Amy Benesch writing at desk

Amy Benesch writing at desk

Musings From the Writing Desk

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kali High

I know, I know. Why did I do it? Right? That’s what everyone wants to know. First of all it wasn’t my idea to come to Kali High. I would have been perfectly happy to stay in public school. Well, OK, not perfectly happy. The only thing that would have made me perfectly happy is dropping out of school altogether, but, in my family, that wasn’t an option. My mother felt since I wasn’t doing well in public school we should take advantage of all the private schools that were cropping up in the wake of the school voucher program. She brought home brochures from about a hundred different schools and dumped them on my unmade bed.

"Isn’t this exciting?" she asked.

"Electrifying," I said. "Can I borrow the car?"

"Don’t you even want to look at them?"

"Sure," I said. "Later. I’ll bring it back with a full tank, I promise."

As soon as she left the room I stuffed the brochures under my bed, next to the treadmill I had gotten for my sixteenth birthday. I had wanted a car, so I refused to use the thing. It was my way of protesting not getting what I really wanted. Anyway I hate exercising. But my mother is not the forgetful type. When she realized I wasn’t going to spend hours perusing the brochures to make an educated choice, she did it for me. She chose Minerva High, a perfect choice for her, but the worst possible one. Or maybe Kali High was the worst possible choice. Maybe I’m just not cut out for high school.

Minerva High is geared toward over-achievers. It says so right in their brochure. And I’m an underachiever. It says so right in the report from the guidance counselor. My mother’s argument was that being around highly motivated young people would bring out my latent competitive nature. It’s a good theory except that my competitive nature isn’t latent; it’s nil. But even though I was miserable there, I didn’t ask to leave. I figured that high school is like jail: you serve your sentence and eventually they let you out. The difference is, there’s no time off for good behavior. So I didn’t behave very well. I mean, where was the incentive?

I didn’t break any rules or anything, I just had a lousy attitude, which in public school is no big deal; that’s what they expect. But at Minerva High they had different ideas. They called my parents in and talked to them about my "C" average. Most of the students at Minerva High would plunge steak knives into their wrists if they got "C" averages, but it didn’t bother me at all. That was the problem. The vice-principal explained to my parents that my attitude was having a negative effect on the other students. She had received a number of complaints. I was surprised. I would have thought they’d be delighted that I was bringing down the bell curve, but these girls were strange (did I mention it was an all-girls school?). The only time I came close to making a friend is when a girl named Francis Duggan set her desk on fire. I waited for her after school and congratulated her on her act of rebellion. She blushed and ran away. I understood then that she had not been acting out of rebellion, but from compulsion. I didn’t see her again at Minerva High.

The vice-principal told my parents gently, but firmly, that Minerva High didn’t want me back in the fall.

My mother begged her to let me stay one more year, so that I wouldn’t have to spend my senior year at a new school, but the vice-principal was adamant. She said they would give me a thorough psychological test to determine which of the many fine schools in the area would be right for me.

At first the test was kind of fun, but after the first twelve questions I saw where they were going with it, and I got bored. And I resented the kind of thinking that went into a test like that. I mean, I’m not a type; I’m an individual, right? At least I’m working on it. So I stopped reading the questions and just made interesting patterns. I called it, "Study in Pencil with Thin Blue Boxes."

At the meeting with Mrs. Robinson, the guidance counselor, we were informed that the results of the test were erratic, but not to worry, she had a perfect solution. Had any of us ever heard of Kali High?

I hadn’t. I don’t pay attention to things like that. And of course my father hadn’t; he’s a zombie when it comes to anything except his work. What’s surprising is that my mother had never heard of it.

"That’s funny," she said. "I thought I had gotten brochures from every high school in the metropolitan area. Is it a boarding school?"

"No," said the guidance counselor. "Kali High is... unique. Which is why I think it will suit...", she glanced quickly at my file, looked up, and smiled warmly at me, "Alicia just fine."

"What do you think, Max?" my mother asked my father as we drove home.

"About what?"

"Oh, for God’s sake, Max, this school they want to send Alicia to, Kali High."

"Sounds exotic. Isn’t there a song about that?"

"There’s L L Cool J’s ‘I’m going back to Kali’" I volunteered from the back seat.

"I think he’s thinking of Bali Hai," said my mother from the front.

"Oh," said my father. "Never mind."

Anyone else would have given up at that point, but my mother’s a fighter. "I think it sounds wonderful. Mrs. Robinson seemed to think it would be perfect for Alicia."

"Mrs. Robinson doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall," I pointed out. "She had to look at my file to remember my name."

