I came across an article published in the New York Post about private companies lining up to charge the New York City Department of Education significant sums for vaping detectors in school bathrooms. My schooling days ended a bit before vaping caught on with the youth.
(Note that I strongly suspect marijuana, vaped and otherwise, is a more serious problem for the youth than vaping, albeit not one that is as socially acceptable for our wise elites to talk critically about. But I digress.)
During my time at CUNY Brooklyn College, which ended a touch more than a decade ago, regular smoking was in. There is a nice pond with benches there, but you would be lucky if you could sit for more than five minutes before a smoker sat up-wind of you. I also cannot count how many times I was asked for a light. I never had a light because I did not and do not smoke. I often thought about carrying one around just so I could finally answer “yes, here you go my friend,” but I never got around to it. I have an electric lighter now for tea candles, but that is neither here nor there.
Brooklyn College banned smoking on campus shortly after I left. I am always right at the end of these things. I was a kid when New York City banned smoking in restaurants, but I have fuzzy memories of the smoking sections. Well, it is better that people can sit on campus at Brooklyn College without being down-wind of tobacco, but every time I smell a real cigarette these days I feel nostalgic for the days when people were not smoking petrified skunks. Why do I have a bad feeling that Brooklyn College probably reeks more of pot now that it ever did of cigarettes? I never got around to procuring my alumni ID so I could go investigate. Again, I digress.
Returning to the topic in the introduction, vaping was not a thing back in my day. I knew, especially in high school, that I had classmates who fancied alcohol, traditional cigarettes, and schedule one controlled substances in a few cases, but no vaping that I was aware of. Most of my awareness of these issues came in high school. But the vaping in school bathrooms story reminded me of a story from my middle school days when three girls were caught smoking in the school bathroom. Now note there is actually a continuation because my high school followed from the middle school, albeit we were in different buildings. But let us work through this story in an orderly way, my constant digressions aside.
This story occurred when I was in my final year of middle school in eighth grade. This may be the first time where I have written an article about eighth grade being the last year of middle school since most of my school articles are about 2D Japanese boys and girls. In those cases, when I describe one as being a first or second year high school student, I almost always include the qualification for our mostly American audience that “high school” in Japan begins with 10th grade instead of 9th. But I went to school in New York City, so my middle school adventures ended in 8th grade. But again, I digress.
My middle school had extracurricular activities after lunch on Fridays. I did chess in 8th grade. However, other than the fact that the story I am about to tell occurred after lunch on a Friday, this is neither here nor there. You can find a more fun chess club story from my ninth grade year in a separate article.
During the second half of my 8th grade year, my class was joined by a young lady transfer student. I could not tell you exactly when, but it was probably in February or March. Now if you apply some inductive reasoning, you can see why this is unusual. Who transfers to a new middle school in the second half of his or her last year of middle school? Strange.
(Does having a mysterious mid-year transfer student turn one’s American middle school into an anime?)
The only thing I noted about the young lady who had transferred into our class was that she had an unusual name and that she seemed tall. In reality, she was probably about 5’6” or so, but that seemed tall in middle school. I was probably 5’4” when I finished 8th grade, growing about six inches in high school. So 5’6” still looked tall to me. Many of the other guys and most of the girls were shorter than 5’6,” so the height thing stood out. She also earned notice from the boys in my year (who were mostly a miserable bunch – I was glad that most of the worst of them went to a different high school the next year) on our class trip to a bowling alley which occurred on either Wednesday or Thursday of the week she arrived in our class. She wore a skirt, which was technically allowed under the middle school dress code (which, unlike the high school dress code I encountered the next year, was usually enforced against girls as well as boys), but none of the girls in the class wore skirts. Moreover, here skirt was short, probably shorter than what was contemplated in the dress code – convenient while bowling I suppose. I recall some boys in my class snickering about it, I even remember the chief snickerer, but what they saw I know not since I was not in or by the lane where this all transpired.
(I wonder what her score was. It was probably better than mine. I cannot bowl at all. In fact, that was the last time I went bowling – well before my last trip to a movie theater.)
Now we reach Friday, the end of the week. There was some commotion when I was in the hallway. I forget who – perhaps it was a teacher who caught wind of it – but I learned that three girls had been caught smoking in the girl’s bathroom. The best place to get away with smoking in a small school is definitely a bathroom – no one will ever pick up on the smell. I also learned who the girls were, so it was not a well-kept secret.
