Because his phone died at the restaurant, and because he was bored and used my phone to text his friends, a message for my son appeared on my phone as I watched television last night: “Do u want 2 skip pep rally with me and Mark tomorrow?”
I resisted the urge to respond as my son: “No, dude, my mom would kill me and btw THIS IS HIS MOM.” Instead, I handed him the phone with what I hoped was a look both threatening and imperious. “The answer,” I said, “is ‘no.’”
He explained to me that classes today are all shortened so that the rally can be held at the end of the day, on the football field. It wouldn’t really skippingschool, per se, because all of his real classes would be over. It would just be skipping a pep rally.
At that moment, after years of striding comfortably across the moral high ground of parenting, I slipped, rolled downhill, and came to rest in a deep and muddy crater. I had not tried drugs or alcohol in high school, my friends had been above reproach and I had never been sent to see the principal. On the issue of skipping class in general, however, and skipping pep rallies in particular, I was far from a shining exemplar. I finally faced the choice familiar to every parent – to tell my story and instruct him to “do as I say not as I do,” or to skip the story and move briskly to “just say no.”
In high school, I had no rolling papers, never smoked in the parking lot, and was generally regarded as a pointy-headed goody two shoes. I did, however, skip class as often as I possibly could. It was a nearly erotic thrill, the kind of “I got away with something” associated with shoplifting (which I also avoided). In my freshman year in the midst of the free-wheeling 70s, we were allowed 10 unexcused absences in each class, and I had nine dashes on the back of each notebook to keep track of my nine breaks for freedom. I never skipped orchestra or English, but I escaped regularly from Algebra I, CP Science, World Geography and French II. The school was more than five miles from my house, so I went to the library and read, or found an older classmate willing to take me to MacDonald’s or to someone’s nearby and parentless house. This may explain why I did so badly in Algebra I, and why I could not name the seven continents when I graduated.
After that first year, the Unexcused Absence Policy constricted considerably as the Free Love Principal was replaced by a woman who had clearly run a boot camp for nuns in a previous life. We still had three unexcused absences in each class, though, and by the time I was a junior and drove the family station wagon to school I was gone as often as possible. I skipped when I had someplace better to go, or when I wanted to practice my cello a little extra for a lesson or an upcoming performance, but most of all I skipped pep rallies. In four years of high school I attended only one pep rally.
I am chronically devoid of pep. The rallies, with their pom-poms, unison cheering and high level of focus on some sport or other made me feel tense and out of place. I feel that way now at restaurants where the waiters lead a conga line around the tables while one’s stir-fry is prepared on a communal grill. I could never be a contestant on “Let’s Make A Deal” because my naturally laconic nature and inability to squeal girlishly and jump up and down would make me a tremendous disappointment. I was fundamentally incapable of chanting “A big V/We want/A vic-to-ry!” while stomping and forming a great “V” with my upraised arms. I didn’t give a rat’s ass whether the team won or lost, I wished death by cyanide poisoning on every member of the cheer squad, and I felt rather as if a spotlight was trained on me to illuminate any possible moment of pathetic and embarrassing “spirit.” The student body was not forced to climb onto bleachers to cheer on the orchestra, or the people who got into Ivy League schools, and it made no sense to me that we were forced to celebrate some brutal, non-academic activity practiced by boys with no necks. I hid, I fled, I skipped. It felt righteous.
So the matter of setting a good example for my son is a complicated thing, a juggling act of memories and morality. About skipping in general, I feel comfortable explaining that it is a thing like Honey Buns from the gas station, a sweet treat to be enjoyed infrequently and considered as part of one’s overall Life Experience diet. If the homework is getting done, the grades are good, and the radar is higher than the flyer, it’s probably okay from time to time. What I told him, in the end, was that I actually regretted skipping classes in which I was struggling. I genuinely needed the instructional time that I was missing, and it is deservedly uncomfortable to be in the position of asking for help from a teacher who knows that you are taking up her time after class because you spent a third of the semester reading P.G. Wodehouse in the library. I asked that he avoid skipping until he was on solid ground as a high school student, and told him that there would be Consequences if we found out that he was not where he was supposed to be between 8:00 and 3:00.
I still see no reason that high school students should be compelled to engage in mass endorsement of the celebrity cult of student athleticism when so little attention is given to students who excel in other areas (“A big V/We want/A stunning Post-Modern painting in acrylics for your portfolio!”). I told him that it was probably not a big deal to slip away during the pep rally if it looked like the “done” thing that didn’t lead directly to the Dean of Discipline. I did not share with him my patented Be There When They Take Attendance, Go to the Bathroom and Never Return plan. I am, after all, trying to be a good parent.