Tales of Junior High Vindication: An Essay About Why I Am Smart

It was probably 1999. Or the year 2000. 9/11 had not happened yet, I know that much. I was definitely in middle school/junior high. Once a week, I would venture over to Mr. Mayhew’s classroom for Gifted and Talented, or GT, which was some kind of special class for kids that were excelling at….creativity or something. I don’t know if you had this in your middle school program, but it basically seemed like a separation of the “smarter” kids from the “dumber” ones. I would, in hindsight, argue that this distinction was completely subjective and probably based on the teachers’ opinions; there are likely people that were in GT that were not gifted or talented at anything at this formative period in their lives, so GT is a bit of a misnomer, and I hope they still don’t call it that. A title like “Gifted and Talented” would probably go to a kid’s head, as would the exclusion of such a title. It probably went to my head, which is likely a contributing factor why I’m such a smug jerk now. Also, I don’t remember a single minority student in GT, and I was in GT for however long a kid was allowed to be in it, which I think was something like grades 3-8. So that’s notable, I think.

I loved GT because it got me away from regular classwork and it usually meant school was almost done for the day. We would work on creative projects or have lengthy discussions about current events. Mr. Mayhew was great at leading discussion. Overall, he was a great teacher. I had him for history and science classes as well, and the guy knew his shit. He was one of the few male teachers I had post-elementary that wasn’t a coach and wasn’t half-assing it or just reading an outline out of a textbook. He was a real teacher who gave a crap whether his students were learning. And he was cool too. On a GT field trip, he let a few of the boys, including myself, go into an R-rated movie, as long as he chaperoned. The movie was The Matrix. He wanted to see it too, I could tell, though he was pretty good at maintaining the “authority figure” role. He’d probably be up in my Best Pre-College Teachers list. Undergrad and graduate professors get their own list, of course, because they have an unfair advantage for a number of reasons.

I remember having a lengthy conversation with him about how the Matrix and the story of Jesus had similar storylines (Mr. Mayhew was very active in our youth groups and bible summer camps as a counselor and chaperone). This now seems obvious, and became so overwrought as the sequels came out that by the time the final one was released, I felt like it was just a predictable afterthought that Neo would die to save mankind. Because, you know, Jesus did that too. At the time, though, it was a revelation for me to discover thematic connections in cinema, even if they were pretty blatantly influenced by the most retold story of all time. I guess the summary of this entire paragraph is that the Matrix trilogy was an overwhelming disappointment and I still don’t think I’m over that.

Also, by that time no one was interested in my observant plot connections, because Passion of the Christ had been released, and who needs subtle narrative references when you can get your point across by showing a guy getting beat to death for three hours and call it a movie?

ANYWAY…..

So yeah, Mr. Mayhew was great. GT was great. But one day in GT, Mr. Mayhew made me very angry. Of course, he didn’t know it at the time. He probably still doesn’t know it. He may never know. No one knew it, because I was likely silent for the remainder of the class. I was likely seething.

The topic of discussion for this particular class was the Top 5 Inventions of All Time. Pretty broad, right? I suppose the parameters for qualification would be an invention that was a significant catalyst for society; it changed lifestyle, commerce, and everyday activities for the better and almost universally. This invention probably didn’t have to ignite this change overnight, but as time went on, and technology improved, the impact of this invention could not be ignored.

Many inventions immediately come to mind, and many were said in the discussion: the light bulb, the cotton gin, the telephone, the printing press, the wheel, the compass, penicillin. We weren’t really trying to make a solidified list, just discussing which inventions would be up for debate.

As the conversation progressed, I finally had thought of one no one had said. I immediately shot my hand up and was called by Mr. Mayhew. “How about the Internet?” I exclaimed proudly.

Mr. Mayhew chuckled, shook his head, dismissively said, “no,” and took the next suggestion.

I sat there, my mouth agape. Did he not want to hear my argument for the Internet? Why wasn’t this even being nominated? I wasn’t even saying it was in the final five, just that it was definitely up for consideration. I’d had the Internet at my parents’ house for about two years at that point, and it had completely changed my life. I had learned how to build websites, discover music easily, and create content. If this was happening for a 13-year-old in a small Texas town with a dial-up connection, who could disagree bigger things weren’t happening elsewhere?

