Personal Archaeology 13: voices outside

So if you go listen to the latest episode of Pop Culture Affidavit, you’ll get to hear me and Michael Bailey talk about Pump Up the Volume. It’s a film that I consider to be one of the seminal films of my generation, and watching it for the first time in a number of years and then talking about it made me think of that time an underground newspaper circulated through my high school, a copy of which has been sitting in a file folder in my office for years.

I could tell you that I don’t know why I still have this paper, but that would be a complete lie. At some point during my freshman or sophomore year, I decided that I was going to keep a bunch of random things, and that was when our student newspaper launched. I wound up writing a few movie reviews as a sophomore, so I decided that they would be worth keeping. They went into a folder that went into a bin that moved with me several times over, as many things did.

The story behind this underground paper could be the very plot of a television episode; shit, it’s pretty much the My So-Called Life episode “The Substitute” without Roger Rees as the anti-establishment substitute teacher. The editor of the paper voices inside was also its founder, and by the time she was a senior, she’d grown frustrated with the way the paper had been repeatedly censored by the school administration*. She decided, for a last hurrah, to make an unauthorized issue called voices outside and pass it around. A scant six photocopied pages plus a back page that was an ad for our local record store (though I am not sure if they paid for the ad space), it somehow wound up in my sophomore hands and since nobody went around the school confiscating the available copies, I took it home and threw it into the two-drawer filing cabinet that I had in my room.**

For a student newspaper, voices inside was pretty forward-thinking for its day. Sure, they covered the typical “And a good time was had by all” type of high school events, but the editors and writers went after covering the more important issues facing the teens of the early 1990s, looking at a Degrassi‘s worth of drinking, smoking, drugs, and AIDS. In fact, their AIDS Awareness Issue was one of the most memorable***. But what’s in the “outside” edition is even better: uncensored and unauthorized versions of articles from that year, beginning with the editor’s manifesto. She employs the frustrated voice of a disillusioned teenager who wanted to do something more than be “just a teenager” and who ran up against an indifferent or sometimes weak set of authority figures that were more interested in preserving the status quo than allowing a student to express herself, often employing the line “You know that parents read your newspaper and that parents are very influential in this school district.” She then goes on to describe the paper’s prior review process–articles going to the faculty advisor, principal, and even superintendent that were then watered down through editing or pulled altogether. And she finishes with “See, I’ve been manipulated. This is my revenge. I hope lots of parents read this and think I’m a crazy, rebellious kid.”

We then go to an article called “Do We Have Rights?”–a grabber of a headline if there ever was one–that starts off describing the horrific conditions of the school restrooms and ends with a diatribe against the principal and the school system, comparing them to totalitarian authority figures before urging students to put down the Nintendo controller and take a stand. This article is followed by an uncensored version of an essay on AIDS, a genuinely frightening interview with a student who was a member of a white supremacist group, and “Quotes of the issue” that included a line from Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun” that definitely wouldn’t have gotten past anyone’s radar.

Then, she gets into the piece that I remember the most: her thoughts on teenage life. She starts out with:****

so we are “teenage”. we are at the stage in our lives where we are forced to realize that life isn’t going to get any better, that our ‘good old years’ are flying by, and, from our standpoint, they aren’t looking so good after all. what do we have to live for anyway?

She goes on to point out the ways that the adult generation has been setting us up for failure, using a metaphor of them throwing some raging party and leaving us to call the cops. It’s a great metaphor tinged with irony because teenagers hanging out and drinking seemed to be the number one issue with adults in my town at the time, and she follows it up with the reference to Pump Up the Volume that inspired me to dig through my student newspaper file after recording my podcast episode: “we live in a totally exhausted decade where there’s nothing to look forward to, no one to look up to.” Then, she points out that as a generation, we were born too late, having missed everything that as considered a pop cultural touchstone and are, in her words, “generation x,” saying, “i think we’re right in the middle of the era of escape”, which she says explains the lengths teenagers of the time would go to chemically alter their worlds because of the pressures they were all facing, especially the pressure of cleaning up the prior generation’s mess.

In the end, she throws her hands up and says “fuck it”:

now is the time, in this article to write a rousing ‘we can do it!’ reassurance, a plea for us to wake up and get our asses moving, but i’m not going to write it. why should you listen to me? and why should we bother trying to solve the mess we’ve been handed? why is it up to us? let’s get wasted and have our own open-planet party and watch the earth decay. could be kinda fun. why should we worry? who’s going to reprimand us for being fat and lazy and irresponsible when we’re dead?”

