In 9th grade, all students at my school were required to take Language Arts. To my dismay, this turned out to be a public speaking class disguised as a writing class, which meant that my easy A was about to become a desperate C. Though friends have pointed out that I can be loud as fuck in public, especially while talking about embarrassing stories, I suddenly lose the ability to be coherent when placed in front of an audience.
I start talking about a mile a minute, sweating all the while as my face either turns as red as a drunkard’s, or as pale as someone about to pass out. My eyes will dart all around the room as if trying to identify who from the crowd is about to get up and shoot me. Whatever latent paranoia I have (which is a LOT) kicks into high gear, and I become convinced the audience is plotting my downfall at all times.
So yeah, public speaking and I don’t really get along.
But sadly, this class forced me to do it on a regular basis. It all culminated on one unfortunate day when we had to read a short story that we had written out loud to the class.
The assignment was to write a “funny” retelling of a classic fairy tale, and we all had to choose different ones. As a somewhat angry and depressed teenager, my idea of “funny” was a dark as shit Goldilocks and the Three Bears that took place in an apocalyptic future where weapons were as common as loose change. The body count in my story was startlingly high, and I was probably only saved from arrest by virtue of this being written before Columbine. My tale ended with both Goldilocks and the bears burning to death after Goldie’s flame thrower showers the house with fire. Goldie manically mutters that the temperature is now “juuuust right” as her hair bursts into flames.
I did not know in advance that we would have to read this out loud.
I heard about the change in the lesson plan during lunch, as students who had the class earlier in the day recounted their classmates’ “hilarious” stories. My only thought was, “I’M FUCKED.” I knew very well that my story was going to be seen as the ravings of a homicidal maniac, and I ran to the computer lab to shit out a different story in the ten minutes remaining before class.
I was unsuccessful.
And thus I found myself perched on a stool at the front of the class, having to read out loud some of the most disturbing shit I had ever written. As the bullets began to fly and blood ran from one end of the bears’ cabin to the other, I started to feel like I was watching a car wreck from afar. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop the brutal scene that was unfolding before me. Soon enough, my anxiety crested and I completely lost it. I began to laugh hysterically, describing the deadly fire between giggles as I gasped for air. I actually started crying as I plowed through the morbid tale, laughing so hard that my words about graphic murder came out as squeaks. I eventually slid off the stool to the floor in a desperate attempt to abort the insanity. The teacher insisted I continue reading from the cold linoleum. He did not much care for me.
In the end, I received a C- on the story (my teacher cited disliking “black humor”), and I gained a reputation for being batshit INSANE for the rest of my freshman year of high school. Fucking fantastic.
So I have a confession to make. I am a video game nerd.
Now, I know people who have it worse than me. Way worse. But I spent a good portion of my formative years playing video games. My family’s first system was the Atari 2600, whose polished wood veneer hearkened back to the system’s origins in the 1970s. We children hoarded cartridges like squirrels preparing for winter, though my hand-eye coordination at that age meant that my character in Pitfall! fell to his death every single damn time. Pixellated crocodiles and scorpions were poised to devour his corpse, and when I was at the controls, they ate well indeed.
I later graduated to the NES in 1985, where I continued to fail with alarming regularity. We were such early adopters that our system didn’t even come with Duck Hunt, and instead was packaged only with Super Mario Bros. I was miserable at classics like the aforementioned Mario Bros. (including 2 & 3), Punch-Out!!, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Mega Man. But I was surprisingly decent at Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Dr. Mario, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. I think I was just too young for most of the other games. To give you an idea of my age, one of my favorite games on the NES was Sesame Street A-B-C & 1-2-3, which I remember being shockingly difficult at the time. Later, I eventually was able to play Tiny Toon Adventures and DuckTales over and over again, but I also rented terrible titles from Blockbuster like Mario Is Missing. Even though I played that awful game only once back in 1993 at age 10, I still remember how crappy it was.
But my older sister was a whiz at the NES, and I would spend hours watching her play since I couldn’t play myself without instantly dying. How did she do it? We also got a single Game Boy, which caused much strife between us siblings. The battery life was abysmal, and the graphics were only black and white, but that thing made car trips infinitely more bearable.
We purchased a SNES in 1991, which I proceeded to dominate. I’d beg my parents to rent me new games from Blockbuster every week, and I eventually hit my video game stride. I fondly remember games like ClayFighter, The Lion King, EarthBound (still one of my faves), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (ditto), Mario Paint (a console game that bizarrely came with a mouse), Pilotwings, Secret of Mana (THE BEST), SimAnt (yeah, I was into role-playing as an insect), Star Fox (fuck you, Slippy), Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario RPG, Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid, and Earthworm Jim (I loved this so much I even submitted fan art to Nintendo Power magazine. Yes, my sister had a subscription.). I remember playing stinkers like Bass Masters Classic (UGH, what was I thinking?!), Cool Spot, The Great Waldo Search, and E.V.O.: Search for Eden (an admittedly terrible game that I nonetheless loved so much that I bought it with my allowance). I was never really into sports or fighting games, mostly because none of my friends played video games. What fun are those games against a computer?
