PART ONE – PLYMOUTH HIGH SCHOOL
In the spring of 1988, when I was a junior in high school, I found out I had been nominated by my AG history teacher, Mr. Morgan, to attend Governor’s School West for the summer. AG stands for “academically gifted” and somewhere back in the 4th grade about 15 of us schoolkids had been designated as super smart and we’d had the same classes together pretty much ever since.
The rest of the poor bastards at school were deemed “average” or “remedial” and since they were obviously never going to college, the teachers let them do fun things like take naps during class or color with big giant fat crayons. I should note that this was in high school. Meanwhile, the AG kids had to take endless quizzes about Shakespeare and the history of how happy the slaves were in the South.
One day, during history class, when we were supposed to be reading quietly about George Washington but I was drawing the Van Halen logo on my blue cloth 3-ring notebook, Mr. Morgan came up to my desk and in his very Southern accent said, “Angela, my dear, I need to talk to you about something after class.” He looked at me very seriously. Though, with his carefully coiffed bouffant dyed black hair, tightly trimmed thick mustache, and effeminate lisp, it was hard to take Mr. Morgan seriously. “It’s VERY important,” he said, raising his eyebrows and tapping his college class ring on my desk. My best friend Laura had once told me that grown men who wear college class rings after they’ve graduated from college are gay. I wondered if Mr. Morgan was gay and what gay men got up to when they took their clothes off together.
“Angela,” he said. “I mean it. This is serious.”
“Oh shit,” I thought. Had someone told him about me smoking weed up in the light booth with Wayne Phelps in the drama room? (Note: the drama classroom also served as the actual theatre where plays were performed. As you can see, our school administrators placed tremendous value on the dramatic arts.) Had he heard about me smoking cigarettes in the girls’ bathroom? Or maybe he heard about me copying April Trueblood’s answers to the algebra test we’d taken yesterday. No, wait, he wouldn’t care about algebra. He was a history teacher. Whatever Mr. Morgan wanted, I was sure it couldn’t be good because I had done too many bad things all year long. My days of weed, and cigarettes, and swilling Boone’s Farm in my boyfriend’s Camaro during lunchtime were numbered.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the bell rang and everyone packed up their books and left class. Mr. Morgan came and sat at the desk next to mine. “Angela, I want to talk to you about something. I’ve nominated you to attend Governor’s School at Salem College in Winston-Salem this summer.”
“What’s that?” I asked incredulously. I wondered if this was some kind of reform school for the intellectually gifted. I wasn’t far off the mark. Mr. Morgan had plans for me.
“It’s a school for the best and brightest. You’ll be attending with other rising seniors from schools from all over the state. You’ll study art, music, literature, dance. And the teachers are top notch. Plus, going to Governor’s School makes you a shoo-in for college.”
I furrowed my brow. I already had summer plans: slather myself in baby oil and bake to a dark brown in the front yard of my house and also to have lots of awkward sex with my boyfriend every day until he went off to college at NC State in the fall. “Why me? There are lots of other AG kids who are doing better than me in school.”
Mr. Morgan nodded. “Lord knows, that’s true. But I happen to think you have more promise than any of them. We just have to get you away from this little town and away from that bad-news boyfriend of yours. He smokes pot, you know. And I’ve seen him flirting with a lot of girls since you two have been dating.”
I felt sick. “Flirting with WHO? WHO?” I was going to knock some bitches up beside the head with a can of AquaNet that night at the softball game. I just needed some names.
“Don’t worry about that, Angela. Let’s just agree right now that you’ll go. Promise me. It won’t cost you anything. Be sure to tell your parents that.”
“But I was going to make some money waiting tables at Mamma’s Pizza this summer,” I said plaintively. “Last summer Mr. Chalmer’s gave me a $50 tip and all he got was sub sandwich.”
“Trust me,” said Mr. Morgan getting very red faced, “Mr. Chalmer’s does NOT like girls.” To this day, I wish I’d followed up on that particular reference by Mr. Morgan. I wonder if they dated and it ended badly.
“Promise me, Angela, you’ll do this. You need to get away from the drama club miscreants and think about your future outside of this town.”
“Okay. Okay,” I nodded. “I’ll do it. Could be fun.”
