They were married in the Catholic church the summer before my senior year. Dad converted “officially,” but not “internally.” He said the church would not recognize his first marriage to my mother, so he initiated an annulment. Did that technically make me a bastard now? My Aunt Ellen was asked to read religious poems at their ceremony, and I was asked to help people register their names in the guest book as they came in the church. I feigned a stomachache and hid in the basement bathroom.
I intermittently mourned and seethed throughout the entire ceremony. From a healthy distance, I watched people throw rice at them and I ditched the reception. Dad apparently didn’t notice as he never questioned why I wasn’t present. Mom got married a month later to a really nice guy—shy as all get out and nine years her junior. I was flattered to be her maid of honor, although I felt a bit awkward, not fully confident that I was the appropriate person for the job.
Somehow I managed to make less enemies my senior year. I threw myself into my schoolwork and applied to colleges the first day they were accepting applications. All I knew was that this place was aversive on every level and I wanted to escape and get as far away as possible from everyone. And, I secretly hoped my leaving would hurt Dad’s feelings or make him angry at Bridget for driving me away. Maybe then he’d know how it felt to know I didn’t need him anymore.
I’d read the Fiske’s guide to colleges front to back, dog-earing about ten colleges in faraway places, mostly on both coasts. After deeply researching and imagining life on campus in every city, I removed the West Coast colleges from my list, fearing I would look like a pathetic little puppy following in Ryan’s shoes. I ultimately decided on a university in Florida, which seemed remote enough to me. Even though the guidance counselor who helped me fill out the application warned me to not get my hopes up, I turned my application in so early, that I got accepted.
In my head, I created a great fantasy of escaping my dad, the Bridgets, the town, and pretty much everyone else in it. My determination to leave grew every time I had to watch my dad tripping over himself to get Bridget a refill, or run out to her car to help her with the groceries, as well as every time I overheard a teacher ask my fellow students where they were going to college; none of them ever asked me. It grew more whenever I sat among my girl classmates, listened to them talk behind each other’s’ backs then watched their fake expressions to each other’s faces. I just wasn’t good at contributing to the rapid-cycle gossiping, giggling, and nonstop fashion evaluations. I felt myself numb and hovering from that above place. My own thoughts seemed much darker.
In their presence, I felt self-consciously aware of how silly teenagers must look to adults. Why are we so concerned with these trivial things? What would B. F. Skinner think if he heard this conversation? Is it somehow all tied to mate selection? Am I the only person thinking about this right now? Is it weird that I don’t give two-shits about what any of these girls are saying? Am I the crazy one? What IS insanity anyway? What is Ryan doing right now? Probably falling in love with a beautiful girl. What are my Dad and Bridget doing right now? Block that one out.
A few times, before cheering at a game, I snuck a shot of vodka and took some ephedrine I bought at a truck stop. The combination helped me recreate a feeling a little similar to one I’d had at the dentist recently. Although I’d received happy gas at the dentist for years, something different happened the last time. While I lay on the table with the rubber cup over my nose, I became aware of my brain in a new way. It was tingling and I began to have thoughts upon thoughts upon thoughts upon thoughts—in the coolest way. My thoughts felt literally and visually stacked on top of each other. I realized I was thinking about my own thinking, and then I thought about that. Then, I thought about how I was thinking about that. And so on.
Suddenly, a stack of Dr. Seuss’ turtles—with Yertle on top—popped into my head and I knew they were representations of my layers of reflection. A second later, I remembered every visit to the dentist I’d ever had, and I could see myself sitting in the chair again at each age. I was watching myself as a little kid again. Each time I inhaled deeply and out again, my mind would “refresh” and travel down a different avenue of nostalgia. I felt as if I could think about anything and everything I wanted to all at once. My mind was racing, but felt completely under my control. Could everyone do this? I was excited by—and loved—this new way of thinking!
I told my father about it when he came to pick me up. He explained that nitrous oxide, being a stimulant, had altered my brain chemistry by inhibiting or disinhibiting the way my normal chemicals were released. On the long drive home, he gave me an overview of Neurochemistry 101. He was currently working through a programmed instruction textbook called “Neuroanatomy” by Richard and Murray Sidman. Dad loved “programmed instruction” books. He said they allowed students to progress through learning modules at their own pace, while receiving instant feedback. And learners could only progress to the next concept if they got the previous answer correct. Dad was hopeful that someday there would be programmed instruction books on every topic.
Almost as an afterthought I mentioned that the dentist had offered me headphones and music to listen to while I was in the chair and he said, “Wow, your dentist is inadvertently going to get a lot of kids interested in drugs. He’s connecting music with getting ‘high.’ Clearly, he doesn’t understand classical conditioning.”
“What is classical conditioning again?”
“It’s another type of learning process, like operant conditioning, but with a few key differences. Operant conditioning involves strengthening or weakening a voluntary behavior or response by giving a consequence like reinforcement or punishment after a behavior has occurred. Skinner called these voluntary behaviors ‘operants’ because we are operating on the environment. You understand that, right?”
“Yep, that I’ve got!”