"Well, the test results seemed to indicate that Kali High would be a good place for you. I think we should go for it."

"Sounds good to me," my father said. "What do you think, Lisha?"

"Whatever," I said.

I could hear my mother’s teeth grinding. She hates that word. I refrained from mentioning that I had used the test as a backdrop for my artwork. That might have pushed her over the edge.

None of this really explains anything. I just wanted to point out that going to Kali High had not been my idea.

My mother woke me up at an ungodly hour the morning of my first day at Kali High.

"What’s the matter with you?" I asked. "It’s barely light out."

"I wanted to take you myself before I go to work," my mother said, "to see what it’s like."

"It’s a big building filled with teen-agers and adults who all want to be somewhere else. That’s a direct translation of the words ‘high school’ from the original Swahili."

"I don’t know how you can be so cynical this early in the morning. What do you want for breakfast?"

"Coffee. Black." She didn’t make me eat breakfast, but she did put milk in my coffee. I was too tired to argue.

Mrs. Robinson hadn’t given us an exact street number, just the street the school was on and the cross streets. We circled the block three times. All we saw was an abandoned warehouse with most of its windows broken or missing, and across from it, on the south side of the street, a parking lot filled with teepees, lean-tos, tents, and other temporary-type shelters. My mother’s face sagged, but only for a second.

"I guess they’re doing a unit on Native Americans." she said briskly. "What a hands-on approach! I wonder where the administrative offices are?" She parked the car and locked it - this was not the safest part of the city - and marched up to the largest, most permanent looking shelter, which was a house built of scrap lumber. She knocked. The door opened and my mother went inside. I waited by the car. Something between the shriek of a wounded animal and a battle cry pierced the stillness. My mother came out of the shack quickly, looking truly terrified.

"What happened?" I asked, running up to her.

"The, they, they’re... we have to go. Mrs. Robinson gave us the wrong address." She grabbed my hand and started back towards the car, but the sounds coming from the house rooted us to the spot. I wasn’t supposed to know what those sounds meant, but I did. Except they sounded strange even to my virginal ears. I mean it sounded like people screwing, but it also sounded like something you’d hear in an old-fashioned lunatic asylum, before they starting drugging the inmates. The sounds got louder and more intense. The house started shaking. A woman shrieked, "Mother!" and a male voice, not very deep, let out a string of expletives that would have made me blush even if I hadn’t been with my mother. Then everything was quiet. The male voice laughed and the woman cooed something incomprehensible.

"Let’s go," my mother whispered.

Suddenly the door swung open and a young man came out of the house, hitching up his pants. "Can I help you?" he asked.

My mother’ mouth was moving but no sounds emerged.

"We were looking for Kali High," I said. "Sorry to have disturbed you. Bye."

"Well," said the young man, who was blond, really skinny and looked about seventeen, "this is it. Welcome to Kali High."

My mother’s mouth was still working. She finally managed to get her mind and breath to connect with it. "Could I please speak to the principal?"

"Sure," said the blond kid. He stuck his head in the door. "Mrs. Hedvig? There’s someone here to see you."

A large woman with frizzy gray hair, wearing a purple and black caftan emerged from the hut. "Mrs. Hedvig," she mimicked, slapping the boy on his skinny rear end. "My, aren’t we formal?" The boy blushed and back inside. "Conrad, you did very, very well," she called after him.

She turned towards us with a radiant smile. "Now," she said. "How can I help you?"

My mother’s mouth was moving again, but the breath control was gone. What came out sounded like a wheeze. "Beg pardon?" asked Mrs. Hedvig.

"I think she asked if that was a sex education course," I translated.

"Oh, well, yes, I suppose you could call it that. Conrad’s been having trouble sustaining an erection, and I offered to help him, but, you know, I couldn’t do a thing until you came along."

"Excuse me?" squeaked my mother.

"You startled him. He became angry. Once he vented his anger, the inhibitions melted away and his sexuality exploded. Boy, did it ever. Wow." Mrs. Hedvig shook her head in disbelief. "Amazing. I should have realized myself what the problem was, I mean, that is the philosophy of our school. But it’s so easy to fall back into the old patterns, isn’t it?" She looked at my mother as if she really expected an answer.

"What," my mother asked in a voice that was practically bass, "is the philosophy of your school?"

"‘The solution to all problems lies in Chaos.’"

"Chaos," my mother echoed.

Mrs. Hedvig nodded and beamed.

"Fine." My mother walked away.

"Mother," I yelled after her. "You’re not leaving me here, are you?"

Mrs. Hedvig cocked her head, and squinted at me. "What you need is a nice primal scream. Would you like to practice here or inside?"

