No. 10: “Coming of Age”
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Originally published in 1995 by Random House.
The beginning of Chapter One of “Coming of Age,” pp. 3 to 6, "Total Godhead":
"Welcome to the first edition of Total Godhead. We at T.G. Headquarters open our arms and hearts to all of you who wish to read our wonderful paper."
-- Terry Gimpell, editor.
Dave Bettencourt was pale when he came into the senior quad that September afternoon. He spoke solemnly, which was not like him at all.
"Chief knows it's us," he told Brian Ross. "Chief" was Steve Mitchell, their principal.
"How'd he find out?" Brian said.
"He called the cops."
Burrillville High had never seen an underground newspaper before. In the two days since theirs had materialized in lockers throughout the school, Dave and his staff had kept to the shadows. No one could figure out who was behind this publication with the bizarre name, Total Godhead. Maybe it was Satanists, as one girl speculated. Maybe it was a teacher who'd gone over the edge. Maybe troublemakers from out of town or, more likely, some loser kid on drugs.
Even a careful reading didn't provide an answer. Each of Total Godhead's 13 articles was bylined -- with names like Toilet Duck, A. Nonymous and Sum Yung Gi. The only clue that looked legitimate was a local post office box, through which Godhead hoped to solicit fan mail, subscription orders, and gifts. Among the suggested gifts were Elvis stamps and condoms, "unused, of course."
"What did the cops do?" Brian asked Dave.
"Went to the post office. They traced it to my dad."
"They can do that?"
"They did it."
"I don't know."
There was funny stuff in Godhead -- you'd have to be a dweeb not to get it. Like the story about meatball stomping, or the one about the human bludgeoned by baby seals. But some of Godhead was irredemably tasteless. One article was an ode to obscenity -- a gratuitous listing of such items as rectal thermometers, nasal fluids, roadkill, and hairy gnome scrotums, whatever they were. One article was inspired by "Cop Killer," the controversial song by black gangsta rapper Ice-T. One reprinted the lyrics from "Rape Me," a song by Nirvana, Kurt Cobain's band.
No one could figure out who was behind this publication with the bizarre name, Total Godhead. Maybe it was Satanists, as one girl speculated. Maybe it was a teacher who'd gone over the edge. Maybe troublemakers from out of town or, more likely, some loser kid on drugs.
Another piece slammed classmates -- by name and with exacting physical descriptions, lest there be any doubt of who was being savaged. "I'm sick of the way you dress," is how one boy was ridiculed. "What the heck is it with the little beard thing?" went the attack on another kid…
Dave and Brian withdrew to a corner of the quad, where they might have privacy while figuring out what to do next. The quad was nothing like what its Ivy League-sounding name suggested -- only a rectangle of lawn with scraggly shrubs, a single tree, and a manhole cover that boys (never girls) periodically and with great ceremony pried off, as if something rare and wonderful lurked in the darkness below. The quad's sole furnishings were a trash barrel, a rusted barbecue grille and two picnic benches decorated with obscenities and declarations of undying love. But permission to hang out there was a senior privilege, and even on inclement days seniors flocked to it, if only to flaunt their status to underclassmen.
Another senior privilege was hosting this Friday's get-acquainted dance, an annual hazing. Since lunch, the mood in the quad had been giddy as seniors made their plans. Could they get away with hosing down the freshmen? Coating them with Crisco oil, catsup, or WD-40? Freshmen were clueless -- you could do make them kiss your naked butt if you wanted to. The challenge was determining the precise location of the line that Chief and his assistant principal wouldn't let you cross.
Dave and Brian's privacy didn't last. It was just too obvious: something was going down, something with a better buzz than a dance.
"What's going on?" said Joel Waterman, Dave's best friend.
"We got caught."
"You're shitting me."
"Uh-uh," Dave said. "Chief called the cops."
"What do we do now?"
"I don't know. Maybe just forget about it."
"We can't do that."
"Did he say what he was going to do?" Joel said.
That wasn't a good sign.
"I think we have to talk to him," said Jason Ferguson.
And Ferg was right: if Godhead was to go forward, they really had no choice. Off they went: seven boys led by Dave, out of the quad and into the administrative wing of Burrillville High, home of the Broncos, a public school with 825 kids in a town of almost 17,000.
Chief did not look amused when the boys got to his office. He looked bigger than he was -- and he already was very big, a six-three, broad-shouldered, dark-haired man who sometimes wore a full feathered headdress when teaching students about his people, the Penobscot Indians of Maine.
"We're the staff of Total Godhead," Dave said.
"Come in," Chief said.
He closed the door…
-- 30 –
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“The Work of Human Hands” had just been published when I began working on “Coming of Age,” in the summer of 1993. Amazingly, it seems now in retrospect, the authorities in Burrillville, R.I., where I was living in the village of Pascoag, had granted me permission to spend an entire academic year at the public high school.
So I did, following a bunch of seniors who became the central characters of the book. With free roam of the school, I attended classes, ate lunch in the cafeteria, went to sports events, and hung out with some of these seniors at their homes and in the community. I even rated the honor of inclusion in the yearbook, with photo and story.
And when that yearbook was published, many in the graduating class signed it.
I must say that year was more enjoyable than my own senior year of high school, half of which I spent off-campus as an intern in a microbiology lab at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy on Longwood Avenue in Boston, near a certain children’s hospital I would feature in “The Work of Human Hands” (no, I did NOT intend to become a microbiologist, but that, too, is a story for another time).
As enjoyable as writing “Coming of Age” was, it did not sell well and it received mostly lukewarm reviews. Jon Karp at Random House had bought it after “Human Hands” and he surely was disappointed in the lackluster sales. But he stuck with me, buying what would become “Toy Wars,” which review- and sales-wise would be everything “Coming of Age” was not.
A sampling of the reviews:
"A welcome surprise."
-- Louisville Courier-Journal.
"G. Wayne Miller's fearlessly titled Coming of Age is a fascinating non-fiction account... by stripping adolescence of its oft-exaggerated melodrama, Miller reveals the everyday beauty of its bittersweet, mundane simplicity."
"Not many books that focus on so-called normal teenagers have been published. Even fewer have been successful journalistically. Prior to reading A Tribe Apart, I placed just two in the masterpiece category -- Coming of Age: The True Adventures of Two American Teens, by G. Wayne Miller (1995), and South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century, by Thomas French (1993)."
-- Philadelphia Inquirer.
"An upbeat story of adolescents who live in a tough world."
-- Christian Science Monitor.
"An intimate report... B+."