Sustained Silent Reading

by Karen Gsteiger

"You know, Karen, everyone always talks about what a dork you are, but I always tell them that you're really nice," --Jennifer W., circa 1990

I think I hit my low point when I tried to suffocate myself with a pillow. I can't even remember what brought it on...was it in seventh or eighth grade? All those grim and dismal years of the p.M. era (pre-Matt) kind of blend together like some kind of dorm cafeteria mystery stew. Did I finally snap after being called "ugly" for the 168,064th time? Could I not see a future beyond the disdainful sneers of my heavily hairsprayed peers? Was I reeling from shame at having been photographed at a slumber party at 3 a.m. with my headgear on? Or was this latest feeble attempt at self-destruction merely a consequence of listening to my mother and brother fighting like bitter pro-wrestling rivals or, alternately, ganging up on my grandmother?

I craved suicide in those days like you crave the TNT-packed burritos from your favorite fast-Mexican joint even though you know that they'll give you the shits.

Teen Suicide Pros:

  • Will no longer have to endure the ceaseless horrors of day-to-day life.
  • Everyone will be really, really sorry.
  • If you commit suicide, you're probably crazy, and God wouldn't send crazy people to hell because it's not really their fault. Right?

Teen Suicide Cons:

  • Almost always involves pain of some sort.
  • Implements to commit proper suicide, e.g., gun, hard to obtain.
  • Will break mother's heart.
  • Will never have the opportunity to become famous, which is a much better way of making everyone really, really sorry.
  • Will die without ever having had a boyfriend.
  • Even though one could plead insanity, suicide still considered mortal sin by Catholic Church.

So you can see how it all breaks down, and in the end, like Renton in Trainspotting, I chose life. But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't from time to time flirt with suicide, albeit in rather implausible ways. So after retreating to the basement and scrawling, "I want to die" about ten times on a piece of paper, I would grab a knife from the kitchen that I knew full well was incapable of cutting a tomato and run it across my wrists. Nothing happened. And that's how I found myself lying on my mother's bed after something simply unbearable, if unmemorable, occurred, my face pressed into a pillow. Perhaps I fell asleep, perhaps I even passed out, but I woke up some time later; I sat up to find the pillow laying on the bed beside me, after having been carelessly tossed away by the subconscious of a girl who didn't really want to go through with it after all.

The funny thing is that I think just about everyone knew I was going through this 1/8-life crisis. My family knew that I would sit in the basement for hours on end every single day and sob, even when I had no idea what on earth I was sobbing for, listening to that perky, synthesized Billy Joel anti-suicide song over and over again. Not that they ever said anything to me about it. I would make dramatic pronouncements every now and then... "I have a feeling that I'm going to die young," I ominously intoned to Nancy, my best and--at that time--only friend. I think she told me to "stop being so retarded."

It was around this time that humor became a religion for me. I mean, what else did I have? MTV Flying Circus reruns saved my goddamn life. Terry Jones appeared on my television dressed in the traditional undertaker's costume. "Are you nervy, irritable, depressed--tired of life?" he asked. "Keep it up!" he exclaimed with a wink. Before I noticed any of my male peers--the slobbering cretins that they were at that age--I lusted after Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, but Eric Idle most of all. When they sang "Life's a piece of shit/When you look at it" while nailed to crosses, I could see that they got it. They understood. They might be sketch comedy gods now, quoted and aped by millions (myself included), but I suspect that when it counted, they had once seen the world though eyes not too different from my own (but hopefully with less myopia and astigmatism). It was during these formative years that I learned one of my most important personal mantras. Comedy is pain. Pain is comedy. Comedy is pain. Pain is...pain is...uh...

"I've seen that Monty Python guy you keep going on about," sneered an Enemy during a recess confrontation. "It's just some stupid old guy telling jokes..."

Oh dear. Perhaps she had the Pythons confused with Benny Hill? How different my life would be now if I had turned to Benny Hill as a shelter from my adolescent storms. Hmmmm...

