When, each year, February and March roll around, my mind turns to the final year of high school, and a rite of passage unique to the sadistic bent of my particular town. Take my hand and come with me – if you dare – to one deceptively innocent afternoon, several months before graduation ceremonies, when I, along with the entire final- year students, am bustled into the cafeteria. Tables and chairs have been pushed to each side, creating an aisle up the middle. At the top are two dreary teachers, one of each gender, gripping flesh- coloured plastic bowls. The principal, Mr Poly, officiates. I watch him from the crowd, his weak chin and mean little eyes. My friend Paula and I scan the crowd.
The ordeal that I have been obsessing about and dreading for months is here. I am right in it, petrified, and nauseous. The kids in my immediate vicinity look pretty grim, set jaws, worried stares. Paula is just fine, blonde hair in one long braid down her back to keep it out of the way when she runs her track and field meet thingees. What’s she got to worry about? Fricken jock.
Poly is droning and intoning about tradition and ritual, how one year, many moons ago now, the school board hit upon a completely one hundred percent altruistic solution to the annual contingent of poor sad geeks and freaks who were not asked to The Prom. Why it’s so breathtakingly simple! Split up the names of all the boys and girls, put them in two flesh coloured plastic bowls, and have a tubby, pompous little man pull a name from each! Ta da! Then EVERYONE can go to the danceypoo! Not just the shiny popular set! I look over at them, shining away, lolling against each other, calm and self-assured, as usual. But wait. What’s this? Suzette is gnawing on her full lower lip. Suzette of the icy blue stare. Suzette of the biting insults. Suzette of the worldly ways – is looking a tad freaked. Good. I relax slightly. Paula jabs me in the ribs with her elbow, and drawls in a horserace blow by blow voice ‘Aaaand they’re off.’ My chest tightens. Poly has stopped speaking and is ceremoniously holding his pudgy paw over the bowl filled with all the girls names. Oh God. Oh Jesus. His hand reaches in and grips a paper scrap. We’ve switched now to slo-mo. I am riveted.
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We have gathered here today to be unceremoniously judged by our peers. How will the graduating class react to each name? More importantly, how will they respond when my name is called? Will there be jeering, or worse, an ominous silence, a preface to snorts of derision and muttered threats? And what of the poor sap destined to be my date? When this twat of a principal calls his name, will the image of the two of us together be so ludicrous, so absolutely preposterous that the entire room cracks up in mean-spirited giggles? I have spent months going over every conceivable outcome. I hold my breath. The whole room holds their breath.
She’s a friend of mine, and her affable, slightly dim rich-kid cool illicit a fair round of applause. She pushes past me grinning and stands at the bottom of the aisle. Poly scrabbles around in the boy bowl.
Ok, that’s not so bad. He’s nice enough, sits beside me in Earth Science. Polite applause. He tentatively grips Jacquie’s hand and they walk quickly down the aisle to Poly, who smiles coldly. The bastards have insisted we bow and curtsy, and dutifully they do so, separating quickly and going back to their places in the crowd.
Oh no. This could be bad. Shauna is lumbering, scowling and East Indian.
A collective gasp from the throng. He detaches himself from the shiny set, who are laughing and jostling him, saunters up to Shauna, mutters “You gotta be kidding me” and walks up the aisle ahead of her, despite the stern reminders we’ve had drummed into us for months to walk up hand in hand. Titters from the shineys. Shauna’s scowl deepens but she looks like she’s about to cry. She shuffles up to the podium, where Mackenzie stands and smirks. Awkward curtsey and they’re done.
This is brutal. We have to stand here and bear witness to this blood-letting, this torment, until every goddamn student has been paired off. This year there are more girls than guys in the graduating class, so half a dozen boys from the year before have graciously agreed to shepherd a gal to the dance. They stand together against the wall, indifferent to the outcome. How I envy their nonchalance! Their serenity! These guys aren’t so bad, actually. I know them all and they aren’t dinks. If I get one of these guys that would be ok. Just no-one short. Please, Lord. No-one short and no-one shiny. If I get Darcy Philips, an appalling hybrid of both, I’ll bend over and disgorge my innards right here in front of them all.
Our eyes lock and for the first time ever, I see traces of fear in her pale blue depths. Vicariously terrified, I can do nothing but gawk stupidly at her. The applause-o-meter is pretty high. She is short and well-liked. What the Hell does she have to worry about?
Whoa! Lucky break. He and Paula are friends. He joins her, they laugh weakly, and sail down the aisle arm in arm. Paula is back beside me, her face triumphant and flushed. I wish her dead. Poly keeps fishing into those goddamn bowls, made, doubtless, from human flesh, and saying names in nasal tones. I am in and out of my body. The names and faces blur. I wait now for one thing only. My name. The death knell, the vile culmination of these horrid highschool years. Oh God. Hurry up! Let it be over. Oh god oh god oh god.
Applause and even a few scattered woohoos. I am stunned. I take my place, smiling foolishly and damned if I don’t bloody wave to the crowd.
Well I’ll be damned. It’s one of the guys from last year. He’s tall, friendly and good looking. He takes my hand firmly and I sleepwalk-it to the podium, bestowing a beatific grin on that idiot Poly. It’s over. It’s over and it’s ok. It’s ok. Everything will be all right. I am back beside beaming Paula, who pinches me and whispers “Good score, Sam. He drives a Nova.”
Samantha Bennett is a writer currently living in Montreal. She can be reached email@example.com where she cheerfully encourages comments and lively debate.
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