You can hear me reading a WAY condensed
version of this story for NPR's "All
Things Considered" by clicking here
you can listen to it at HearingVoices.com (the cool guys who originally got me the gig) by clicking here.
My Texas high school contained only juniors and seniors in one gigantic set of beige, stucco, and glass multilevel buildings separated by grand, crisscrossing bridges, balconies and walkways. The campus had seven buildings that were separated by lush green lawns, rolling hills, duck ponds and water fountains. Our graduating class was over 3,000. This was the perfect setting to kind of hypnotize all of us into a kind of pre-mature adulthood. Because of the layout of our campus and it's architecture - which resembled a kind of low rent community college - we kind of subconsciously left the fun and frivolity of our previous years in school and become "adults who will be in college in a year or two" probably a little faster than we should have. It was like some weird limbo between what we thought high school shouldn't be and what we thought college would be like. We had open campus lunch period, the attendance rule was lazily enforced (yet people showed up anyway), there were never fights, people only got in trouble for doing fraternity stunt-style pranks, everyone drove, everyone worked after school, people partied "hard" and "seriously" like in college.
Only when we graduated and really went to college did we realize we were fooling ourselves. Looking back, I think as a graduating class we were being a little too hard on ourselves and all those little clichés ARE true - "you're only young once" and "you shouldn't try to grow up too fast" and "these are the best years of your life" blah blah blah etc. Perhaps we SHOULD have still worn little foil stick-on stars on our foreheads for being first in line, and we SHOULD have all come to school dressed in costume on Halloween and we SHOULD have gone home with notes for our moms safety pinned to our coats while all the stupid fun could have still lasted. Rhonda Maloney, my 3rd period algebra teacher, wouldn't have necessarily told us that we should be doing these things, but through her actions or more specifically, looking back on her actions on one particular day, it became clear that one should never be in such a rush to be sophisticated... even in high school. Or maybe ever.
What did she do that was so influential you ask? She didn't care what anyone thought of her in the most literal sense, and when the cards were stacked against her she decided to make people who probably didn't have a single event happen in their lives *FREAK* just a little bit. Rhonda Maloney gave boring people something to talk about. Rhonda Maloney inadvertently checked a book out from the Screw You Bookstore and when she realized it was too late to return it, instead of cowering in shame she let her freak flag fly with sincere pride and shocking ease. Rhonda Maloney taught us all to be an adult and a child at the same time, and that made all the difference for me.
Ms. Maloney was new to my high school that year. She was probably somewhere in her twenties, very pretty - even sexy. Her and her husband had just moved from somewhere in the southwest - I think - and she had landed this mathematics teaching job at our big school.
Maybe Halloween was a BIG DEAL at the high school she came from. Maybe at the school she used to teach at EVERYONE dressed up on Halloween. Maybe she used to teach at an elementary school where the young kids dressed up enthusiastically every year and Rhonda somehow thought high school juniors and seniors would do the same. Maybe she was from a town where everyone went to sci-fi/horror conventions four times a year and were just of that certain Star Trek/Star Wars fan mindset and LOVED Halloween and dressed up even NOT on Halloween. Maybe Rhonda Maloney thought that the social hierarchy of the teachers and faculty was PROVEN on Halloween by who could come up with the most outrageous costume - and this being her first year she wanted to make a big splash. Actually, my theory is that Rhonda Maloney was a little wild and of the "what the Hell, you only live once" variety. I had some teachers in high school whom I suspected were a little wild on the weekends. But I suspected they were wild in SCARY ways. I think Rhonda Maloney was wild in a much cooler way. She was wild in a smart way.
FLASHBACK, early 1980's:
As me and the other students were filing out of 3rd period algebra class on October 30th, the DAY BEFORE the big event that changed me forever, Rhonda Maloney said to the class "Extra credit for anyone that comes in costume tomorrow for Halloween!" Then she kind of looked around to gauge everyone's reaction with a slight hunger in her eyes.. "Extra credit?" we all collectively thought. Huh? For showing up to high school dressed in costume for Halloween? High school? Our super grown up high school? We're adults now.
