Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Middle School Dance and Other Epidemics

Sadie’s first school dance a little while back, not just for her sixth grade class, which would have been a no-brainer of Friday night indulgence, but for her entire middle school brood, all thousand little gorgons—sixth graders still so out of range of puberty’s Antietams that they might as well be nostalgic for the good old days of separation anxiety all the way up to (up being a relative term in the slouch of early adolescence) eighth graders busting at the pimples, and the occasional miniskirt quoting 1980s streetwalkers on Park Avenue and 34th. It’s enough to put the fear of crabby Old Testament deities in parents’ hearts that the Taliban’s last surviving ambassador to America—Dr. Phil—was right when spoke of “the oral sex epidemic” to our Lord and Savior President and Mrs. Bush last October. That Dr. Phil is full of shit, as mullahs always are, is besides the point when the rumor of a hint of impropriety lurks within polluting distance of one’s daughter. Whenever the news cycle goes limp or middle-age editors get horny they commission the usual stories wedding sex and teens, a surefire way to get readers frothing over morning coffee and daylong judgments, although the slews of stories at the beginning of the decade about seventh graders enacting their own versions of one hundred brushtrokes before bed[1] gave way to the equally sickening anti-trend, the Bush-era stories about “The New Virginity” (Newsweek’s oxymoron of a cover story in December 2002) and “Young Love, New Caution,” The Times’ reliably Presbyterian take on the subject in March 2004, though that one didn’t last, quite. By May the Times was enlightening us about how “friends with benefits” and hooking up had replaced romance. Big deal. I don’t think there’s much difference between sex in the time of Charlemagne’s back-alley middle schools and our limousine kind today, although back then parents must have panicked a tad less about their children’s romps, being too busy enjoying the fact that the occasional tyke could make it past early childhood’s bog of pestilence.
None of that applied, none of it worried us much when we were trying to decide whether to let Sadie go or not. What we weren’t interested in are the rank but usual vulgarities of children of these varied ages, in these environments of children setting rules for themselves and their parents, let loose in a feedlot sort of setting. Mass-produced, little-supervised, scatterbrained and overcrowded dances tend to be that way (I wasn’t disappointed). But we weren’t interested in playing Stalin to Sadie’s discoveries either. I’m thinking of the last perfectly ironic line of a Maureen Dowd column on Elian Gonzales (who must be going to his first high school dances by now): “And we must do what’s best for the child.”[2] Well, a three-hour dance couldn’t possibly be that much worse than everyday school—which, as Clausewitz would have it, is dancing by other means anyway. She’d go, but I’d chaperone.