My brother meanwhile had bought a Sega Genesis, and I recall playing Ecco the Dolphin on his system and thinking it was the stupidest game I had ever seen. He would go on to buy the PlayStation, while my sister and I stayed loyal to Nintendo and bought an N64. I plowed through Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Mario Kart 64, Pilotwings 64, Star Fox 64 (Slippy, damn you!), and Super Mario 64.
After this era, I mostly stopped playing video games, only picking up them up again after becoming addicted to rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. Nowadays, I have a Wii, Nintendo DS, and an Xbox 360. I still play Zelda, Metroid, and Super Mario Bros. on the Wii, and Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption on the Xbox. I’ve shouted at a Nintendog on the DS (not my proudest moment), enjoyed the writing of the Phoenix Wright series, and even tried Pokemon briefly before realizing it was just too damn time-consuming.
Well, now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself, what are some of your favorite games from back in the day? Make me feel less alone as a girl gamer – please?
My sister and I went through the same public school system, though she is almost five years older than me. Occasionally, her reputation would precede my entry into the classroom. Mrs. Honesty, the teacher who took a hairball from me, disliked me from the moment we met because she didn’t like my sister. My English teacher freshman year of high school had the same preconceptions about me. I had to wonder WHY these teachers had a bad impression of my sister, though. She was a good student, and not in any way a troublemaker. At least her reputation benefited me in art class, where all my teachers presumed I’d be a drawing prodigy like my sister. Sadly, I was not, but I’d rather a teacher like me for no reason than hate me for no reason.
Anyway, our class took several field trips to different museums and farms in Southern Ohio. Yes, farms. In the Midwest, I guess there’s not much to show kids, so I would be shipped off regularly to a working farm and made to milk cows and collect eggs. I can still remember the uncomfortable squishy warmth of a cow’s udder, and the piss, piss sounds of the milk shooting into a metal pail.
We also visited the Cincinnati Zoo, which is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 zoos in the nation. But there were whispers of an “earlier unfortunate incident” that had gotten our school banned for a time, which was a tantalizingly vague explanation. As I soon found out, my sister’s class four years earlier had been the culprit.
Apparently, there was a group of hormone-fueled problem children in her grade. This group of rambunctious boys frequently caused trouble at school, and a field trip to the zoo was no exception. Several of them actually jumped into the ostrich pit at the Cincinnati Zoo, and chased the massive birds around while trying to ride them. Now, an ostrich can weigh well over 200 pounds, run up to 42 mph, is 6-9 feet tall, and males have penises eight inches in length. Ostriches also have powerful legs which can gore and kill a predator, such as an idiotic 16-year-old human male.
Luckily (or perhaps not), nobody was hurt during this display, but our school was asked to leave. At least future classes were allowed back, but given that ostriches can live 40-45 years, I’m betting they remember us. They remember, and they are plotting.
I thought that our school had been banned permanently from the zoo since I couldn’t remember taking any field trips there, but a friend corrected me. Apparently I have a shitty memory. What else is new?
A talented actor and writer, my brother also has some…idiosyncrasies. One of which is his unfortunate tendency to pass out at the sight of blood. Or even when thinking about blood. Or when just thinking about bodily functions in general. For someone with such a vivid imagination, this means that even a passing mention of a horrific accident or disease could send him reeling straight towards the ground.
Despite the frequency of his fainting, I’ve never actually seen him do it in person. I’ve seen him close, pale and clammy, but never completely unconscious on the floor. But I’ve heard the stories, one of which I’d like to share with you all, dear readers.
This was back when he was in high school, perhaps sophomore or junior year. He was living life as only a young man in late 1980’s Florida could, which meant that he had one of the most glorious mullets that I’ve ever seen. Majestic wavy black locks flowed over the back of his head, so it’s safe to say that he was stylin’ back then.
Anyway, one day, he was in health class, or perhaps a biology class. Regardless, Hepatitis was the subject under discussion, and the teacher began describing some of the symptoms. Orange urine, yellow jaundiced eyes, clay-colored stools, male breast development. My brother’s mind went into overdrive, imagining himself as a bitch-titted man with yellow skin who pissed Sunkist and shat rocks. The thought of liver disease alone was enough to make him nauseous and light-headed, and he stumbled from his desk and bolted out the door. The idea was to get to the bathroom in case he vomited, but he never made it that far.
Instead he woke up in the hallway, with people stepping over him on their way to their next class. He had collapsed only steps outside the classroom door, and worst of all, he had peed himself. Student gingerly crept by in an effort to avoid the puddle of urine spreading across the linoleum.