She had a plan. She KNEW she was going to come to school tomorrow and rock everybody's world with her outfit! But WE didn't know that... yet. You could tell she was a bit... hesitant. Looking back after all these years, I realize her comment about the extra credit thing revealed a bit of doubt on her part, and also played an important role in what was about to unfold.
I can just picture what happened that day in the faculty lounge: Did her gleeful "Hey, who's coming in costume tomorrow?" comments to the other teachers in the lounge get met with awkward silence? Was she starting to detect a hint of we-don't-dress-up-in-costume at-this-school we-are-all-adults-now in the tone of the other administration (whom she was still probably on a trying-to-get-to-know basis?) Hey... we had only been in school a mere two months - this was the first OFFICIAL possibility-for-a-dress-up-festivities holiday! Did she have enough time to figure everyone and everything out? Maybe she did - maybe she didn't. In the end what matters is that she did IT. And that was the key thing I spoke of earlier. Rhonda Maloney, even after her doubts that anyone else at the school shared her wacky enthusiasm for strange costumes on Halloween (reflected by her offer to give extra credit to students who joined in), even after all that, Rhonda Maloney decided to GO FOR IT. I will always wonder if she calculated wrong on that Halloween Eve, but one thing I'm sure of is this; in the end she didn't care if she had or not.
I remember the next day well... like it was yesterday. That morning, the flocks of students were filing into the various buildings of my high school from the parking lots. It was a sunny day, and just a little bit cool perhaps, just another day. Oh yea it's Halloween - we forgot. We're adults. I was in the general sciences building near my locker. You never forget where you were on the day something of that magnitude happens.
I remember the first glance I got of Rhonda Maloney in the crowded hallway. It was an image you never forget - the way the disruption slowly unfolded out of one end of the hall and spread like wildfire through people's reactions. It's the kind of thing that seers itself onto your conscious and subconscious brain simultaneously and never leaves no matter how hard you try to forget. Imagine a crowded hall full of high school seniors and juniors trying to act like seniors being PARTED... and I do mean PARTED... parted like Moses parted the Red Sea parted... by Rhonda Maloney, my junior year, semester one algebra teacher. She was wearing a nice pastel blouse/dress combination (a modest Dillards/JC Penny's ensemble), sheer pantyhose, sensible low-heeled shoes, subtle jewelry (pink pearls maybe?), puffed up brunette hair that was styled in one of those 80's poofy bangs, wide blow-dried wings and long, big curls in the back (the kind of big hairstyle that framed many women's faces back in the 80's in Dallas) and in this case, on this particular day, was framing a full-out, probably took hours to create and would put the make up artists from the Planet Of The Apes movies to shame, elaborate, Hollywood special effects style, latex and spirit gum and individual hair appliqué ape face mask - complete with moving parts! The thing looked DAMN real! Too real. It was so real it was disturbing. Not a fun Halloween kind of festive disturbing but a truly surreal, nightmarish, weird kind of disturbing.
One of the reasons the event was so compelling was that - you knew, you just KNEW, the second you saw her walking down that hall that she PROBABLY thought lots of people would come to school dressed in costume. She probably thought at least some of the other FACULTY would come in costume! Oh it was a spectacle to end all spectacles. It would have been one thing if she was dressed as a witch or Elvira or the Bride of Frankenstein or even Leather Face or something. But her costume was so mind-rattlingly disturbing it was genius. Too genius. So much ran through your head as you gazed in shock at this brave woman's situation: The subtle humiliation you guessed she was experiencing but weren't sure because you couldn't see her through the elaborate make up, that fact that she obviously couldn't easily take off, the yelps, the screams, the excitement... the horror. Oh the horror. At that moment all at once it was what you felt about her - what you thought she felt about all of us - what we thought she was thinking about how we felt about her - what we thought about what we thought she was thinking about what we thought - the collective, ecstatic relief we all simultaneously felt that we WERE NOT HER at that moment - It was like the climax of a cruel Candid Camera / cool-kids-trick-the-nerd-kid / Carrie White-at-the-prom-as-the-blood is-being-dumped on-her-head kind of moment. All this ran through everyone's heads in a matter of seconds. It was sensory overload.