And boy howdy, was it ever.
PART TWO – SALEM COLLEGE
Early in the summer, I arrived on campus at Salem College having never been out of eastern North Carolina except for that one time when I was in 8th grade and my mom and her girlfriends took me on a road trip to Raleigh to shop at Crabtree Valley Mall. On that particular trip, I got some neon green legwarmers and a portable butane-powered curling iron and we even ate at a Mexican restaurant called Chi-Chi’s. After four margaritas, my mom exclaimed, “You know, chi-chi’s is the Mexican word for titties!” Her girlfriends giggled. I was mortified and asked for more nacho cheese dip. I’d never been to a Mexican restaurant before. Whatever those beef fajitas had to do with titties, it was damn sure good. I couldn’t wait to get home and tease up my hair with my new curling iron.
But I digress. So I arrive on campus in Winston-Salem. After all the flurry and hubbub of my parents and brother moving in my suitcases and make-up cases and saying goodbye and after all the crying by my mom, they left and I sat there alone looking around the dorm room feeling very sad and uncomfortable and lonely.
My roommate, Heather, hadn’t arrived yet. I had received a letter from her in the mail one month before. The information packet we received from Governor’s School told us the name of the person we would be sharing a room with for five weeks and that person’s address in case we wanted to get to know one another beforehand. Heather had written me evidently the very day she received my address because I received a letter about four days after we’d all gotten our packets. The letter was written in a very large, curly-q cursive script that slanted oddly to the left. It read:
“Hi Angela!!!! We’re going to be roomies soon. It will be totally like college!!! It’s going to be totally rad, don’t you think. I am from the big city of Charlotte! I have a boyfriend named Jeremy and I am going to super big-time miss him (we haven’t gone all the way! We are waiting until we get married after college. I’m going to be a doctor and he wants to be a lawyer. I want to have three children, hopefully all girls. In my free time I sing at church and volunteer at the hospital, which can be kind of gross sometimes but it will look good on my college applications. I plan to go to UNC-Charlotte or Harvard. I like all kinds of Christian music like Amy Grant. I hope you like music because I am bringing all of my Amy Grant tapes with me and a boom box. We’re going to have SO MUCH fun!!! I can’t wait. TTYL (that means Talk To Ya’ Later in case you don’t know!!!). Bye – Heather”
I reread the letter. I looked through my cassette collection: Dokken, KISS, Blondie, Def Leppard, Rush, Winger, Cinderella, AC/DC, Michael Jackson, Tears for Fears. Fuck. I hate Amy Grant, thought I.
Back to Governor’s School. So there I sat on my very narrow bed waiting for my new best friend Heather to arrive. I must’ve fallen asleep waiting because the next thing I know, I feel a gentle pull on my hand and hear a girl squealing, “Angela, get up! I’m here. I want you to meet my boyfriend.”
That’s right, Heather was so mature and worldly that her parents had allowed her boyfriend to drive her up. My parents had barred my boyfriend, Tommy, from coming anywhere near the College. He and I had a tearful goodbye the night before (well, I cried and he mostly just tried to feel my boobs. “God, I’m going to miss these!” he moaned) and he vowed to sneak up every weekend and get us a hotel room. I didn’t know at the time these hotel sex fests were to be funded by his selling of weed and crack. Yes, that’s right. The entire time I was dating this fella, he was a crack head. I thought he just looked sleepy and mysterious, like Daryl on The Walking Dead. Little did I know, he was just high and tired and run down all the time. Still, his was the first penis I had ever seen and I didn’t question much beyond that.
So, I met Heather’s boyfriend who looked to be old to me. Like, maybe 21 or something. I remember he had a ponytail and wore cowboy boots and looked very stern. He shook my hand. “How do you do? I’m Jeremy,” he said in a voice way too serious. “I want you to keep an eye on Heather this summer. Keep the boys away.”
I looked at Heather and thought, that won’t be hard. She was no looker. She resembled a run-down, overweight Molly Ringwald but with a perm. The two of them sat on the bed and hugged and whispered and cried. I thought it was very unbecoming of a man to cry. I wrinkled my nose in disgust and excused myself to the bathroom in the hallway.