It’s a sentiment that became almost cliche in the early Nineties, and if you’ve listened to my Generation X episode, you’ve heard me talk about it. I was 15 when voices outside hit the halls of my high school, and while I can’t exactly remember my reaction, I probably was scandalized because at that age, I couldn’t fathom doing anything that could risk me “screwing up my chances” or bringing some sort of shame upon my family. But I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t get a little rush of adrenaline as I took my copy and filed it away, even if that August I chose to write an essay in my journal–not a journal entry, a full freakin’ essay–in response that I called “My Generation.”

Oh yeah, by looking at that title alone, you know this is going to be an absolute mess.

And it is. I begin by talking about some random Elton John song I’d been listening to nonstop on my brand-new CD player and then reference the lead story in the August 14-20 issue of TV Guide: “The Furor Over R-Rated Network TV”, which focused on the controversy preceding the first episode of the upcoming ABC cop drama NYPD Blue. I had strong opinions, though, about why adults are stupid for getting upset about “Cop Killer”, how people wanting to free the whale from Free Willy are shortsighted, and how God is all around us. Then I reach the same point that my school’s editor did in her essay, expressing how pissed I was at those in power and those with money who fucked everything up for my generation, ranting:

We wet our beds, but you lie in it. You saw what we were doing wrong, so you’re useless. Fuck you! Grab a mop and try to clean up the mess. But you won’t be able to. So they turned to a naive younger age group and began conditioning a machine that would run on their order sand listen to exactly what they said.

Then, I go on to decry how modern conveniences are making us lazy, how we’ve been conditioned to ignore how bad things are, make some nonsensical points about how the system is fucked and then quote her essay, calling it “the biggest ego trip in history.” Then I flat out say “Fuck you” before quoting both Freddy [sic] Mercury and making a reference to John Lennon because I can’t believe she just throws her hands up and says “fuck it” when I want to do something about it. I then close by repeating what a teacher once said to me: “If the dream is big enough, the facts don’t count” and sign it. No, really. I actually put my signature at the end of it and dated it August 14, 1993, following it with a regular journal entry about not knowing why I wrote the piece, just that I needed to get it off my chest.

I’d say that pile of cringe was brought on by both the painkillers and cabin fever that came along with recovering from the facial surgery I’d had a few weeks prior, but that’s a half truth. I was sheltered and immature enough at 15 that a TV Guide article would hit me pretty hard, and privileged enough to believe that my feelings were more valid than hers. Yes, we were both privileged, but the difference is that while I was a snotty, self-righteous (and sexist based on some of the other things I said in that journal essay) sophomore, she was a senior who had seen firsthand how far our community would be willing to go to uphold its privilege. That sentiment–“What would parents think/What will people think?”–was so strong in my upbringing that it’s an anxiety I fight to this day as a teacher, parent, and person.

I would eventually become voices inside‘s editor-in-chief, which is another story for another entry*****, but I don’t remember encountering the same frustrations she did. Then again, I was too focused on flying the “good student” banner to push back against authority. A decade later, I would become the advisor of a student newspaper and would actually push back on my principal’s authority, going to bat for my writers more than once because I understood and respected the duty I had to help them express their voice and didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle of bullshit that the teachers and administrators did back in my teen years and for at least a couple of generations prior.

Okay, that sounds like I was taking up some noble crusade when honestly I spent those years getting frustrated that nobody could ever make a deadline if their lives depended on it. But one thing I’ve come to understand in my capacity as a teacher is that what you’re passionate about in your formative years isn’t trivial. Sure, it may seem insignificant compared to the problems you wind up facing as an adult, but that’s for you to decide when you become that adult, not for me as the adult to trivialize when you’re young. Reading her essay nearly 30 years later, I’m not thinking “fuck you” in a snotty way; I’m agreeing with her about how the world is full of so much bullshit and in that moment of ultimate frustration, she has every right to want to throw her hands up in the air, get wasted, and watch it all die.****** And as I put my copy of voices outside back into its file folder, I wonder if she still has her copy and if she still thinks about it nearly 30 years after she graduated. I have no real way of knowing, but my hope is that even if experience has more than likely shifted her perspective, it hasn’t dulled the fire that I saw on that page.

*It wouldn’t be until my teaching career that I learned that Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier made it legal for this to happen.

**What … doesn’t every teenager have a filing cabinet in their bedroom?

***AIDS and AIDS/HIV Awareness from the 1980s and early 1990s could be its own podcast episode.

****Two things: I’m not using the editor’s name for the sake of respecting her privacy, and the lack of capitalization in the excerpts from her essay are her stylistic choice and I’m presenting them without correction.

*****The last editor-in-chief of the paper, IIRC. I’d then go on to edit my college paper as well. I was terrible at both.

******I tried really really really hard not to quote Everclear right there. You’re welcome.

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