I think it’s a testament to how cool my brother must have been back then since he SURVIVED the remainder of his high school career without being a social pariah. Had that been me, the peeing nicknames would have followed me all the way into adulthood.
Having lived with a host family and been a teacher in Japan, I’ve seen the effects of Japan’s education system first-hand.
My host family had two school-aged children who were plodding their way through Japan’s compulsory schooling. Like in the United States, attendance is only mandatory through the end of junior high school. Afterwards, students go through a mini “Exam Hell” for entrance into high school.
Often times, attendance at a certain junior high school determines where you go to high school, which in turn determines where you will attend college, which determines what job you will receive. Despite a Japan that has changed significantly from the 1980s mentality of “life-long employment” at one company, the rigidity of the education system remains. Many elite Japanese companies limit their new hires to recent graduates of the creme de la creme universities in the country. Without a degree from Tokyo, Kyoto, or a handful of other universities, your chances of being hired by one of the well-paying behemoths of Japanese technology are slim to nil.
Thus this march to the workforce is plagued by fierce competition every step of the way. Children strive from elementary school onwards for success in each set of entrance exams. A test that you took when you were 12 could affect your career at age 30. High schools, and sometimes even junior high schools, stay on your resume for life in Japan.
To get an edge on the competition, an estimated 50% of school-age children attend academic juku after school. This extra tutoring helps kids, especially the rich, to prepare themselves fully for the high school exams to follow. A popular juku, Kumon, has even reached American shores to help students here improve their science and math scores.
Both children in my host family, boys ages 8 and 11, attended juku at least three times a week back in 2004. The older one’s lessons lasted late into the evening as he prepared for his high school exams, and he would blearily wander home past 10 pm, weakly saying hello to everyone and wolfing down some rice before heading directly to bed. The younger one got out at the somewhat more sane hour of 7 pm, and would join us for dinner in sullen misery.
While the older child managed to get into one of his top choice high schools, the younger one was not so lucky. He had hated studying from a young age, and while I was living with them, I would frequently witness his father throwing erasers and pencils at him in anger over his grades. Apparently this was supposed to encourage him? But he did go to high school none the less, where he could then begin feverishly preparing for the college entrance exams.
These are far worse than the high school exams, and are brutal in their scope and strictness. It is for these tests that the term “Exam Hell” was coined, and the process differs considerably from the American model. It is said that Japanese colleges are difficult to get into, but easy to graduate from, while American colleges are the opposite.
All students (or at least those applying for college, especially public colleges) must take the “Center Test,” which is a nationally standardized exam somewhat analogous to the SAT in the States. But while the SAT only last 3.75 hours and is given seven times a year, the Center Test is a two-day test of endurance given only once per year. The rules are extremely strict regarding the timing of the test, and no exceptions are made, even for illness or accident. If you miss the test, you simply have to take a year off and wait until next year.
College admissions in Japan are almost solely based on your score on the Center Test and a possible “second test” that differs from school to school. Your score on the Center Test determines whether you are even eligible for the second test at a particularly university. And since most of the second tests are administered on the same date, you have to choose early which schools you want to attend. A few schools require essays or interviews as part of their second tests, but they are the exception rather than the rule. For the vast majority of schools, your entrance relies solely on your test score.
This has all come up lately since the older host kid, now 17, just took his Center Test. My host mom told me that the average score across all subjects of the Center Test is 65 out of 100, and students are tested on everything from world history to calculus, somewhat like the American ACT test. Her son wanted to attend medical school, which means gaining admission to a 6-year program now. However, the absolute minimum to even take a second test at any of these schools is an 85 average, with a 95+ necessary to ensure admission. He scored an 82.
He is now left with a dilemma. For students like him that are barred from even applying to their choice schools, there are a few options. He could settle for a lower-tier school, but must then give up his dream to become a doctor. He could forgo a college education completely, but the career options are severely limited for such individuals. The third option, which he seems likely to choose, is to become a ronin. This term originally referred to masterless samurai, but now applies to students without a school. As a ronin, he would wait a year before attempting the Center Test once more. In the meantime, there is a special juku for ronin called yobikou, which specializes specifically in Center Test preparation. However, the tuition for such a school is steep, and is comparable to a year’s tuition at a private college.
However, the competition each year is so fierce that many students take this option, choosing to study and try again rather than be sentenced to a low-paying job by their test scores. But this extra year, while frowned upon, is still quite common and accepted. However, if the student fails to gain entrance to his school of choice the second time around, he is out of chances. I’m not sure of the rules, but even if a third Center Test is allowed, no university would accept such a student, so you really only get one second chance. After that, it’s college or bust.
Needless to say, after all this pressure from the age of 10 years old or so, my host brother is completely fed up with the system. The other night, he told his mother that he wanted to be a comedian instead of a doctor, which sent her into hysterics. She hasn’t slept in two days. Her kyoiku mama tendencies may have finally caught up with her.