Square Dance

One of my favorite television shows of all time is The Wonder Years.  Few shows have the ability to make you laugh out loud one minute and cry the next.  The Wonder Years is one of them.  And one of the very best episodes is a Season Two gem called “Square Dance.”

The opening scene shows a pair of hands flipping through the pages  of a twenty-year-old junior-high-school yearbook.  The hands belong to the show’s narrator, the adult version of main character Kevin Arnold.  And we hear him say in a voice-over:

“Some people pass through your life, and you never think about them again.  Some you think about and wonder–what ever happened to them?  And then there are those you wish you never had to think about again.

“But you do.”

Now the scene shifts back two decades and we see the twelve-year-old Kevin, in seventh grade.

kevin

In gym class, it’s the first day of square dance.  The teacher is pairing up boys and girls to be dance partners for the week.  Kevin hopes for a popular girl.  But when he’s paired up, it’s with Margaret Farquhar, the class outcast.  Everyone thinks of her as the strangest student in the class.  Kevin groans, and wishes he could escape.  But he’s stuck.  He needs to dance with the seventh-grade pariah for the entire week.

sqdance

Maybe some viewers rush to judgment here.  Why should he be so concerned about what others think?  About how his classmates view him, and what they’ll say about him dancing with Margaret Farquhar?  But of course this is junior high.  Image, as Andre Agassi once said in a commercial, is everything.

Certainly, in The Eye-Dancers, this is something both Mitchell Brant and Ryan Swinton can relate to.  Mitchell continually puffs himself up with exaggerated tall tales and even cheats on tests sometimes to get better grades.  When he’s being honest with himself, he acknowledges that he’s jealous of the popular boys in his class.  He can tell all the stories about himself he wants.  He’ll never be popular like them.  And it hurts.

Ryan, on the other hand, desperately wants to be liked, and he pursues this desire by playing the role of the class clown.  He feels a tremendous amount of pressure to make people laugh, to always have jokes and punch lines on demand.  When he tells a joke and no one laughs, it’s the worst feeling in the world.

So when Kevin Arnold, in “Square Dance,” feels nauseated by his partnership with Margaret Farquhar, I’m sure Mitchell and Ryan would get it.  “We hear you, Kevin,” they’d say to him if they could at the start of The Eye-Dancers.  “We’d feel the same way.”

The thing is–throughout the week of square dancing, Margaret takes a liking to Kevin, and at one point she even comes over his house.  She shows him her pet bat.  She tells him she also has a pet tarantula and a pet lizard.  Kevin’s opinion of her is solidified.  She’s weird.  But, to his surprise, he kind of likes her company.  The adult Kevin, in his role as voice-over narrator, looking back on the scene from the chasm of twenty years, says, “The thing was, she was interesting.  In a weird way, of course.  But interesting . . .”

margaret

Nevertheless, he is still appalled at the prospect of dancing with or even talking to her at school.  So when, the next day, she approaches him in the hall, all smiles, happy to see him, he tells her they can’t talk anymore.  At least not in front of anyone.  “Maybe we can be . . . secret friends,” he tells her.

At this, she finally gets the message.  All week long, he had been sending her signals that he couldn’t be seen with her, didn’t really want to dance with her.  But she hadn’t taken the hint.  Now she at last sees the situation as it really is.

Secret friends?” she says, on the verge of tears.  “How can we be friends if you don’t want to talk to me?  What’s so bad about talking?”

This causes a scene.  Other students gather around, mock her, pick at her, as they always do.  Meanwhile, Kevin just stands there.

“I wanted to say something,” the adult Kevin says in a voice-over as we watch the scene unfold.  “But I didn’t.”

It was Margaret who did the talking.

“I thought you were different,” she says, and then walks away.

The closing sequence of the episode takes us back to the present day, twenty years later, as the adult Kevin looks at Margaret Farquhar’s picture in his old junior high yearbook.

“Maybe if I’d been a little braver,” he says, “I could’ve been her friend.  But the truth is, in seventh grade, who you are is what other seventh graders say you are.”

“The funny thing is,” he concludes,  “it’s hard to remember the names of the kids you spent so much time trying to impress.  But you don’t forget someone like Margaret Farquhar.  Professor of biology.  Mother of six.  Friend to bats.”

And here the episode ends . . .

This is something both Mitchell Brant and Ryan Swinton must face and wrestle with over the course of The Eye-Dancers.  True, the novel is a sci-fi adventure about parallel worlds and dreams and the interconnectedness of all things.  Hopefully it takes readers on a wild and imaginative ride.  But at its heart The Eye-Dancers is a story about growing up, about adolescence and confronting the struggles that accompany it.