“Well, classical conditioning helps explain our involuntary behavior, or the automatic responses, we have to stimuli in the environment. This is a very interesting story, actually. You see, a physiologist named Ivan Pavlov was originally studying the digestive system of dogs, so he inserted a fistula—a tiny tube—into a dog’s salivary gland so he could extract and measure how much saliva the dog produced when given meat powder. He called the meat powder an unconditioned stimulus, because a dog does not have to learn to salivate when fed. He called salivation an unconditioned response, because it is a reflexive behavior that dogs do automatically without learning. Pavlov’s assumption was that the dogs would salivate AFTER tasting food. But, after a few feedings, Pavlov noticed that the dogs were salivating BEFORE they received the meat powder and even just at the sight of the technician who was about to feed them. What do you make of that?”
“I would say that the dog came to know that the technician would bring food.”
“Right. And Pavlov found all this so interesting that he stopped his other research and began to study this behavior more systematically, by ringing a bell right before he gave the dogs the powder. Now, before the experiment took place, would you think that any dog would salivate just because they heard a bell ring?”
“Right. The bell originally meant nothing to the dogs. Pavlov called it a neutral stimulus because it didn’t elicit any behavior from the dog at first. But, once he paired it with the meat powder and rang it right before feeding them, the dogs began salivating to it without needing to see or taste the powder. Pavlov now called the bell a conditioned stimulus—or a stimulus the dog has learned to respond to. And he called their salivation response to the bell a conditioned response—because it was a learned response. So, knowing this, do you understand what I mean about pairing music with the feeling of being ‘high?’”
“I think so. You mean that if you pair listening to music with getting ‘high,’ then you could begin to feel high when listening to music?”
“Sort of. You wouldn’t feel the exact same high you felt on the drug, but you would remember the enjoyment you had on the drug and maybe the music would make you desire the drug again. You tell me, Michelle, what is the unconditioned stimulus and the unconditioned response in this example?
“The drug is the unconditioned stimulus and the feeling of getting high is the unconditioned response?”
“Right…and what is the conditioned stimulus and conditioned response?”
“The music is the conditioned stimulus and the ‘high’ is the conditioned response?”
“I think you’ve got it, Michelle.”
After this talk, I experimented a few more times with my home mixture of chemicals before school events. At first, it seemed to help me go more with the flow, and be less self-conscious. Then one night while cheering at a basketball game, I lost the relaxing feeling and found myself unable to shake the notion that we all looked more like silly puppets on a stage than cheerleaders. I avoided taking them again after that.
What should have been “the time of my life” wasn’t. I just watched it play out like a bad, unfulfilling movie—one that starred my nemesis Bridget McDunn. I’d grown pretty accustomed to watching her have an utterly picturesque high school experience—filled with imported prom dresses, valedictorian status, a basketball-star boyfriend from a good family, and a “perfect-girl” image. Since she was a member of the yearbook staff, her pictures showed up on more than her fair share of pages. Since her dad was a member on the Circus Board of Directors, she made every act she tried out for. I worked hard at times to convince myself she probably wasn’t happy. Then I’d falter.
Until one day, mid-way through our senior year, she started blowing the curve on every chemistry exam. We found out from her lab partner that she’d gotten a hold of her older boyfriend’s past exams. When people learned of that, they found their own ways to get hold of old tests, copy them, and pass them around. The teacher eventually caught wind of it and told us all one morning very sternly that we had until 4 p.m. that day to confess our full involvement in the cheating or we would receive an F for the term if he discovered we had lied. It was one time my lack of friends paid off; no one had given me any old exams.
Half scared to death, everyone involved came forward that day—everyone except Bridget! That was simply too much for the rest of the cheaters to take. They rallied together and ratted her out, fully expecting the teacher to stand by his word and flunk her. This would mean she would lose her valedictorian status, which many people didn’t feel she deserved anyway because her SAT scores were lower than average. Admittedly, I felt glee bubbling in me at the thought of this. The truth would prevail. There WAS justice in the world. Better yet, the undeserving rich and privileged would be punished.
Instead, however, we all learned a different lesson the next day when the teacher announced he’d “changed his mind.” After “pondering it some more,” he admitted to “overreacting” and decided it was “too harsh to actually flunk anyone” who was involved in the cheating. The cheaters would just have to retake all the major exams in the class.
So, of course, there are not the same rules for all of us. And people, like this educated adult teacher, must have known that he couldn’t possibly tell Bridget’s dad (who by the way was now the Superintendent of Schools and his boss) about the stand he was trying to take. I’m sure now flunking seemed too extreme to justify. He probably knew Bridget’s dad wouldn’t stand behind it, not since it affected his own daughter. Why should they let a little innocent mistake like this ruin a young girl’s extremely promising future?
At least now I could finally stop using her as a measuring stick. I’d always taken a little pleasure in discovering I could do something I knew she couldn’t, like flying, winning a spot on the all-star cheerleading team, and even getting a hot guy like Ryan. I thought it meant I just might be special in ways she wasn’t. But now I realized for the first time that we were really never on even playing fields to begin with and never would be. Even though her privilege disgusted me on some level, there was no way I could ever compete with her. She had connections and an army of supporters around her to ensure she succeeded. It would be better for me to just accept that. Maybe at least I could do it with a little greater detachment now.