Looking back over my high school years, I'm struck by just how odd it all seems in retrospective, as if it had been some parallel dimension filled with people and events completely different from the ones I know now. As I got to thinking about this today, one particularly bizarre day during my sophomore year came to mind.
I think this was in January, which is a pretty bleak month in the Midwest. Or it may have been February, which is even worse. Anyway, for this day the local chapter of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) had come up with a pretty creative way to teach the school about the dangers of driving and alcohol, and conspired with the principal and a few of the teachers to stage a surprise event.
At school that morning, the daily ritual started out about like any other-- lockers, bells, books, gossip, weighty decisions about the sharing of gum. About 15 minutes into the 1st hour, though, just when the teachers were getting into full-swing, all the PA speakers in the building blared out the sound of screeching tires and busted glass, followed without preamble by the message: "Every 15 minutes someone in the U.S. is killed by a drunk driver. Could it be you?"
Silence and stunned looks followed. Then everyone seemed to shrug it off and class went back to normal.
However, every fifteen minutes thereafter, the car crash would play again, followed by another statistic and another dire question. That's not the best part, though... By the third announcement, one of the girls in my class was killed.
I'd better explain: As we gradually discovered as the day went on, the other half of this lesson was to put faces behind the statistics being read. Of course, the students couldn't simply be taken out of class; the principal wasn't about to let kids goof-off for an entire day just for the sake of a demonstration. Instead, those chosen to die would have their faces painted to a cadaverly paleness with theater make-up and returned silently to class, which had its own kind of symbolism I suppose.
In our case, Death came in the form of a senior named Greg. Greg was the class president, and the school's track and field champion; underclassmen worshipped him. Today he was dressed as the Grim Reaper, wearing a black hooded robe, his face painted matte black, and carrying a real, genuine, honest-to-god scythe. He spent the day roaming the halls, randomly summoning students and leading them off to the gates of Purgatory (i.e. the principal's office).
The first few times this happened, it really did give you the chills. It made you realize just what life would be like without one of your friends or classmates around, that there were real names and faces that went with the statistics that we had so callously ignored.
Then, in the middle of 3rd hour, Death knocked three times on the door of my Spanish class and announced that I was dead. "Struck head-on by a drunk driver just a half-mile from his house," Greg added. "Killed on impact. Very sad."
"Ouch," I threw in, and followed him toward the office.
On the way there, Greg leaned over and whispered to me. "Hey, want me to kill someone for yah?" I laughed.
Turning the corner, we ran into a friend of mine who was coming back from the bathroom. "Hey," I offered, "I'm dying! Wanna come?"
"I'm down with that," he said. "I mean, what are friends for?" Then he looked down at the red slip of paper in his hands and realized his hall pass was about to run out.
"Let me see that," said Death. He crossed out 'bathroom', wrote in 'Hades', added 10 minutes to the time, then signed it 'G. Reaper'. Greg was such a cool guy.
Arriving at the red chairs and orange carpet of Sheol, our faces were painted and Greg explained the rules to us, which were simple: A. You have to go back to class and do your work like usual. Even dead guys must learn algebra. B. Try not to rub your face, you'll get smudges all over everything. C. Don't talk to anyone. In fact, no talking period.
We both nodded, then looked at ourselves in the mirror.
"So what are we... like, zombies?" my friend blurted out excitedly.
"Haha," said Greg. "No, more like ghosts."
"But ghosts can talk," I put in.
"Fine, more like spectres then. Now, no talking, I mean it."
We looked at each other, then nodded again. I guess being a spectre would be pretty cool, too.
We went back to class and saw what it's like to be dead. It was eerie, people were really starting to get into it.
However, there was a slight miscalulation in this plan. You see, I grew up in the Michigan backcountry. Our high school had six grades, with 7th straight through 12th all in the same building. Our attendance was about 400 kids on peak days, let alone in the middle of winter. And today, on average, they were killing about a dozen students an hour...
By lunchtime, it looked like the dead were about to outnumber the living.
Teachers were having a tough time trying to keep up the act as more and more people fell to the Reaper. Besides, the tableau of constant death and tragedy was starting to drive people a little goofy. Before long, what it came down to was this: You had large groups of wound-up teenagers, whose emotions had been played on rather harshly all morning, and half of which now had their faces painted white and were forbidden to talk. In hindsight, you can probably guess why this is not a good thing...
Sometime during the last two hours of school, Drunk Driving Awareness Day devolved into an improv mime extravaganza.
(For the record, I happen to be very good at charades, which is a skill you don't get to use all that often. I had a blast.)
As the last bells rang, we all died laughing, and went back to swapping books, homework, gossip, gum. As we were headed out the door, my friend and I (now back from the dead) happened to walk past the principal, who was looking sullen at best.
My fellow casualty, my comrade in life and death, my friend who seems so different now-- he grinned and said to me, just loud enough to be clearly overhead: "God, that was awesome! They should have Kill-Your-Students Day every week!"
The frigid glare that was shot back in our direction probably taught us more about the fear of death than anything we learned that day.