"Nowhere," I said. "Mother!" I screamed. "Where are you going? Come back!" "Oh my Goddess," Mrs. Hedvig enthused. "Your first day and you’re already dealing with deep abandonment issues. That’s right, dear. Just let it all out Would you like to assume the fetal position?"

"Mother!" I shrieked again as my mother got in her Saturn. "Please don’t leave me here. These people are crazy, can’t you see that?" I was crying now. "Can’t she see that?" I asked.

Mrs. Hedvig put her arms around me. I rested my head on her large bosom. "Of course she can’t, dear. She’s in shock. She won’t remember any of this by the time she gets to work. By the time she gets home, she will have re-invented everything to fit into her narrow ideas about reality. Not everyone can handle Chaos."

"I’m n, n, not sure I can." I sniveled.

"You’ve made an excellent start," Mrs. Hedvig assured me. "Now why don’t you go inside and rest your voice. The others will gather soon for the morning scream. Oh, listen to me, telling you what to do. You don’t have to rest your voice. You can shriek yourself hoarse if that’s what you need to do."

The inside of the shack looked even worse than the outside. Clothes were strewn on scavenged furniture that was arranged in a haphazard manner. I tried not to look at the bed, a queen-sized mattress in the middle of the floor that took up a third of the space. The place smelled of cat piss and patchouli oil. I felt like I might throw up. I was glad I hadn’t eaten breakfast. After a lengthy search, I found a small spot on the floor that didn’t look filthy or feel sticky and sat down. Mrs. Hedvig strode in banging, the door open. "It’s too warm in here!" she yelled. "And I’m exhausted!! And my jaw is sore!!!" She seemed to be working herself up into a state.

"Why don’t you lie down for a while?" I suggested.

"No, no!!!" Mrs. Hedvig yelled. "Don’t try and stop me! I’m working through the discomfort!! I’m starting the session!! Don’t stop me, join me!!!"

Conrad reappeared and yelled, "I feel great!! I had an orgasm!!! With a woman!!!" He crowed and strutted around the room. "I did it!!! What a stud!!!" He made animal noises, something between a wolf and an ape.

Mrs. Hedvig shrieked, "I never get any rest!!! Take, take, that’s all any of you do!! And who cares about me and my needs?!? No one!!! Nooooooo. ONE." She repeated "No one" over and over again until it sounded like nonsense syllables. She shuffled her feet and raised her head up and down. Soon her body was shook all over and she simply howled.

A girl about my age, wearing a tweed jumper and white Oxford shirt, entered the room. "This place is disgusting!!" she exclaimed. "Is it against the by-laws of the school to clean? Is soap and water forbidden in this God-forsaken shit-hole? It makes me sick. You all make me sick!!! I want to go home. Mommy!!!!" She lay down on the floor, curled up into a ball and shrieked, "Mommy," over and over. My little scene had been amateur compared to these people who did it every day. I hadn’t lost control like that since... I realized I didn’t have a memory of having a tantrum, even as a very small child.

People of various ages, sizes, and color came into the room. They all checked their emotional temperature, said how they felt, then let things rip from that point. I watched people work themselves up from hating Mondays, to full-fledged rages, to sobbing, to laughing. All around me emotions whirled. I just sat there taking it all in. After a long time things quieted down. The room was silent for a full minute, until a girl shrieked, "I hate my nose!!! Why do I have such a big nose!! It’s not fair!!!" She cursed every man and boy she’d ever known who looked down on her because of her big nose. Then she cursed her mother for marrying a man with a big nose. Then she said, sleepily, "But he’s got nice eyes," and fell asleep. There were a few more outbursts, but soon the room was quiet, except for some sniffling and snoring. The silence was stunning after all the noise. I had never realized before how beautiful silence could be.

Mrs. Hedvig said, "I feel great! Does any one have anything they’d like to say?" Apparently no one did. Maybe they were had shouted themselves voiceless.

"Any questions?" Mrs. Hedvig asked.

"I have a question," I said. "When do classes start?"

"I guess they could start right now," Mrs. Hedvig said. "Does anyone feel like teaching something?"

No answer.

"Does anyone feel like learning something?"

Conrad stood up. "I don’t feel I ever got a satisfactory answer when I asked why the sky is blue. I mean, why is it?"

"Would anyone care to answer Conrad’s question?" Mrs. Hedvig wanted to know.