Anyway, you just know that these days that bitch is probably all, "Oooh, I love the Holy Grail...'I fart in your general direction'...ha ha ha."

* * *

I yearned for Mrs. N to rescue me and adopt me and take me the hell away from St. Mary's, which tormented us both. She was my eighth-grade English teacher and had a terrific sense of humor and looked just like Kathy Najimy. I was in love. We were assigned to keep a journal for English class, and while everyone else probably wrote sporadic observations along the lines of the following: "April 16th--the story we read today sucked. I had meatloaf for dinner," I made my journal a window into my very soul. And I was very aware of Mrs. N as an audience as I wrote her stories and revealed all my secret dreams and hidden fears. I filled up two notebooks and turned them in proudly, waiting for her to acknowledge my tortured brilliance. But although I know she read them, I don't think she ever gave me any feedback, written or verbal. So yeah, that hurt a little, but in her working life, she was probably preoccupied with a haunting, overwhelming sense of dread.

We had SSR for fifteen minutes every day. SSR could possibly have more appropriately stood for "Students Seriously Rioting" or "Sick Sadistic Rampage," but it was actually the acronym for "Sustained Silent Reading." The supposedly laudable goal of Sustained Silent Reading was that every day, for fifteen minutes, we would sit quietly and read a book of our choice. Right after recess--gets us reading, gets us quiet, gets us prepared for class. What actually happened is that Sustained Silent Reading was an opportunity that we fully exploited to go completely apeshit for fifteen minutes. Mrs. N practically burst a blood vessel every day, "Guys, quiet down! This is SUSTAINED. SILENT. READING! Girls, stop talking! Paul, stop stacking those desks...what do you think you're doing??? This is SUSTAINED. SILENT. READING!! You're supposed to be reading your books. Fred, leave the bee alone! Everyone QUIET!!!! SHUT UP!!! SHUT UP!!! THIS IS SUSTAINED. SILENT. READING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

So you know, with that to look forward to every day, no wonder she had little time for crisis intervention.

* * *

A girl's status in the junior highs of America in the late 80s, early 90s was determined by the height of her bangs. Kezia not only had an exotic first name, but she had some of the biggest bangs in town. Add to that her formidable collection of IOU sweatshirts and multiple layers of thick, colored socks, and she was a force to be reckoned with. In 8th grade, she magnanimously invited everyone to her birthday party. I remember that we were sent on a scavenger hunt in the fading light of a cool autumn night and that Nancy and I were put on different teams. "Can't function...without only real friend...paralysis!!!" We tittered at the prospect of collecting a pair of "men's boxer shorts."

I was on the team of tougher girls, L-- and A--. They peed on some random person's lawn while I stood there aghast. Proper girls don't pee outside! And who the hell pees on someone's lawn? I halfway expected to be pursued by an irate homeowner or the police, but we weren't caught. I can't remember for sure, but I'm pretty certain that we didn't win the scavenger hunt either.

Nancy and I left the party shortly thereafter and did our usual girly-girl slumber party thing at Nancy's. We later found out that there was an A-list of guests who were allowed to sleep over at Chez Kezia. But that was okay. I had seen the face of daring, adventurous popularity, and it was the face of public urination.

* * *

Oh, gym was just hopeless. Do I even need to get into it? I mean, look at me--honestly. Do I look like I'm going to be the 7th grade girls' basketball star? In junior high, I learned that women apparently have a gene that ensures that they will play volleyball well. I was born without it. I couldn't get my head around the concept of serving. So...this ball sits still in my hand, and I hit it, and it flies way over there? Nah, that can't be right...let me toss it up in the air first before I hit it. Oh, no, that didn't work. Oops. And although you couldn't get any of these girls to give a rat's ass about English class or history class or any of the classes that got me hot and bothered, oh, they cared about volleyball week in gym class. "That was IN!" they accused as I let the ball soar right past me without much interest and without exerting any effort to reach for it.

