It is that time of the year when a great mass migration occurs. Unlike monarch butterflies, swallows, caribou or spawning salmon, the participants in this trek are not driven by strong instinctual need.
In fact, the participants barely understand the purpose of it. As for being driven, well, they are driven out the door by their relieved parents.
I refer to the back-to-school movement that fills the nation’s roads with yellow buses and its streets with youngsters who are so dragging their behinds that some will suffer posterior gravel rash.
Everywhere, kids are asking: Why do we have to go back to school?
Because we say so, of course, and what a pleasure it is to say so. But, kids, I am here to explain the greater purpose of your scholastic servitude. My remarks are directed at high school students in particular because your younger brothers and sisters, being goofy, tend to be naturally happy.
This is what I know, youth of America: High school is Nature’s way of telling you that life can only get better.
As always, I speak with special authority. I went to a private all-boys high school with thugs and psychopaths — and some were the teachers. Although it was many years ago, the humiliations seem just like yesterday. I did not know it then, but I was being prepared well for a life in journalism.
So as you go back to your school, which perhaps has a pertinent quotation by Dante inscribed over the door — “All abandon hope, ye who enter here” — look about you. What do you see? Yes, kids of all shapes and sizes, most a riot of zits.
Certainly, cool kids are in your school. They have been sent to torment you at the very time in your life when you are most worried about your body image. Forget them!
Take heart from the story of the “Ugly Duckling.” As you may remember, the ugly duckling was shunned by everyone in his high school pond but one day he discovered that he had become … an ugly duck. But that was all right. He quacked in a deep voice and everybody thought he was impersonating the algebra teacher.
If he had been transformed into a beautiful swan, everybody would have considered it really weird, which is the one thing you don’t want to be in high school. (Weirdness is only acceptable when you grow up and enter Congress or the state legislature.)
So don’t worry about what you look like. The cute ones are unlikely to develop a pleasing personality. It won’t matter if you are an ugly duck if you have the personal magnetism that can sell ice cream in the middle of a blizzard. America will celebrate you in between bites. Members of the opposite sex will want to nest with you, and not just on the darkest nights.
Start now. Join some ridiculous student club and practice your charm. Or join a sports team and chat a lot on the bench. There are many ways you can make yourself a winner in a losing situation. That is the purpose of high school.
Of course, there is the little matter of academic achievement. You will observe that many of the classes seem to be very boring and bear no relation to real life. Apparently school officials know that one day you will have to sit in corporate meetings of indescribable tedium. Home schoolers may wilt under that pressure but, you, the properly seasoned high school graduate, will be able to impress your bosses with your feigned interest.
With luck, something else may happen. Just as your brain appears ready to throw a rope out your ear and slide down to freedom, a special teacher will come to you when you least expect it. He or she might make you understand that Dante wasn’t just some Italian dude in the olden days. This teacher will not help you with future corporate life but will change your life altogether.
The teacher who played this role in my life was Mr. Alsop, who taught English and history. Mr. Alsop was so respected by the boys that they didn’t give him a nickname like they did everyone else. He wasn’t Chrome Dome, Nude Nut, Moose, Hickey, Buster or Bouncer. He was Harry Alsop and he stirred the dormant Henry brain to action.
Yes, he may have a lot to answer for. But, remembering him, I say this to the returning students: All hope embrace, ye who enter there.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)