A heavy-set man wearing a gray sweater vest began talking about water refraction and light spectrums. After a few sentences someone started singing, "Because the sky is blue, it turns me on..." Another woman said, "I hate it when people say, ‘The sky is blue.’ What shade of blue? Have they ever looked at the sky for more than a second or two? Do they realize the color is constantly changing? That the sky is one color when you look straight up and another color on the horizon? Who can tell me what color the sky is right now?" A few people ran outside to look at the sky. Others started free-associating about the sky, color, and having their questions ignored or belittled when they were children. I kept waiting for everyone to finish talking so that classes could start. It finally hit me: this was it. This was the education I was going to receive at Kali High.

Well, I thought, at least there’s no homework.

After the initial shock, I decided Kali High was great. I told my friends who were still in public school all about it. They envied me for being able to go to a school with no rules and no homework, except for Gillian, who wondered how a college admissions board would judge my performance. "I guess they just go by SAT scores," I told her.

Mrs. Hedvig’s assessment of my mother had been dead on. She acted like I was going to a progressive, but basically normal school. Every morning she asked how school was going. I always said fine, and we left it at that. I was tempted to ask if she remembered that first day, but I never did. I don’t know what I was more afraid of finding out: that she did remember and was subjecting me to it anyway, or that the woman who had given birth to me had such an awesome denial mechanism. In any case I refused to cave. She had ignored my cries for help, so I was going to stick it out, no matter what.

And it really was kind of exciting; like the day the Apollo High football team showed up in their white and gold uniforms for a game that had been scheduled months ago. Mrs. Hedvig didn’t believe in schedules. We were, of course, in the middle of a primal scream session. As soon as she understood what all the tall guys with big shoulders were doing milling around the parking lot, she suggested we strike the tents and play the game. She thought football would prove an interesting outlet for our frustrations. I guess it did. We didn’t play with uniforms or rules. Girls jumped into the game. They bit, scratched, and went for the balls. The Apollo High coach started to call off the game, but all the contact between Kali High and Apollo High was leading to more amorous forms of tussling. When Mrs. Hedvig invited him into her office, he told the team, keep playing; he’d be right back.

I just stood around wondering why I couldn’t get into the spirit of the game. Most of the Apollo guys were really good looking, but I felt shy about tackling one and pulling his pants down, like the other girls. I knew Mrs. Hedvig would say I was out of touch with my sexuality. Well, at least I’d have something to scream about at the next session.

Then I noticed someone looking as bewildered as I felt. It was Francis Duggan, from Minerva High, the one who had started a fire at her desk.

I walked over to her. Frances looked happy to see a familiar face. Clearly Kali High was where Minerva High sent their rejects.

I chatted with Francis about neutral things like the weather and the tight butts of the Apollo High guys. She seemed grateful that I didn’t bring up the fire incident. As we talked it occurred to me that I hadn’t made any friends at Kali High. I wondered why.

Soon, it seemed much too soon, the Apollo guys were swatting each other on the butt and giving each other high fives. Their coach emerged from Mrs. Hedvig’s shack with a big smirk on his face. He strutted onto the bus, where his boys were cutting notches into the seats. Even the bus seemed to swagger as it made its way down the street with its whooping cargo.

"Why are they acting like they just raped and pillaged our village?" a red-faced, sweaty girl wanted to know. "We initiated the sex."

Mrs. Hedvig nodded. "I’m feel very unsatisfied," she said. "Did anyone reach orgasm?" One girl had, but she liked her sex fast and rough. Some of the girls, the more advanced ones, brought themselves to climax with themselves or each other. The rest of us gathered for another primal scream. I felt pretty frustrated myself. In fact, I realized as the shrieking reached a crescendo, if I had to listen to one more day of screaming, I would lose my mind. In two months of daily primal scream sessions, I had never repeated my opening day performance. I bragged to my friends what a cool place Kali High was, and refused to let my mother know what was going on, but I hadn’t admitted something important to myself: I hated Kali High. I could have started shrieking that I hated the place, that all the primal screaming gave me headache, that I missed order and cleanliness and rules, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I refused to cave in to the insanity all around me. I refused to do what the school wanted me to do. But rebellion is futile in an insane asylum. I didn’t want to make a statement; I just wanted out.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what I did next. After the shrieking died down, I asked Frances Duggan if she wanted to go with me for a coke and fries. She looked surprised, but pleased. I didn’t want to lead her on, so I asked my question right away, "How much would it cost to burn the whole place down?" Francis acted hurt, then scared, but I persisted. I would pay for everything. No one would know about her involvement. Once she realized I was serious, her face got soft and dreamy as she spoke of gasoline, kerosene, and long wooden matches. I left all details to her and promised to take full responsibility for the act. I assured her I didn’t want to jeopardize her career. She clearly had a brilliant future in insurance fraud.