Salvador Dali (and maybe Roman Polanski) would have been proud.
Ms. Maloney just moved through the hallway really fast - walking quickly down the center of the boiling crowd, her horizontally striped pastel chiffon skirt waving gently in the breeze, her proudly held high elaborate gorilla face darting back and forth from one group of students to another as the cat-calls and guffaws and pointing fingers came from all directions. What else could she do except just go with it? She made the right decision. You knew she was looking through the glued-on hair and jowls on her face as she was scanning the crowd and thinking "OH MY GOD! No one is in costume! I am the only one! Everyone is staring! I thought at least some people would come in costume!" What was her facial expression beneath the mask? A garish smile? Laughter? Resignation? Shock? Joy? Tears? An unbelievably complex mix of several extreme emotions due to the extremity of the situation that resulted in a temporarily garish and twisted face that perhaps resembled Bells Palsy?
Even the APE FACE itself didn't really look NICE or HAPPY in any way - it looked kind of oddly female... and the look of the female ape was kind of... SAD.... kind of like a wounded animal you see on the side of the road. Then as she got closer you saw... the eyes. Oh God, you could see her EYES! Oh her EYES! The windows leading straight to her soul amongst all the make-up and goo and paint - and their attachment to the mask was seamless. Her real eyes were the costume's eyes - painted black and then attached to the rubber parts around the hideous primate nose and protruding, hairy brow that formed the primate face. And they were the first thing you zeroed in on as you looked at her, and as you gazed at them what they revealed about Rhonda Maloney's mind at that moment, and what they reflected about your own insecurities was... unspeakable.
It was like you were witnessing someone's mildly embarrassing moment turned into "the most embarrassing moment of my entire life" by the very fact that no one else was in costume and everyone was staring and she had just realized that fact and it was too late and she was going to have to wear it the whole day... I mean it's not like she could just take it off! It was a dizzying mix of pity and shame and weird admiration mixed with visual screw-with-your-head contradicting semiotics that didn't have anywhere to fit inside your brain so it just kept bombarding your consciousness painfully the more you stared and stared and stared. And trust me ...you STARED. You knew... you just KNEW there was a lethal mix of regret and shame SOMEWHERE down behind all that latex and hair and paint. You could not look away at this... FREAK! This SHAMELESS misfit! Brazenly sashay-ing her wanton disregard for the very basic elements of cool right in everyone's face LIKE IT WAS NOBODY'S BUSINESS!!! Rhonda Maloney just strutted on by like it was brilliant. Fashion experts say you can get away with wearing almost anything if you do it with confidence. Rhonda Maloney had it in SPADES baby.
In a matter of seconds Rhonda Maloney had turned a possible run-and-hide situation into an I-am-invincible-Wonder-Woman situations... and that made ALL the difference. She was a megaton neutron bomb of "don't mess with me"-ness. A laser blast of inspirational bravery lashed at us through a blinding flash of molded latex, panty hose, rubber warts and spirit gum.
And within minutes she was the talk of the school. There was even a rumor that the Principal was going to "send her home" because her outfit was "inappropriate" A teacher! Wow. We were as excited as little kids. A teacher causing a ruckus and polarizing the student body and faculty by shamelessly wearing a disturbing ape face. How cool was that?
All I knew after those 10 unforgettable seconds in the hallway was that I COULD NOT WAIT FOR THIRD PERIOD ALGEBRA!