And if it wasn't the volleyball, then it was the co-ed dodgeball on days during which it was too rainy for the boys to play football outside. I would invariably be slammed in the stomach by a Nerf ball traveling approximately 92 miles per hour after it had been lobbed by Stephen, who had aspirations of becoming a MLB pitcher. And Mr. V would never let me wear my six-inch-thick glasses.

* * *

Most junior highs as the end of 8th grade approaches organize a trip to somewhere interesting, somewhere historical, somewhere cultural. We were sent to Indianapolis. I think that along the way we stopped at one of those farms that was a recreation of a pioneer settlement, with the role-players and everything, "Every day I churn the butter and grind the flour..." Then we went to the Indy 500 museum, took a picture in front of the capitol building (although we didn't really go inside or meet any state senators or even talk to any interns or anything). We ate a spaghetti dinner, and then we drove home. The single most notable event of the trip occurred when Fred shouted, "Hey, everybody, look! There are two guys KISSING!!!" We all ran over to one side of the bus, and I would not have been surprised had it tipped over onto its side. On the way back home, Paul decided that Warrant's "Cherry Pie" was our "class song." The implications of that statement are rather alarming.

* * *

So we were graduating from eighth grade, and it actually was a pretty big deal because this was the school most of us had attended since kindergarten, and damnit, they were going to make us cry about it. So they isolated us in a room before the ceremony, and they gave us letters that were written to us by our parents, "And we're so proud of you, and we love you...WAUGH!!!!" And then we were supposed to write letters to our families. I asked my mother and brother to stop fighting. My brother, Dave, gave me one of those "I don't know, kiddo..." kinds of responses.

They had us stand up in the front of the gym in a line. Candles were burning in our hands. We sang "We Are the World" and that Gulf War favorite, "God Bless the U.S.A." "And I'll gladly STAND up (cymbal crash) next to you and defend her here today. Cause there ain't no doubt I love this LAND...God bless the U.S.A.!"

Later that night David asked me with a look of scorn, "Why are you crying?!"

"Cause I'll never see any of these people agaaaaain!!!!!" I wailed.

* * *

I can honestly say for the most part that I haven't seen any of those people again (except, of course, for Nancy), and for that, I am overwhelmingly grateful.

Well, there are a couple of exceptions. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I remember walking to school and back with Kevin and his older sister, Cathy. Grade school sociology dictated that I eventually wound up in a different caste than quiet Kevin. We never got a chance to see what sort of person he turned out to be because during his freshman year of high school at Bishop Noll, he suffered a series of seizures and died.

Then there was Paul. I actually just found out about Paul a couple of days ago, even though he died in January of 2003. Most unsettling. Although Paul and I were never close friends and although I'm sure he enjoyed teasing me, especially when I displayed my utter incompetence in the drum section in band, he never talked to me as though I were some sort of inferior species, and I really appreciated that about him. He once for some long-forgotten reason gave me a hand-drawn picture of Maggie Simpson, which was really quite good, and I had it taped to my bedroom wall for years. I never harbored any secret romantic feelings for him. He was just nice and funny, and I always, always wished him well. He was probably the one lost person from my childhood whom I wouldn't have minded getting a beer with. I don't drink beer, but that wouldn't have mattered. I always perceived him as existing on some higher social plane, that after we escaped from St. Mary's, our paths would never, ever cross, but now I think that was really a shame. By every account, he had tremendous musical talent and was loved dearly by his friends and family. I'm not exactly sure what happened to him, but I'm sure he was having a fabulous life. (Thanks again, God.) It's all just very disturbing, and I am really quite sorry that I hadn't heard about it sooner.



I looked forward to high school. I was taking the road less traveled--Andrean High, the Catholic high school in Merrillville, IN--where everyone was undoubtedly going to be much more mature, and nobody was going to give me shit unprovoked ever again, and I might even find a boyfriend, but he wouldn't be the type to peer-pressure me into evil, sinful Premarital Sex.

The end.