(Note before continuing that I never had a sustained conversation with any of these three girls – either in middle school or subsequently in high school. Moreover, while I remember their names – first and last – because I have a uselessly good memory for certain things, I am not using their names, consistent with my policy on school stories that do not involve my New Leaf Journal colleague, Victor V. Gurbo (who did not attend the middle school).)
The next week, I recall learning what the punishments for the three girls were. The recent transfer student was expelled from the school. The second student was suspended for one day. The third student was not punished at all.
The fact that the transfer student was expelled was telling. When I was in seventh grade, we had a significant number of very unruly eighth grade boys who managed to get suspended repeatedly. The most memorable case involved one hitting another in the back of the head in plain sight of a teacher and administrator who also happened to be the wife of the headmaster. That only resulted in a two-week suspension. (To be fair, had I been asked which one we would benefit more from being expelled, I would have selected the boy who was hit rather than the hitter.)
So one strike and you’re out for a single instance of smoking a regular cigarette in the bathroom seemed notable given the school’s apparent reluctance to drop the expulsion hammer – including several cases from the previous year where it should have. I suspected at the time that the transfer student had been allowed to transfer with two strikes already against her, and that she managed to swing and miss at strike three within a few days of her transfer. This suspicion was heightened by the fact that the other two girls received punishments in the form of a one-day suspension and none at all, respectively. (As I will allude to later in the story, I have well-founded reasons for being confident that this general outline of events is correct.)
To the best of my recollection, no one particularly cared about the smoking incident or asked many questions – I doubt anyone much remembered their classmate of four days. That includes me. Now you may wonder why I remember this story now. This story is even older than when I learned about being maxed out on existentialism, albeit not as old as my blue paint or blue jay and black squirrel elementary school stories. But please be patient. We are getting there.
Life went on. Eighth grade ended. We continued on to high school. The young lady who I understood to have escaped punishment for the smoking incident in eighth grade turned out to become a running joke in high school, violating the dress code in the most flagrant ways possible, rarely attending class and sometimes being disruptive when she did, and not-very-secretly bringing cigarettes to school (no action was taken). Her behavior in high school was enabled by the fact that the headmaster took her on as a project or something for some surely wise and well-conceived reason unknowable to us mere mortals. For the record, I did not think anything of her in eighth grade – she mostly kept to her group, generally followed the dress code, and did not cause any problems that I was aware of other than the smoking incident – but in hindsight it seems that her escaping suspension was a sign of things to come. The girl who received the one-day suspension also attended the high school, but we were never in the same class so I know not how that went.
Unsurprisingly, the girl who was expelled from eighth grade was not present when my tenure in high school started. Why would she be? Who transfers into a middle school, gets expelled after four days, and then attends the high school!? That is crazy.
The thing is that having sometimes referred to my high school as a high “school,” it would not be that crazy. The behavior that no-punishment-for-smoking got away with in high school would be more than enough to establish this. So let us skip ahead to eleventh grade.
Very early in my eleventh grade year, my class received a new transfer student. Note that this would have probably been October, or perhaps late September. Taking into account the early date of the transfer and the fact that this was the penultimate year of high school, it was not as unusual as the late-term eighth grade transfer from two-and-one-half years prior. For all I knew at the time, it may not have been a transfer at all in the second case (perhaps there was some reason she started a few weeks late).
The girl barely said anything and unlike many of the girls in my class, she was not making a Paris Hilton-chic mockery of the dress code.
(The dress code in high school was essentially slacks and oxford shirts for boys and girls, with polos being allowed for girls in the spring and summer. Boys were generally held to the dress code. The girls were not. A good number of the girls followed the dress code. But a significant number, probably more than a third, violated it blatantly. The worst of the violations involved trading slacks for Juicy Couture-style sweats (or actual Juice Couture in some cases), fuzzy boots, ill-fitting tops, and the absence of certain undergarments that was made clear by the foregoing. I would describe it as mid-2000s Paris Hilton-chic. At the time it was obnoxious and the fact that the girls were allowed to get away with this somewhat poisoned the school atmosphere, especially among the more marginal male students. Now I still think the lack of dress code enforcement and the particular violations were bad, but my perspective has changed in one respect. I will occasionally see a young lady or someone closer to my age in the sort of Paris Hilton-chic attire that I remember was in vogue in the mid-2000s. These days I think to myself “how refreshing,” – indeed, almost innocent, and it is certainly much less bad than what the Kardashians have inflicted on society. To use an analogy: Hilton-chic is like a Marlboro, unpleasant but not suffocating as long as it stays out of your home. Kardashian-chic is that pot being smoked next to a skunk waterboarding session.)