When I got to third period, there she was. There nightmarishly surreal Rhonda Maloney - the new queen, sitting quietly on her newly created throne, the new axis she had created from which everything about the school now rotated around. My new authority figure for the hour, the reluctant genius gorilla woman sitting behind her desk grading papers, quietly screwing with our minds, challenging our resolve. Everyone filed into class and sat behind their desks. People talked in hushed, heavy whispers. She just sat there working at her desk in her gorilla mask. The bell rang - forget class - the questions poured fourth; "Why? Why? WHY!?" was what everyone wanted to know.
"I thought everyone was going to dress up today but I guess I was wrong." Ms. Maloney said through the mask, her voice weirdly muffled but still audible.
She did? Her supreme confidence betrayed what she said. You started to wonder if she was HOPING that she would be the only one in costume that day.
"How will you eat?" someone asked
"I haven't figured that out yet" was her answer. Hey this woman's willing to suffer for her art!
"How long did it take to put it all on?" was the next question "Oh about three hours! My husband and I got up at 4 AM this morning to do it!" (Hey - she'll sleep when she's dead OK?)
"Did your husband wear a mask like that to where he works" someone asked
"HAHAHAHAHA!!!" she loudly laughed through her muffled mask as she rocked her head back and forth (I can't tell you how odd this looked) "My husband works in a place where I don't really think it would be appropriate!" was her ultimate reply.
We all kind of looked at each other quizzically.
As the interrogation progressed, it was interesting watching everyone's motivation slowly reveal itself. Looking back, I realize that we weren't really looking for specific answers to our questions as much as we were looking for certain reactions from her. Although we weren't consciously aware of it, she had truly messed with our heads, our sense of what was cool and adult, or what we thought was cool and adult. She had subtly mocked our value system in a very powerful way... and now we wanted resolution... closure... order... revenge. We wanted to prove that we were right and that she was wrong. Kids, even pretend grown up high school kids, can be so cruel. We weren't looking for answers to our questions as much as we were trying to bombard her with questions until we could see cracks in her confidence - poking and prodding her with our polite and mature inquiries to see how she would react - hoping to find a weak spot so we could categorize her as a nut and a loser and breath easy once again. This is how things between layers of the social hierarchy work. You see it on nature shows about the animal kingdom, and you see it in high school. Even our pretend grown-up high school with an algebra teacher coming to school with a gorilla head. Isn't human nature funny?
"We heard that the principle was going to send you home for causing a disturbance!" the stoner Led-Zep girl who sat in the back finally blurted out, causing a marked silence in the room.
"No" Ms. Maloney said with a calm voice, "that is not true" then adding curtly "...and be careful because that is how rumors start."
We were all guessing, or maybe we were fantasizing, that something had occurred between her and the faculty. But even if it had - it was something she wasn't going to share with us.
It was amazing that by one person doing just one simple but ingeniously extreme thing, even accidentally, that they could alter the power structure of a community so resolutely. The power structure at our school, with it's usual power pyramids amongst the various cliques and subcultures in the student body... contained an enormous generation gap between the young students and the older faculty members. Hardly unusual but almost unnoticeable until this moment. Now here we all were as young students, subconsciously hoping that the older faculty was on OUR side of wanting to mock Ms. Maloney for freaking us out so proudly and calmly. Suddenly the divide between the young and the old, the new and the traditional, the students and the faculty was invisible - we were all suddenly bound together in a conscious desire to see Ms. Maloney crack or fall.
But she didn't. She just carried on with the class day and maintained as much civil dignity that you can in a blouse, skirt, heels, pearls, GREAT hair, and a hideous, hairy, sad eyed gorilla face.
"Now get out your books and open to page 112" She said as she stood up and walked towards the chalkboard to write out math problems. She taught the entire 50 minute class like that, standing at the blackboard and all. It was the most bizarrely dignified thing I ever saw. And because she was able to do this she had attained a kind of alien SUPER DIGNITY a weird PROFOUND DIGNITY that only gods or maybe really old people understand.
