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 While conducting an exhausting, maddening and ultimately futile search for a misplaced and beloved photo album the other day, I came across a box full of old videotapes. (It has been a long time since I’ve had a stable place to live, and I feel like I’m constantly unpacking.) Because I haven’t had a television and VCR for many months now, I’d almost forgotten I had the tapes.

The selection was fairly standard-issue. The Star Wars trilogy, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Hoop Dreams, a letterboxed version of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Mark McGwire’s 62nd-homer game, that sort of thing. Then I saw it. The little sticker thing on the front of the tape - is there a name for such contraptions? I humbly submit sticker thing for the linguistic court’s approval - was faded and falling off, and appeared to carrying a stain I can only hope is butter, but I could still read it.

89 Enrichment Plays. Good Lord.

When I was in the eighth grade, there was this special class for the “gifted” students called Enrichment. (Side note: Parents of the world, if there’s one piece of advice I can give you in this crazy world of child-rearing, it’s this: If your kid does well on stupid standardized tests when he/she is very young, if the teachers call him/her “gifted,” if they want to put him/her in special classes and accelerated learning programs ... don’t you dare let them do it. The last thing a 13-year-old wants is to be considered different. But that, friends, is a longer, more depraved story.) There were only 15 kids in the class, and they were my entire world.

We had this dingbat teacher named Mrs. Swartzbaugh who was renowned for losing her glasses on top of her head, forgetting to show up for class and giving writing assignments that lent themselves beautifully to pubescent sex-obsessed comedy larks (my friend Andy’s haiku about masturbation, delivered to the class while Mrs. Swartzbaugh chased him around the room, begging him to stop, was a particular standout). My favorite Mrs. Swartzbaugh story: She wore this necklace that was the shape of a bottle opener. She was telling the class once that it was a family artifact, passed down from ancestors in Greece. Ever the smart-ass, I cracked to the class that she was lying, that it was just a can opener. She paused, looked down and said, with a tone of exhausted resignation, “Well, actually, yes, it is a can opener.” She then left the room, forlorn, where we sat in stunned silence. She was a damned loon, and we loved her.

In retrospect, I remember the class being awfully touchy-feely for Mattoon. We were always working on projects that would “stimulate our creativity,” which basically meant they were open-ended and free. We were supposed to express ourselves, nurture our “gifted” minds (I once wrote a six-page short story called “Wet Dream,” which was about, well, you can probably figure out what it was about). But we were in the eighth grade. The only thing we wanted to nurture was Andrea Lockhart’s boobs. Mrs. Swartzbaugh, to her eternal credit, never stopped trying to enrich us.

The entire school year built up to one major endeavor. Every May, the Enrichment class put together three plays to be performed to the entire school. Everyone in class had to team up with partners and write one, and then an independent panel of teachers would vote on the best ones. We looked forward to it all year. After a year of being the nerdy smart kids who couldn’t get girls, we would have a chance to show our stuff to the whole junior high, which to us was, of course, the entire planet. Everyone wanted their play to be picked.

There were four major contenders. Two were lame fairy-tale knockoffs, one based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the other on The Wizard of Oz. The third was a funny, typically raunchy mock talk show, written by two classmates who now both happen to be screenwriters in Los Angeles (the panel, sadly, didn’t pick this one, because the teachers thought it was too ribald, which pissed us off, since we had no idea what ribald meant). And then there was mine.

It was called Rough Day. The plot is pretty complicated, so stick with me here. There’s this kid, named Dan Andrews, played by me, obviously, who had a perfect weekend. His baseball team won the sectional final. He earned an A on a paper in his Enrichment class. And, most important, he went with Jenny Johnson to the school dance, kissed her at the end of the night and is now “going out with her.” The play opens Monday morning, when Dan wakes up and speaks directly to the audience - the entire play is performed, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show-style, with the main character commenting to the crowd on all the action - about how wonderful the weekend was and how the first day back at school can only be better.

His life then quickly falls apart. He breaks a family heirloom lamp while trying to shut his alarm off. His parents humiliate him at dinner, then ground him until he’s 35. He misses the bus to school, then gets detention for coming into class late (true to form, there was a Mrs. Schwartzbaugh-like character who keeps forgetting the names of her students). His locker, messy and packed with too many books and baseball magazines, is jammed, and a peculiar janitor won’t help him, causing him to be late for another class and his mother to be called by the principal. He receives a zero on a class assignment for writing the word “schucks,” which one teacher interprets as a profanity. He is falsely accused of writing “Mr. Barreto Is Gay” on the bathroom wall and is forced to run 50 laps around the football field. Jenny Johnson is told by rival Shane Palmer that Dan has been cheating on her, so she slaps him and breaks up with him. Shane enters, punches Dan and carries Jenny away on his shoulders. Shane later pours milk over Dan’s head in the lunchroom, and Dan receives another detention for it. On the way home, Dan misses the bus again and is grounded until he’s 45 by his angry father. Dan collapses on the floor, and every character in the play looms over him, screaming at him, until he wakes up and realizes it was all a dream. He then actually breaks his lamp when the alarm goes off. Fin.

This was, of course, based on a true story, a point I made sure to emphasize at the beginning of the performance, after the play was chosen by the teachers and the roles were cast. The entire school was there, as were my parents and family friends.

And of course, they all got mad at me.

My parents were mad because I’d publicly humiliated them in front of half the town (Donnie Shepard did a particularly cruel impersonation of my father, wearing a Cardinals jacket and screaming at me to mow the lawn, clean the garage, straighten up my sister’s room and put a new roof on the house). Emily Swearingen was mad because I’d emphasized that Jenny Johnson was in my third, fourth, fifth and sixth period classes, just like Emily was, and that Jenny Johnson had jilted me after a dance, just like Emily had). And Mrs. Swartzbaugh was mad because I hadn’t told her I would be inserting a line about her loony daughter, an addition made right before the show started. But it didn’t matter to me in the slightest. I wanted the world to know my pain, be able to laugh along with me, make chicken salad out of chicken shit. I was using that public forum, casting classmates as my family and friends, bit players in the Will Leitch life story, to try to make people listen to me. For attention, of course.

Watching this the other day, right before I sat down to write the 80th of these endless columns, it became clear how much I’ve changed over the years. For example, um ... I’m taller now.



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