Remote and necessary

By Karen Eisenbrey

In which Heathers author Karen relives a high school far removed from John Hughes, Amy Heckerling, or even Winona Ryder.

According to the Washington Administrative Code, a small school (elementary school with under 100 students enrolled or high school with under 300) that is located in an intact, permanent community at least 60 minutes from the next nearest school or where transportation poses a risk to student safety may be designated “Remote and Necessary.”

My school was so small . . .

How small was it?

. . . so small, I almost always win the “my school was so small” contest. For all but one of my public-school years, I attended a school with a K-12 enrollment under 100, located thirty miles from anywhere, accessible only by winding country roads.

. . . so small, when I heard a  news story last spring about the senior class in Republic, WA, which invited Sarah Palin to speak at graduation, and Seattle news anchors chuckled over this small class of only twenty-six, my response was, “Twenty-six? That’s not small.” My senior class had eleven. And that was a big class.

. . . so small, we didn’t really have cliques. Everybody did everything, so no group could be rigidly exclusive. In my day, music nerds played basketball, jocks were valedictorians, and everyone who wanted to and had the price of a ticket went to the prom: the dateless, the ninth graders, the parents . . . everyone. You didn’t try out for the school play; if you were a junior or senior, you were in it by default – the play was chosen to ensure everyone had at least one role. This doesn’t mean everyone was “in.” It was possible to be part of everything and still be “out.” But you couldn’t be prevented from participating, or nothing would happen at all.

. . . so small, it wasn’t that weird to see our teachers in “real life.” They were our neighbors or even our parents. They knew us by more than our names. We got individual attention just by showing up.

. . . so small, it wasn’t possible to be anonymous. This could be good – see above, re: individual attention. This could be bad – it was hard to be seen as anything than what everyone thought you always were. In a school that small – a town that small – everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business. The only way to fight back is to have a secret. In a small town, you know when to look the other way.

. . . so small, there wasn’t room for more than one talent or passion. Ours was basketball. Tough luck for anyone who was short and slow and uncoordinated. If you were a good player, it was OK to also be good at other things. If you weren’t a good player, any other talent never felt quite valid. I wasn’t aware of anyone starting a band or making movies or writing poetry. Displaying passion about anything but basketball – literature, comic books, punk rock – was just weird. Maybe it’s my Scandinavian temperament, but decades later, I still have trouble displaying passion for things I really care about.

. . . so small, most of the students went through all twelve years of school together or were cousins or both. Popular culture tells us dating is a big part of high school, and I thought I was missing out, but looking back, I wasn’t the only one. Romantic pairings were unusual (and usually included one of the rare new kids to pass through our small town). Getting asked to the prom was a big deal, but few prom dates advanced to “going together,” as we called it in those days. I can think of only three instances of high school sweethearts who married each other. Familiarity breeds, not so much contempt as . . . familiarity.

As must be obvious by now, my school was so small, I have yet to see a high school movies that reflects my own high school experience. (But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d go with Rock & Roll High School, which I suspect doesn’t reflect anyone’s real-life experience – alternative reality where the Ramones really mattered at the time! See above re: passions.) I can easily relate to the typical outsider protagonist – not fitting in is a prereq for being a writer. But my school was neither the large, conventional suburban high school nor the large, troubled urban high school favored by Hollywood. My school was . . . Remote and Necessary.


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