As the day went on, some students were in support of Ms. Maloney, others wanted to see her slip up under the pressure of giving everyone something to talk about. How dare she crease and fold people's mental guide maps of how-to-act without warning them. Never mind the hidden racial prejudices she was probably subtly tapping into at our nearly all-white school. By the end of the day I fully expected to turn some corner of some hallway and see her being burned like a witch at the stake by an angry group of students; "Burn witch burn! How dare you remind us kids of the children we are trying to forget we are!! How dare you make us look so uncool by doing something so outrageously different that it transcends the very act of cool and places you on a plateau even higher than any of us!!! How dare you force us to respect you!!" they would all be shouting... while the faculty looked on in silent approval.
In between every class... no matter where you were on campus you overheard
people talking about Rhonda Maloney and what she had done. I even saw one
guy put on a child's paper gorilla mask he had bought at lunch period and
walk down the hall to the derisive laughter of others. Later in the day
I saw two overweight girls who had made paper plate gorilla masks with
"Algebra 101" written on the foreheads and were going to wear them the
whole day to show support for Rhonda Maloney.
Rumors flew like viruses that day; "I heard she's gonna get her teacher's license revoked!", "Her costume is too real! It's just not appropriate!", "I heard she attacked a group of girls that made fun of her in the bathroom!" and other believable lies that were signs that many still wanted to see her fall. But those ranks began to weaken as the day moved forward. Those malicious whispers began to get drowned out by more humorous and optimistic banter like "Well obviously that is her REAL face and every other day she is wearing a fake human one. This is the only day she can come to school looking like she really does." Hey, sometimes an insult can stand out as a compliment when in contrast. When people start treating what you're doing with a humorous comment rather than a malicious one - then you know you've one them over.
She went the entire seven hour day in her mask like that, being the absolute center of attention, a lightening rod for people's dreams and deepest layers of hidden insecurities and even deeper wells of hidden self-confidence. She silently mocked and derided without alienating or offending but rather the end result of her actions were to inspire and unite and possibly make new. She also acted like a black hole that - throughout the seven hour day - sucked all the pesky insecurities and pretense that come with pretending to be something you're not *s-w-o-o-s-h* sucked all those annoying qualities right out of our hallways and lockers and our brains, temporarily at least. And what she left in it's place was that sweet, white light that shines in your eyes and warms your skin when you realize that something you have been worrying about really isn't important, and your realize that something's power over you has stopped existing because it can't control you any more and you feel alive and inspired as it's warmth validates your being by reminding you that you have the right to do what you want, and feel happy.
During one stroll after 6th period, I saw a group of students shout at Ms. Maloney across one of the courtyards toward her "You look stupid!!!" and then waited for her to react. Her reaction? She turned around, stopped and raised a clenched fist high in the air and stood there like some kind of frozen super hero, her pastel colored skirt blowing gently in the breeze, the sun glistening on her plastic latex gorilla forehead. She stood there for about two seconds but it seemed like a zillion years, in a stance that showed a solid and unwavering belief in her freakiness. It was quite a sight to behold. The student's reaction? Stunned, stupefied silence. She then turned and walked past me. She looked up and kind of slightly pulled back for a second. I guess she hadn't seen me at first.
"Hi Mark!" she said through all the rubber and glue.
I just put one hand up and said "Hey."
In the sunlight I could see the rims of her mask were starting to give way, peel off and wrinkle. One of the jowl pieces had now shifted and was uneven. The mask was beginning to come apart under the strain of a full day of teaching. She just walked past and as she did I saw weird little gooey clumps of spirit gum residue that were beginning to collect around her neck. She looked, exhausted, haggardly majestic... brilliant.
There was a completely new kind of wacky diligence and warped dignity in what Ms. Maloney was doing that day that had a serious effect on me.
Rhonda Maloney was, at that moment, for me, ahead of her time.
I learned a lot about life that day. I also learned a lot about algebra - seriously... there is something about a teacher in a latex gorilla mask... everyone s-t-r-a-i-n-i-n-g to hear what she's saying as we all took notes, that makes you RETAIN what is taught in a really solid way.
Someone should look into this!
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Copyright 2002 Mark Allen