Over the next few days, I was introduced to some seriously smart kids. Looking back, I didn’t realize how smart. They had been exposed to EVERYTHING already. Some kids sat around in the dorm lounge and traded stories about trips to France, Germany, England, New York, and Tuscon, Arizona. They pontificated on the composer John Cage and the book Fahrenheit 451. Some played the flute and cello and some knew the choreography of Martha Graham. Me, well, I knew all the lyrics to “Animal: Fuck Like a Beast” by the hair metal group W.A.S.P. I also was one of the few girls I knew who could successfully use hot rollers and who had read Lord of the Rings 30 times.
Heather and I fought endlessly over what music we were going to listen to in our room at night while we did homework. I was already pissed that I had homework. It was the fucking summer, for Christ’s sake. I kept putting in my heavy metal tapes and she kept putting in her Amy Grant tapes. It was war. I hated that straight-laced fat-faced Christian with the old man boyfriend. His ponytail was S-T-U-P-I-D. If a dude had long hair, surely he should tease it up and dye it blonde and have bangs.
To make matters worse, I really missed my boyfriend, who I just knew was probably wearing the purple jogging pants and sweatshirt that I gave him for Christmas and flirting with other girls. I was miserable. He hadn’t come to visit like he’d promised and three weeks had gone by. And only two or three phone calls. I didn’t know at the time that being a crack-head takes up a lot of your free time and spare cash.
One day, I received a call on the pay phone in the dorm lounge. It was Tommy! He announced that he would indeed be coming up on a Friday afternoon. He was skipping school and planned to get us a hotel room. He was bringing Bartles and James wine coolers and we were going to party all weekend. I found out later that he’d gotten the money for this trip by selling some of his mother’s gold necklaces and the family VCR. But, hey, anything for the woman he loved!
I lied to the RA on my floor and told her that Tommy was my cousin and he was picking me up to go and stay with family in Greensboro for the weekend. I’m not sure how I got away with getting off campus but I remember realizing even back then it was easy to fool anyone if you just said your piece with confidence and an unflinching eye.
We leave campus and after about a 10-minute drive, Tommy pulls up to the “King’s Arms Motel” and says, “Come on, babe. Let’s get in the room. I’m ready for some sweet poon-tang.” Tommy was nothing if not a romantic. Later, five minutes later to be exact, after we’d made sweet love and lounged naked on the stained, thread-bare polyester comforter, he lit up a cigarette and exclaimed his love for me. “I miss you so much,” he said. “Let’s get married before I go to college. I leave in a few weeks and I don’t want you having sex with anybody else.”
His reasoning seemed to make sense. Getting married so that I don’t screw someone else while he was away seemed a true vow of love. He told me about the cover band he’d started since I left that summer. “We do Slayer songs and King Diamond songs,” he announced proudly. “I’m the lead singer. Though, I could be the lead guitarist too. David sucks at it but he’s the only one of us who has a guitar.” And then he serenaded me with his best heavy metal high-pitched falsetto voice: “Missy, I miss you so little sister!”
I immediately said yes to the marriage proposal. We made love again, this time for 20 whole minutes.
Needless to say, Tommy and I never did get married. Because something changed in me during Governor’s School. Despite my best efforts to ignore the annoying nice people around me, I was exposed to authors, music, and film in ways that took some of the vague longings I’d been pushing back for years and concretized them into something real and urgent. The things I learned made the future very clear – I wanted knowledge. I wanted to explore the world. I wanted college. I wanted to be, above all else, a writer.
I don’t know whatever happened to Tommy. Someone told me that he’d briefly dropped out of college because he smoked too much weed and spent all of his money and time on it. I also heard he eventually got his act together and went on to get his MBA, which makes sense because he’d run a pretty lucrative crack business when we were in high school and managed to keep it very secret from his girlfriend.
Heather and I weren’t speaking by the end of the summer. Mainly because she was pretty sure I was a Satan worshipper. She found the back of my KISS Alive II cassette tape highly disturbing. Of course, to be fair, Gene Simmons’ hellish visage is covered in blood.
Since that summer, I have indeed traveled much of the world, lived overseas, learned to speak Russian fluently, and, well, I never did become a writer. But maybe one day. Maybe one day.
Oh, and by the way, thanks Mr. Morgan. For everything.