Lightning in a Jar: No More Fun & Games



Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” is given advice to go into plastics.

As the blistering, muggy heat of summer gave way to autumn, I felt a choking sensation in my throat. The one that comes with dread. Dread of senior year and what it meant. The goodbyes and moving on. Except, where would I be moving on to? Hadn’t my guidance counselor already determine I wasn’t prepared for much?

Just before my junior year had ended, Mrs. W. had called me in to her office to talk about my “bright shiny future,” as she put it. Sitting in the vinyl lumpy chair across from her desk, I had fumbled for the right words to say that would make me sound like I had a plan, but in truth, I had none.

“As your guidance counselor, I must ask you,” she said in her distinctively throaty voice as if she was battling a bad case of laryngitis, “What are your goals, and your plans for after graduation?”

I stared at her blankly, engrossed by her red-dyed hair which looked like it had been heavily shellacked. A helmet sitting atop her head, with a varnish so thick, I felt that if I touched it I would knock it out of place and send it shattering to the floor like an over-sized ceramic pot. I figured she must apply an entire can of VO5 hairspray to it every day.

Mrs. W. pushed her pointy glasses up the ridge of her nose and patted her head, causing it to skew to one side. I looked away, trying to focus on something else.

“Dear, I need to know your goals so that I can advise you on what schools you should apply to. That’s what I do, so forget the fun and games and start thinking about your future.”

There it was again. The need to grow up and get serious about life. No more fun and games must’ve been the clarion call for all adults. Stop playing and decide. What did I want to be when I grow up? A secretary in an office somewhere?  Should I go into plastics as was recommended to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate? Perhaps I could be an artist, since I did enjoy drawing.

Nope. I’d actually once responded to an ad on the back of a TV Guide magazine. It said to draw the picture in the ad and send it in for an assessment of your art talent to determine if you had a career copying ad illustrations. I painstakingly drew what I thought was a perfect replica and mailed it in, waiting for my acceptance letter. Instead I got a call about eight weeks later, telling me I was too young to be contacting them and to have a nice day.

So pursuing art was out of the question, which meant I was back to square one. At least I knew what I didn’t want to be. A high school guidance counselor. It seemed that was a job for those who couldn’t make it as teachers. I didn’t want to be a teacher either, for that matter, as I’d hate to have to make kids take pop quizzes.

“Er, I’m not sure. I need to think about it over the summer and talk to my parents I guess.”

Mrs W. looked exasperated. She flipped through a file on her desk containing my transcript and SAT scores and made a sour-looking face.

“Here’s what I’m going to do for you,” she said with a sigh. “I’m going to recommend you apply to a nearby community college, and perhaps a couple of the state schools, too, like Plattsburgh and Oswego. Those are decent schools for a girl like you and I think you have a good chance of getting into one.”

She smiled at me as if she’d just done me the biggest favor of all time. Given me a future worthy of my transcript and SAT scores. But I knew the code. Decent meant average. Average school for an average girl with no drive and no ambition. Mrs. W. had me pegged. Unless I came up with goals by the end of summer, I wasn’t cut out for much else, but average. So much for my “bright, shiny future.”

But summer came and went, and I still didn’t have a plan. Part of the problem was procrastination, which I excelled at, and the other was spurred by Daniel, who by filling my time–and his–with all sorts of activities, gave me a plethora of reasons to procrastinate. Ever since the day at the beach, I could count on him to call me most mornings with an itinerary of how we were to spend the day. He was my personal event planner, single-handedly seeing to it that I’d have no time to contemplate my future.

One day we set out to ride the roller-coaster at Adventureland. I loved amusement parks  but found roller-coasters absolutely terrifying. Seared in my memory bank was the time I went on a kiddie version with my older brother. I was five and as soon as it started moving, I became deathly afraid, burying my head in my brother’s lap as I willed the ride to be over. Yet I never expected the ride operator to make a bad situation worse. He must’ve spotted my agony for suddenly he stopped the ride midway so that I could get off. I could hear the children’s incredulous laughter when they realized their favorite ride had abruptly stopped for some scared kid who was now in tears. How mortifying it was to have all eyes bearing down on me as I disembarked, and then hearing the motor churning as the ride resumed. Yep, I could do without roller-coasters.

Another day, Daniel invited me on a bike ride in search of abandoned mansions. He also convinced me to sign up for tennis lessons at the park, but ended up dropping out after the first class when we learned that our instructor’s name was June, and we couldn’t shake that song refrain out of our head, “June is busting out all over…” as we envisioned her bustline exploding. I didn’t care for tennis, anyway.

Some days, Daniel would stop by with his record albums and we’d zone out to Jethro Tull and The Who. At some point, we signed up to campaign for McGovern for president, despite us being too young to vote.  And, saving the best for last, Daniel scored us tickets to see John Lennon in concert at the Garden, with a lineup that included Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack.

I felt like I was a debutante at the ball, with a dance card that Daniel assumed needed filling. He gave me every reason not to focus on my future.

Portrait Day for our school year book photo was the first sign that summer was ending and school would soon begin. As I posed for my photograph, I could see that what I dreaded most was already barreling toward me like a maniacal witch on a broomstick. And still I had no goals. I’d been so preoccupied with Daniel I hadn’t given it a thought.

Once school began, I looked at the list of colleges Mrs. W. had suggested for me, and began the application process, writing to each school to request an application. Through it all, the feeling of dread kept taunting me. I no more wanted to go to any of these schools than they wanted to have me. I was positive of that. I just wanted to hold on to what I had a while longer. Me, my friends, and, of course, Daniel. Together always. Safe in the bosom of our town.

But in early December, Daniel called me with his news. He’d been accepted to a prestigious school upstate. I was puzzled. Decision time was still months away. He then explained how he had all the credits he needed to graduate high school and start college in January–a full six months early.  I listened in disbelief. He had been such a big part of my life these past few months, and I’d grown to rely on him. My planner and willing accomplice. And now he was leaving.

How would I ever manage?

To be continued.


18 thoughts on “Lightning in a Jar: No More Fun & Games

  1. Those teen years were crazy, when we were supposed to make plans for our future, and what we wanted to do was NOT grow up, not think about it, for a little while longer. Like you, there were things I knew I did NOT want to do, but had little idea of what I *did* want to do.

  2. The light at the end of the tunnel really is sometimes a train, how well you captured the loneliness of High School and disappearing friends.

    I love your writing Monica, but I especially love this story of your history.

  3. I wasn’t terribly ambitious in high school either, I’m afraid. I worked hard and got good grades–which is to say I as a perfectionist–but one with no real goals beyond the next “A.” That must have been a shock for you when Daniel let you know his plans. Wow. Can’t wait to see where this goes.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

  4. Your guidance counselor, while probably well-meaning, failed on so many counts — failed to use her position to influence you positively, failed to encourage you to eagerly grasp your future, failed to bolster your flagging self-esteem and confidence. That’s a crying shame, Monica. I suppose that’s what is meant by sins of omission.
    You’ve written a gripping installment here. I like the way young-you is having the reality of senior year smack her right in the face, whether she’s ready for it or not. I think a lot of us can empathize with young-you!

  5. I think the last line says it all…..
    How would I ever manage without him?
    I bet the answer was a darn sight better than you expected.
    We often I think let others organise our lives and go with the flow, not realising quite often their long term or even mid term plans don’t involve us.
    Certainly I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school with average exam grades.
    I await the next instalment with great interest

Comments are closed.