But I had underestimated my parents:

They were very proud of me.

So I had my year of hell, the year when you’ve got a teacher who treats you like a fat idiot and couldn’t give a shit about encouraging you to do anything.

And then I got into the 7th grade, and started to meet my people.

Like all turning points in my life, it started with a boy and a book…..

In this instance, it was Ryan the beautiful ADD boy who was always nursing some injury he’d gotten in his karate class. I got assigned a seat next to him and spent the entire class trying not to look at him, he was so damn pretty. When I broke out my copy of Mariel of Redwall, it was all over.

His eyes lit up. “You like Brian Jacques? He’s great! I met him once!”

After that, Ryan never shut up, and we traded Redwall books back and forth. He drew up the map for the first fantasy novel I wrote. Through him and a bit on my own, I found Renny the redheaded wanna-be theatre-diva, too smart and cynical for her own good; Heidi the math wiz who planned on being an architect; Jon the wanna-be comic book artist; Shannon the Smart Christian; Nicole the Smart Mormon who could verbally dominant anybody; and the Other Ryan, the one who mostly seemed to hang out with us because he was hot on Heidi.

And we had a gang.

I started to take refuge in not being smart. That is, not trying to excel in class. I picked up lessons from Heidi, who was very careful not to talk too much about the fact that she was acing all of her classes without really studying. Like me, she was too tall and carried around too much weight to be fashionable.

So I learned to be quieter, to not be so obvious that I’d rather spend my recess reading. And I avoided the threesome of “dorky” guys who headed up the chess team and went to this school’s version of Gifted classes. Best to just shut up. I wasn’t really brilliant anyway, I figured, just drawn to really brilliant people.

As for high school, I didn’t really go to high school, to be honest.

And yes, I’m happy about that.

The first year of high school I discovered the drama department, and boys. I also discovered that classes were boring, everybody was an idiot, and none of it really interested me. So sophomore year I got a magic, undated “Pass” from my theater teacher that I’d present to all of my teachers. It said, basically, “Kameron is needed in the theater this period.”

Easy, easy out. I don’t remember much of my sophomore year, at least as far as the actual classes are concerned. I spent the whole year at the theater, bullshitting, working on sets, practicing lines.

At the end of Freshman year, I was playing “The Chancellor” in an adaptation of a Twilight Zone episode, and condemning a librarian to death for crimes against the State. The guy they brought in to play the librarian, Psycho, was somebody I’d heard about around school. In fact, I heard his name so much I assumed he was one of the popular kids. He tried out for the play on a lark, and I later learned he stuck with it because he saw me auditioning for The Chancellor and was totally hot on me and wanted to act opposite me.

He was a year ahead of me, turned out to be captain of the chess team, on the debate team, and involved with pretty much every single academic-minded club in the school. He was always bragging about IQ tests, and how stupid jocks were.

He was also an absolutely atrocious actor, could never remember his lines, and caused me extreme irritation. I’d walk off the stage and not give him another thought. I was full of my own promise. People told me I oozed theater talent. I was much lauded as the next theater diva.

In the mean time, this being high school, and theater, there were runarounds with boys. I got the expected offer from the resident male theater slut, whose “mission” it was to sleep with all of the incoming female freshman who were still virgins (seriously). Then there was EK, who I was pretty certain was actually gay, but who cornered me backstage one day to profess his undying interest and attraction to me, and though he was physically my type, he had absolutely no drive or passion for anything at all, and I found the idea of going out with him really boring.

Psycho, however, was slowly making inroads, offering to drive me home, asking if we could practice lines together, bragging about all of his accomplishments, enlightening me about the nature of the universe and the complexities of this, that, and the other thing. He had also just been adamantly rejected by a dishwater blond with the IQ of a sponge.

He would later marry a redhead with the IQ of a sponge. They are well-suited. Funny, it was just the sort of person he was looking for.

Anyhow, seeing how much time I was spending with Psycho, a good friend of mine, Jem, hauled me out behind the theater, burst into tears, and declared his undying love.

How, exactly, does one deal with this?

I actually admire him for doing it, now, ten years later, because it was a really brave thing. He was terrified that if he told me, we wouldn’t be friends anymore, but he was so crazy about me, he went for it. Well. We stayed friends. Unfortunately, he didn’t give me up, and several years ago he gave me a really, really sweet speech about how you’re supposed to marry your best friend, and I was his best friend, and blah blah. Sweet. But, again: he had no drive, no passion. Hanging out with him just didn’t fire me up to be better, to live. So we’re still friends. He has since married a woman who is a much better fit, and they’re doing very well.

Psycho, however, being a psycho, had lots to say about passion, and living, and Great Things and Great Deeds. Problem was (and because I was very, very young, I didn’t know any better) that I didn’t know how to differentiate the talkers from the doers. I was always very clear as to what I wanted in a partner, and I learned later that he’d clued into that from the start, and created a whole other person to woo me (yes, he admitted this). This is the guy who brought me to his house and opened up the book of Greek art and said, “Real women look like this. This is what you look like.”