In short, there was nothing about this girl that should have caught my attention. While I was relatively social in high school, there were a good number of classmates I never talked to. This girl would very likely join that number.
But granting all of that, something about this girl was bothering me. I was not sure what it was, but I felt like I was forgetting something, but I could not remember what I was forgetting much less the something.
What triggered in me a sense of unease was her name. I recall she had been introduced with one version of her name – which was similar, but not identical, to the short-lived transfer student from eighth grade. While I am sure that hearing the variation helped trigger my unease, I did not initially make the connection between the names. I would not do so until I heard a teacher laugh when saying something about her name about three weeks after she joined by class.
(To be clear, the girl was not present, and the teacher was not making fun of her. There was a specific benign reason her name was notable to him, but I will leave it unsaid.)
But the key point is that the name the teacher opined on was the exact name of the middle school transfer student. Suddenly, I had a eureka moment. The pieces came together. What had bothered me about the eleventh grade transfer student – that thing I could not quite grasp – was that I did, in fact, recognize her, but I could not remember from where. The name unlocked the answer to my question: She was indeed the same girl who had been expelled in eighth grade. Once I made the connection, everything came back to me.
Why did I initially fail to recognize her? The main reason is because she had only been in my eighth grade class for four days and in those four days, I had no interactions with her at all. The only reason I even remembered some of the boys in my class snickering about her skirt on the bowling trip was because that memory became attached to her subsequent expulsion. Secondly, I did not really remember what she looked like. The main thing I associated with her was tallness – since she probably had a good 2-3 inches on me during her brief stint in my class in eighth grade. However, by eleventh grade, I was about 3-4 inches taller than her and with her having apparently stopped growing in middle school, she was no longer “tall” at all. In effect, the one thing I actually remembered vaguely about her appearance from eighth grade was relative, and by eleventh grade that thing was no longer true since I was now taller than her.
(I subsequently learned some of the 11th grade transfer backstory from a teacher at the high school which, while not about the eighth grade incident specifically, inform my hunch about the circumstances of the eighth grade transfer and expulsion to a degree to which I will say that my general construction of events – as far as I will get into in this article – is almost certainly correct.)
Fortunately, the young lady’s high school sequel proved to be uneventful compared to the middle school edition. She attended the high school for 11th and 12th grade, generally kept to herself (my distant impression, at least) and occasionally attended class (more in 11th grade than 12th grade). While she did have a dress code issue, it was not the sort that would cause a parent to cover the eyes of young children. If there were any major incidents or disruptions, I was unaware of them. She was certainly much better behaved than the girl who escaped suspension entirely in eighth grade for the same essential act that resulted in her own expulsion. I suspect that other than a couple of people who may have known the girl previously (e.g., the two who decided to take a smoke break in the bathroom with her and perhaps a few others), few people ever made the connection. Many students had not attended the middle school, and even some who had may not have been aware of the bathroom smoking incident, much less remembered their short-term classmate who was expelled because of it.
I wish that this was the strangest mysterious student story of my high school days – but it is not. One year before, in 10th grade, our class had a presentation project wherein we had to write about a Medieval craft and then do a presentation before the class. This was one of two major projects in the class for the year. The presentations probably occurred in November-December. You can imagine that I thought it was strange when some girl who I had, to the best of my knowledge, never really seen before, went to the front of the class to do a presentation. Strange! Moreover, she occasionally attended a few other classes that year, and I recall seeing her on a couple of occasions in 11th grade. I also remember her name – at least the one she was going by. But what did I not know? For one, I did not know what grade she was allegedly in – not withstanding the fact she was occasionally in my classes. I was not sure what class she was supposed to be in. Was she even a student of the school? Beats me! I recall vaguely suspecting she was either one grade above us or below us, but no one I know from either of those grades seems to remember her. To the best of my knowledge she never graduated. Unlike the story I told above – I never found any answers to these questions.