When we got there a mass of lambs were pressed up against the single entrance to the gymnasium, trickling in with their four dollar cover charge (“all proceeds for Katrina relief!”) and eight dollar lipstick-and-gravy makeovers and very effectively warming up their vocal chords for the screaming to come. I thought of the sounds of 220mm shells whistling and crashing around us in 1978: murmurs in comparison. And this was the dance’s antechamber. I was surprised by the subdued wardrobes. The school’s dress code (which attempts to revive the burquah fashion going out of style in Afghanistan) seemed to be exercising after-hour influences here. Britney wannabes were not much in evidence—no dangling bellybuttons, no linguini tops, only a few slutty bottoms, but slutty fashion is every mama’s norms these days of democratized bad taste, compliments of Wal-Mart and subhuman wages. So you can’t really blame the lambs. I had a brief chat with the chaperone-in-chief, a personable coach who, woman though she was, gave you the impression that she’d have managed very well as a commander in Patton’s tank battalions. The rest of the chaperone crew, me and Sadie’s geography teacher included, was not nearly as impressive, our overhanging guts being more show than tell. The middle school’s student population was our very own Lake Ponchatrain, and at 6:30, the levees broke. The lambs didn’t quite go in the desired direction. Most of them massed in the darkened half of the cafeteria for what passed for dancing and what looked like more like a mosh pit on speed, but tributaries led constantly down corridors, especially to a set of bathrooms—every dance’s favorite Vegas lounge—and any pair of doors that looked like they led somewhere, anywhere, especially the restricted and proscribed. One boy was outside on the grass, not far from the cafeteria but not where he was supposed to be, gathering a small mob, mostly girls, because he’d managed to discover a pigeon who couldn’t fly, and was holding it in his hands like a one-man PETA committee, insisting that he couldn’t go back inside because then no one would take care of the pigeon (and the girls would lose interest in his inoffensive but otherwise wingless face). A chaperone with a gut three times the size of mine barreled down on the scene, picked up where I left off (“you can’t babysit the bird for three hours”) and gave me a chance to go check some other minor disaster. Actually, there weren’t any. There were flushed faces, sweat, the back-and-forth ebullience of discovering that a corridor can be an entirely new world for six second, the desperate speeches about having been just dumped, the constant looking-for-so-and-so, the urgency of just going somewhere different, even if it’s the other end of the dance floor (you wonder why none of this urgency ever applies when you ask them to take out the garbage), the mussing and messing and security-blanket-caressing of their own hair (the older ones muss, the younger ones caress, the ones in between mess), and that constant, constant grab for the cellphone, which has become every other child’s pacifier. On the dance floor there was something meant to resemble music but it was more evocative of an oil tanker’s boiler-room cadences sampled with whines and grinds of sound that made everyone, judging from the deflagrations of squeals at the end of each bunch of tam-tams and the beginning of another, absolutely joyous for a shit-faced Schiller. Then again, there’s something as programmed in those squeals as in the programmed music that elicits them. Sadie assured me that she plugged her ears every time rather than join in. I have my doubts, and in any case I’d rather she did join in. No sense in playing the artistocats. I kept as much distance from her as I could bear, which became easier as the evening wore on, especially when it seemed as if she wanted less distance, even wanted me to commit that cardinal sin of parenting—intercede and mediate in her boy-chases—from which I begged off, substituting one of her girlfriends for the errands. By seven thirty the kids had been allowed into the gym to give their eardrums a rest and their legs a different drum to march to (basketball for the boys, conferencing for the girls), and by eight Sadie was as ready to leave as I was. No brawls, no punching festivals, no stabbings. The most that had happened, that I could see, was the expulsion of one girl from the dance floor (but not the dance itself) for having, allegedly, danced too “inappropriately” with someone else. It’s a given that no place in America is ever safe from the word inappropriate, it would have been a miracle of Fatima proportions had I spent two hours in that setting without once hearing the word. The miracle spared, it was time to leave, pick up our Mongolian beef and mei fun at China King, and retreat to a Carlsberg and Dave Chappell with Cheryl.

[A more Catholic version of this entry was published today in the Daytona Beach News Journal.]


[1] There was that story in The Times about suburban seventh and eighth graders who “rent limousines to take them to clubs in Manhattan, where they get drunk, grind on the dance floor and have oral sex in dim corners” and the from-the-frontlines reports of a suburban psychologist who sees “girls, seventh and eighth graders, even sixth graders, who tell me they’re virgins, and they’re going to wait to have intercourse until they meet the man they’ll marry. But then they’ve had oral sex 50 or 60 times. It’s like a goodnight kiss to them, how they say goodbye after a date,” or the one by Liza Mundy in the Washington Post three months later (“They say, ‘What’s up with the dome?’” the [eight-grade] girl continues, explaining that this is an invitation to perform oral sex, as is the more familiar: “When are you going to give me head?” She tells them never. She laughs. Whatever it takes to put them off. She has not done much more than kiss, though she and her female friends talk about sex a lot, especially oral sex. “They’re like, ‘It’s not that bad once you do it. But it’s scary the first time.’ I guess they’re nervous that they won’t do it right. They said they didn’t have any pleasure in it. They did it to make the boys happy, I guess.”), the “Risky Business” cover stories of the newsmagazines (“Teens are having more sex—and getting more diseases,” US News told is in May 2002).

[2] The Times April 2, 2000.