Warning! Warning!

Unfortunately, by the time I realized how fucked up he was, I was too physically and emotionally invested.

By the time I realized that he had a deep and abiding hatred for the women in his family (his mother, his grandmother. Which explained why he needed to pretend I was a goddess and not a real woman, as he hated real women. Biggest lesson learned from this relationship: never, ever get involved with a guy who hates his mother), I didn’t have the strength to fix things.

I should have known better.

Anyhow, by the end of sophomore year, I had taken and passed a college-entrance test to the local community college, which would offer me both high school and college credit. So I ditched high school my junior year and spent it at the community college taking classes with one of the best bunch of history teachers I’ve ever met. They were amazing.

By January of my senior year, I had enough credits to graduate, and moved up to Bellingham with Pyscho. I applied to get into Western Washington University, and went to speak with a councilor there who told me, frankly, that no, I couldn’t get in because I was missing a math class. I’d taken the SATs without studying, without much thought of any kind, and randomly answered pretty much all of the math questions. I ended up with an 1130, which wasn’t great (to be honest, I was just amazed that I “passed”), but was enough to get into a local school, so I didn’t bother retaking it. I felt it was the right sort of score for me: intelligent, but not brilliant.

So I ended up at the local community college in Bellingham for a semester. Due to Life Bullshit, poverty, and stuff already discussed here, I returned back to Battle Ground, alone, after about 6 months, and then spent the next year recuperating, finishing up my Associate’s Degree at the community college, and applying to colleges in Alaska.


2.5 GPA to get in.

Ha. Ha.

No, I didn’t stress about college. I wasn’t there for the fancy degree. I wasn’t brilliant, after all.

And two days into the semester at U of Alaska in Fairbanks, a cutie down the hall walks into my room, looks at the books on my shelf and goes, “Dude, you read Robert Jordan?”

We were connected at the hip for a year. He was the anti-smart guy. He was a slow but eager reader (dyslexic); a motorcycle riding, beer drinking, marijuana smoking (biggest bone of contention between us), big-hearted guy who lusted after me knowing full well I wasn’t the marrying kind, and we had too little in common to base anything long-term on. Still, we had our brief affair, decided to be friends, and then spent hours on the indoor climbing wall at the rec. center. He taught me how to hotwire a car, taught me companionable silence, and taught me never to get involved with a guy who has a girlfriend, cause when she moves up to Alaska and finds out (a year later), that you had a brief affair with him, she’ll threaten to kill you, and you’ll never see any of them ever again.

Good life lesson.

Most of my other obsessions that first year in Alaska revolved around that circle, revolved around me pretending not to be smart, dressing down, drinking a lot of beer. Being too smart scared those Alaska boys, so I shut up a lot, and enjoyed hoping on motorcycles, and considered getting a leather jacket, and learned how to roll cigarettes. Working on a fishing boat sounded really fun.

All of this wackiness culminated just before the girlfriend’s death-threat, when I was drunkenly pawing after one of the boys’ circle, and he said, “You realize how much better you are than us, right? You’re so much better than us.”

And, as much affection as I have and had for them, and as much as I learned (I also spent a good deal of time with the girlfriend learning how to shoot a rifle – yea, she’s a better shot than me), I had to admit that it was true. They were my detour. They were my vacation. I could foolishly adore all of them, because I saw no long-term future with any of them. It was a moment.

I adore them still, for that moment.

Alaska grades were a 3.7 or 3.8 (there wasn’t much else to do in Alaska but schoolwork and beer drinking, punctuated by the occasional road trip and bike ride out to the pond). I didn’t graduate with any honors because my community college average was something like a 3.4 or a 3.2, and when they averaged grades from all the schools together, I came out with a 3.4999.

I really didn’t care. I was just amazed to graduate.

Then I went to Clarion.

I’d been rejected by this writer’s workshop when I was 18, and had no real hope that I’d get in this time, but I had a writing instructor in Alaska who encouraged me to apply, so I figured, what the hell, why not.

I was initially put on the “waiting list” for Clarion West… Which I thought was appropriate.

Smart, sure. Just not brilliant.

It fit my idea of myself.

Luckily, somebody else accepted to West decided to go to Clarion East, so I got into West.

Me. My writing. My brain. Whoever the hell I was, I got in there.

And then I met these fucking amazing people.

Everybody had some kind of graduate degree. Some guy had an MA from Stanford. Another just finished a BA at Yale. Everybody was in Ph.D. programs. One of them was a fucking doctor. We immediately began giving out book recommendations and talking about the authors who were going to be instructing us.

I felt like the biggest, stupidest rural hick ever to wander into Seattle.

I was standing in this room with these absolutely fucking amazing people, wearing my baggy cargo pants and dressing in layers like some kind of skater, telling people I was, uh, going to the University of Alaska. Uh. Yea. 2.5 GPA to get in. Ha. No. Didn’t apply anywhere else. Didn’t want to go anywhere else. When they all started comparing SAT scores in the 1430-1500 range, I quietly slunk out of the room.