Of course, this was, as I’ve said, 1999 or 2000 or whatever. The idea of the Internet completely transforming our lives was maybe far-fetched, especially for a guy in his forties who, as far as I could remember, didn’t even have a computer in his classroom. But maybe not just for him. Our school likely didn’t have Internet at this time. The word Google likely wasn’t a big thing yet. I doubt anyone in my class had a Myspace, myself included. CNN’s website looked like this, and that was considered pretty awesome. Who would’ve imagined what the Internet would become? How could anyone envision it?

Well I did. I did, Mr. Mayhew. At the time, I envisioned the Internet completely turning the world upside down. Commerce, business, communication, information, copyright, everything would be changed and modified because of this new technology. I remember broadcasting my first online radio station via Shoutcast on Winamp and thinking, “How is this legal?” I had already discovered Napster, which wasn’t an unknown entity at this point. How could anyone not see that this would forever threaten the notion of traditional intellectual property laws? How could anyone not see that our cell phones were inevitably going to get better to the point of having the Internet with us everywhere we go? Was it really so far fetched to believe, at the very least, our Internet connections were going to improve, that we could do decent comparison shopping and have our purchases delivered to us without ever leaving the house, that we would be able to connect with friends and relatives thousands of miles away within seconds at no additional charge?

Maybe it was from watching too many futuristic movies, maybe it was my fascination with Napster and the fact that I could listen to an alternative radio station in Atlanta in my parents’ living room, that I could continue to have lengthy conversations with a girl I met at summer camp. But I felt like the Internet would live up to its potential, that it would be bigger than Mr. Mayhew or anyone else in that GT class thought. I remember thinking that walking home, that I would be vindicated, that in ten years they would all see, that my suggestion wouldn’t be chuckled and dismissed outright. “They’ll see!” I probably screamed at the West Texas sky, my adolescent fists raised like some overdramatic villain from a Toonami cartoon. “They’ll all see! I shall be avenged!”

Of course, over a decade after this moment, the Internet is regularly a consideration when discussing the most important inventions of all time. What do we use every time a cashier swipes our credit card? When we pay our taxes or bills? When we check the score of the Cowboys game? When we want to know what’s happening in Egypt? When we purchase mutual funds? When we want to know how many US Presidents have been impeached? When we book a flight or plan a family vacation? When we want to find out what our high school sweetheart has been up to? When we want to compare the costs of Samsung TVs to Panasonic TVs before buying one? For some of these, there is still a brick-and-mortar method. But why make the trek when you can do it at your kitchen table in seconds?

And the funny thing is we don’t really think about how different life was in 1999. Because it doesn’t seem that long ago. The presidency of Bill Clinton and the scare of Y2K and the screech of a 56K modem and the popularity of Limp Bizkit don’t seem like far removed ideas. But technology has made 1999 primitive. We’ve had a cultural wave of 90′s nostalgia lately, culminating in NSYNC’s 60-second reunion at the VMAs last night. I suppose this post was inspired originally by a gif-heavy nostalgia trip from Buzzfeed called 25 Things That Were Totally Normal in 1999. I generally hate Buzzfeed and their “articles,” but they are great at what they do, which is garnering a shit-ton of pageviews through common interests and gifs. The relevancy lifespan of a typical Buzzfeed article is usually about a day, but I guess you could argue the same about an episode of the Daily Show, so whatever.

Then I started thinking about this piece of idealistic wisdom from Jim Carrey’s manic Chip Douglas in The Cable Guy, ideas that sounded exciting in 1996, but are typical uses of the Internet and interactive television in 2013.

Maybe it was this pearl of wisdom, that I had memorized verbatim, in a movie Carrey was paid an eight-figure salary for, that Ben Stiller directed, with supporting roles from millennium A-listers Owen Wilson and Jack Black, that I still think is Carrey’s most underrated role. Maybe it was this idea that compelled me to believe that in ten years the entire idea of the Internet would shift rapidly from fun time-killer to necessary workflow component. I guarantee if Mr. Mayhew were still teaching today, he would have a pretty sweet computer in his classroom. Probably an iMac.

So what is the purpose of this post? Two things:

1) I’m feeling pretty nostalgic lately, I guess, and gettting old, and not coping with it well.
2) I was totally right about the Internet, Mr. Mayhew. 13-year-old me would like a word with you.

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One Response to “Tales of Junior High Vindication: An Essay About Why I Am Smart”

  • Roy Mayhew Says:

    Ben, you were absolutely right…I don’t mind admitting when I am wrong. I enjoyed the piece…made me a little nostalgic, also. I do know I taught quite a few students that were smarter than me, that’s where I had to rely on wisdom.

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