I went to bed that night without a twinge of guilt. All I could think of is how quiet life would be from now on. Even jail would be relaxing after Kali High.

When I got off the bus the next morning, the smell of smoke assaulted my nose and tightened my throat. I ran to the lot where the school had been. Frances was a pro. The place was a mess of ashes and rubble. People were walking around in bewilderment, too upset, it seemed, to scream. I did feel something then, not shame, exactly, not regret, but sadness. There actually had been some kind of order at Kali High. Now it was utterly demolished. Even Mrs. Hedvig seemed dazed. She didn’t call for a primal scream session, but we all instinctively gathered around the embers of her office.

"Does anyone know?" Mrs. Hedvig asked softly, "who’s responsible for this?" My knees got weak and my resolve flew out, well, not the window, obviously, it just flew. I didn’t have to confess. No one would suspect that quiet, demure Alicia could have committed such a radical and destructive act. But then I spotted Francis’ terrified face. If I didn’t speak up, they’d nail her for sure.

"I am," I said quietly. "I’m sorry. I just couldn’t stand all that screaming. It made me..." What? It made me want to scream. But I couldn’t. I was too repressed, or too rebellious, too something. Or maybe not enough of something. Well, at least now I didn’t have to worry about my SAT scores. I wondered if you could earn college credits in prison.

"You were angry," said Mrs. Hedvig.

"Yeah," I said. "I guess I was."

"And so you took action."

"Yeah." I braced myself for a lecture on inappropriate action and how I should have screamed, or talked to her if I was so unhappy, or transferred to another school.

"And what did your action lead to?"

I looked around at the blackened charred remains of my high school. "Chaos," I said.

"Exactly," said Mrs. Hedvig. "You knew, you remembered, that the solution to all problems lies in Chaos."

"I did?"

"Of course you did! What we had here wasn’t Chaos; it was a routine. Come to school, go to Mrs. Hedvig’s office and scream! How is that any different from saluting the flag or saying the Lord’s Prayer? It isn’t! It’s exactly the same!! Same wine, new bottles. What hypocrisy! But now, now we really have it: Pure Chaos!!" Mrs. Hedvig took a deep breath as if she could feel Chaos entering her body, making her strong. "Thank you, Alicia, for freeing us from the bonds of our complacency."

"Uh, you’re welcome," I said.

We were all pretty cold at that point. It was the middle of November after all. We gathered the few pieces of wood that weren’t already burned and built a bonfire. No one said anything. No one screamed. The only sounds came from the crackling of the flames and the occasional pop from the wood. It was kind of nice. In fact, it was the best day I ever spent in high school.

It didn’t last long, of course. Silence never does. Within seconds the sound of fire engines filled the air. The firemen came with their big boots and their questions, followed closely by the reporters who wanted to know who started the fire and why. I grabbed an eager young reporter by the arm and told him everything. Why start lying now? He pinned a microphone to my jacket and took copious notes. As soon as I got to the present moment he called a photographer over. "Hey, George. Take this girl’s picture. She’s the one who did it. I have a full confession!"

The photographer looked disgusted. "That makes number thirty-six. I’m not wasting another roll of film."

It took me a minute to figured out what was going on. Everyone all around us was confessing. What was going on? I couldn’t figure it out until I remembered Minerva High and how competitive the students were. Mrs. Hedvig labeled the fire as an act of ultimate Chaos, so now every student at Kali High wanted to take credit for it. Everyone, that is, except Francis Duggan, who was sitting on the pavement wearing, loafers and ankle socks and looking like she was contemplating joining a convent.

The fireman left after putting our bonfire out. The reporters left, after promising to publicize our tragedy and see that we got help rebuilding our school. Since they couldn’t find one psycho to pin a scandal on, they decided to go for the sympathy readership.

So I was wrong. High school isn’t a building filled with grown-ups and teachers who all want to be somewhere else, because even when you burn down the building, you’re still stuck with each other. I looked at Mrs. Hedvig, still so sure of herself and of Chaos and realized there was only one path left to take. I went over to a man bald man who was smoking a pipe and shaking his head. "Mr. Jackson?"

"Please, call me Brian."

"OK, Brian. Are you... did you used to teach math?"

"Yes, I did. Why do you ask?"

"I never understood trigonometry, very well. I wonder if you could explain it me tomorrow. I still have my textbook from Minerva High."

Brian looked uncomfortable. "I’d be happy to but..."

"Not here, right?"

He nodded.

"Let’s meet at the Burger King. Around eleven o’clock?"

Brian looked around to make sure no one overheard us and nodded quickly. I thanked him, then peered through smoke-filled air hoping, to find somebody who might know something about history.

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