A shortened version of “The Rats” essay below aired on Word of Mouth last week. Here’s the audio:
I can’t quite believe we called the smoker kids, the n’er do wells in high school, “rats” – but we did. “He’s a rat,” I suppose we’d sometimes say, hanging a curtain over a doomed soul. Not a Jimmy Cagney “dirty rat”, we had our own feeling for the word. A rat was a kid in a too big leather jacket who scuffed the hall floors with the rubber tire soles of his monster boots. You could hear every step they took. The ropey whine of leather coats, the shick and shuck heartbeat of their boots. They were like odd pirate ships and they moved among us like that with the vague sense of pillaging about them.
Who sometimes dumped the books from your nervous clutch as though to create a little movie of who you were. Their attacks were always in service of this same revelation. You are not what you pretend to be. They’d make a key dramatic scene in your otherwise silent, action-less film and everything would be revealed. In the crease of your good behavior, you were nothing but a rabbit. On your knees, flushed and ruined, scooping papers together as the world laughed and judged and knew your very core. A bureaucrat in the making, a folded up answer no one would ever want to read. You would say nothing, you wouldn’t fight back, your day or week or year was wrecked. Look how small you are, was the lesson.
Who smoked outside the back fire door. Who smelled like vodka in class. Who lurked in the dark hall. Who were always late, who never had passes, who sometimes just left, who never quite arrived anywhere. Who you’d sometimes see from your chilled desk in math or English illegally slipping into the forest. Going home. Skipping school. Suspended.
Who got called down to the office day after day. Who we were mildly afraid of, who we faintly admired. Whose confusing rebellion we tried to source and emulate in safer places. Who kept away from us mostly. Who we watched with disdain, whose schedules and habits we naturally cataloged that we might avoid them with unconscious skill.
Who had knit brows and who could sometimes laugh harder, with more freedom than any of us and yet with the ring of forgery. As though this was the first time they’d ever laughed. An uncomfortable, unexpected explosion that hurt their throats. We fell for their toneless, make-believe, expletive rich, old man voices. They were the best actors in school by far.
Everything for them was dramatic, dangerous, ill-conceived, wrong footed and somewhat brave. Bravery was what I sensed at the bottom of it all. But not foreground bravery. Not the bravery of heroes, but of convicts in the yard putting up a strong enough front.
That they were battling against cruel fathers or disparaging mothers or brothers that beat them we didn’t know. But we saw they wore the outfit of soldiers. A uniform that spoke to a truth we couldn’t suspect about a war we never saw and could only wonder about. There was a great darkness somewhere in their lives, we knew, uncaused by them.
They never had pencils. They never had notebooks. School was important only as a reprieve. For a game of dice, for candy, cigarettes. For the pleasure of mischief whose punishment didn’t sting. Pulling the fire alarm, blowing up toilets. The price for being caught secretly prized.
We were seeing them in the downtime. In the daylight evening of whatever calamity, in the truce that was made by their distance from the front line. We saw them in the washed out cease fire, walking dazed between the peaceful tents. As content as they could ever be with nothing raining down, despite all they said. Their hatred of school. And yet how they kept returning.
They might have been wild of themselves, their lonesome natures vile. Born awful, treacherous.
But a few times over your four years at high school you would for a short time get to a know a rat. A fringe rat, you’d think. An eccentric specimen. One who happened to be gifted at trigonometry, or who liked a particular book. You would warm together over some shared object. They’d get you to come their way a bit, and you’d get them to come yours.
You’d smoke a cigarette, skip a class or a whole day with them and experience the thrill of lawlessness.
And in return, they would get to see what it was like to be so innocent, to be so hopeful, to think so highly of the future without regard to any proof. And to be so nervous about such small things as homework and tests as never before had bothered them.
And for that moment the dumb dream of picket fences and happy families and combed hair and clean clothes and the whole polished life of a good citizen, of plain regularity and one fair thing after another would rise up before them to witness.
They would fall hard for it and then burn it to the ground.