And I’d like to think that, by novel’s end, if either Mitchell or Ryan saw Margaret Farquhar standing across the room, they would go up to her and ask, “May I have this dance?”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Marc Kuslanski, “Know-It-Alls,” and the Sixth-Grade Spelling Bee

Marc Kuslanski is a know-it-all, plain and simple.  From the time we first meet him in The Eye-Dancers, in chapter four, it’s all too evident that he loves the sound of his own voice, and rarely doubts that his theories or explanations are accurate.  Marc’s the kind of person who, when asked a question about anything, will be quick to offer his opinion.  Even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he acts like he does.

I have to admit, I used to be a little bit like Marc myself.  I like to think I’ve matured a bit over the years, and no longer go around trying to prove my point or picking arguments about inconsequential pieces of trivia (though some of my friends may disagree!).  But when I was right around Marc’s age in The Eye-Dancers, I was all too quick to try to prove how much I knew.  Geography?  I memorized the state capitals of all fifty U.S. states, not to mention numerous nations around the world.  Presidents?  I made it a point to recite all the U.S. presidents, in a row, in under twenty-five seconds.  When my parents had guests, I’d go over to them and say, “You wanna hear something?”  And then:  “WashingtonAdamaJeffersonMadisonMonroeQuincy-AdamsJacksonVan BurenHarrisonTylerPolkTaylorFillmore . . .”  I don’t think I ever stopped for a breath.  And when I ended with Reagan (this was the ’80s, after all), I checked my watch.  My record was eighteen seconds.

Looking back, I shake my head.  I needed a humbling experience in the worst way, and in the sixth grade, I got one. . . .

The Spelling Bee.  I had done well enough in the preliminaries to make it to the final bee–in the school auditorium on a cold, snowy western New York winter day.  The auditorium was full of parents, teachers, students.  Was I nervous?  Who, me?  I would win the bee, no problem!  I didn’t have a doubt.  I looked to my left and right–sizing up my competition.  A dozen students sat in a line, on metal folding chairs.  Onstage, we looked out over the auditorium.  I saw my mom and dad four rows back.  They caught me looking and waved.  Let’s get this show going, I thought.  Time to win.

Mrs. T. asked the questions.  She had been my third-grade teacher and was once again my teacher for sixth grade.  She approached the mic, and asked the first word to be spelled.  The boy next to me, Tom, from my homeroom, misspelled it.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Mrs. T. said somberly, her curly red hair a shade too light under the harsh, bright stage lights.  She held the mic with her left hand, the multiple bracelets she always wore jangling on her wrist.

Tom, defeated, bowed his head and walked off the stage.  I saw him slink in beside his parents in the audience, forced to watch the rest of the competition from the crowd.  Beside me, his empty gray chair seemed lonely and forlorn without its occupant.

“Michael,” she said, smiling at me.  I stood up.  And then she asked me the same word that Tom had just misspelled.  Honestly, I can’t remember what the word was.  But I spelled it right, and sat back down.

By the time the next word came my way, three other students had been sent to sit with their parents in the crowd.  There were eight of us left.

“Okay, Michael,” Mrs. T. said, the sound of her jangling bracelets competing with her voice.  I stood up, ready.  “The next word is ‘boundary.'”  And then she used it in a sentence, the way she always did when introducing a new word.  “The boundary between the two nations was well defined.”  Thinking about it later, I realized, she had pronounced the word in a very clear manner–stressing the “a” between the “d” and the “r.”

And yet, at the time, standing there under the lights, looking out at the audience, I somehow overlooked it.  And I didn’t think through the spelling.  I just whipped off a fast response.  After all, it was simple, right?

“Boundary,” I repeated after Mrs. T.  “‘B-o-u-n-d-r-y.’  Boundary.”  I prepared to sit back down in my metal folding chair, without a doubt in the world.

But then Mrs. T.’s voice cut through like an ice pick.  “I’m sorry, Michael.  That is incorrect.”

For a moment, I thought I’d heard her wrong.  Incorrect?  But how could that be?  How could I get such an easy word wrong?  I stood there, frozen for a second, and the clinking of Mrs. T.’s bracelets seemed like giant metal boulders clashing into each other, creating a cacophony of sound.  I glanced at my parents, and they looked at me as if to say, “It’s okay.  No big deal.”

But it was a big deal.  It felt like one, anyway, at the time.  I walked off the stage, looking down at the floor the entire while, and quickly joined my parents in the fourth row, eager to merge with the crowd, turn invisible.

I can’t tell you who won the bee that day, or what any of the other words were.  But “boundary” stays with me, even to this day.  I laugh over the memory now.  It was a lesson I needed at the time.

Marc Kuslanski needs the same lesson.  And over the course of The Eye-Dancers, he does in fact learn it, however reluctantly.  In the end, he has no choice.

So, here’s to you, Marc.  Here’s to the know-it-all in each of us . . .

“Boundary,” huh?  No problem.  Piece of cake.  “B-o-u-n-d-r-y.”

Next question, please . . .

–Mike

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