But when they started talking, I could talk back. I could have intelligent discussions with them. Yea, I was out of practice cause I didn’t hang out with people like them, but you can’t change who you are. It doesn’t go away.

And when we started producing written work, I was keeping pace with them. This was the shit I knew. Writers? Yea. I do that. I know this. They had all of these amazing credentials, and I could keep up with them on the writing part. Sure, each of us was better at something than the others, and worse than some others, but we were well matched.

Julian (now at Oxford), in response to one of my week two stories, said “You just keep raising the bar, don’t you?”

I had never been in a room full of people who liked that I was smart. Who were secure enough in themselves and their own abilities not to care. I had never been in a room of people who were just as dorky as I was, but not in an in-your-face-captain-of-the-chess-club way. They were smart in a bookish way, in thoughts about stories, about people, about the way things worked. They were good at questions. At introspection. They were passionately engaged in an effort to know themselves, and, by extension, figure out everybody else around them.

Without any bullshit, I can tell you that was the biggest turning point for me. It was me, in week two, realizing I could hold my own with this incredible group of people. Amazing, amazing people. I’d spent my life learning that being smart got you tobacco spit in your hair and got boys to hate and menace you. I didn’t realize there were groups of smart people who’d actually accept me.

So when my grandfather suggested I go to grad school (and said he’d pay for it – I paid for undergrad with student loans) – I wrote to my Clarion buddies in New Zealand and South Africa and asked for advice (if I was going to continue with school, I’d do it overseas: a school’s location has always been more important to me than the school. There’s more to learn outside a classroom than in it). I wrote up a BA dissertation on student violence in South Africa, and decided that’d be where I’d go.

The best part about lobbing out that idea to this incredible group of people is that they didn’t laugh at me. They didn’t say, “You’re smart, but not brilliant. You can’t do that.”

They took it as a matter of course.

When I finally turned in my MA dissertation in South Africa, all I wanted to do was pass. I thought I was the worst student in the entire department. My buddy Julian, the department star, the Clarion buddy who would drag me into his room full of books in Durban and say, “Have you read this? Read this? You really must read this one. What do you think of this one?” read the diss. before I turned it in and said, “You do realize this is quite good, don’t you?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

When the MA came back, it came back with a “First.” Everything above a 75% is a First Class mark. Granted, I got the lower end of that: the 75%. But sweet god, the dissertation got a fucking First! (I would later discover that because I’d done a half coursework/half dissertation MA, the grades for my coursework and diss. were averaged in order to get my overall MA grade – which was only a 72%. Still. A First on my diss.!).

When Julian’s diss. came back, I learned… he’d gotten a 75% too.

Par for the course.

3 points behind my brilliant boy buddy.


However, though I ended up with a decent mark, the experience on the way to getting that mark pretty much clobbered me. I had a violent aversion to one of the Old White Male professors who pissed me off (hence the reason my coursework marks weren’t as high), I was in a very, very foreign country (South Africa is not England) with a tropical climate (I’d just come from Alaska), I was truly living by myself for the first time (in a cockroach-invested flat whose owners were corrupt and didn’t pay their water bill on several occasions and whose tenets were often involved in domestic violence disputes in which the police were called), and I was poor as all hell and lived mainly on Indian pastries, peri-peri and rice, and bacon and egg sandwiches. As said, dealing with all of this stress meant serious binge eating sessions the likes of which I have not seen since, vast consumption of alcohol (this was partly social. South Africans are big drinkers), and an affection for those Peter Styvesant 30-packs of cigarettes.

And now I’ve stumbled into Chicago, fell here with just the same “hell, why not” attitude with which I’ve decided to take the LSATs. Chicago felt right, though it made no logical sense, no logical sense in the same way that none of my decisions ever make logical sense. And I’ve got Jenn here, another one of the amazing-wonderful Clarionites, and there’s this job that went from “temp” to “fly around the country working on these million-dollar projects” and work colleagues telling me that I channel god when I put in minimum effort and spend most of my day blogging.

And I suspect I have a shitload of uptapped potential that I’m not doing a damn thing with.

And the question is: what am I going to do about it?

Go back to the Alaska boys? Kick off to Canada? Or go to law school? And I’ve been sitting around waiting for some new kick in the gut, some push for the next thing, and just like everything else, I found it. The intensity of feeling, the Big Location Switch. For Chicago, it appears, there was a Girl and Books… (“Have you read this? I can’t live without books! I love them! They are my friends!”). For the next one, I have no doubt they’ll be another bunch of brilliant people and their books, a bit like a guidepost: ah, yes, you, this is where you’re headed, let’s go together. It’s an incredibly bizarre life that makes no sense….

And yet, when you pack your whole life together, it shows you where you’re going.

Mine is about being better.

And surrounding myself with people on the same road.

You’ve just got to find your people.

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