I suspect I'll be nostalgic quite a bit over the next year or so, so I might as well make some use of the nostalgia and blog about my high-school experience along the way. There were both highlights and lowlights to be sure, and I'm sure I'll get to them. But today I'd rather remember one small moment that for whatever reason has stuck with me for the better part of two decades.
I took calculus in high school, not because I had any business taking calculus but because if you fancied yourself smart (which I did) you finagled a spot in calculus class (which I did). Advanced math was taught by Mr. Storm, whose name lent itself nicely to what would become a calculus class tradition: "I Survived the Storm" t-shirts. I have no memory whatsoever of any aspect of calculus, but I remember some of the things I would do instead of calculus while I was sitting in calculus class.
My clearest calculus memory is when my friend Jenny, who sat in front of me, turned around and scribbled on my looseleaf paper in my Trapper Keeper (or something like that):
I guess you'd call it suicide
But I'm too full to swallow my pride.
By this point in my life I had known people who struggled with anorexia, bulimia, early-onset alcoholism and undiagnosed hyperactivity disorder. But I hadn't encountered what the experts might call suicidal ideation--at least in the form of a cry for help. I didn't know what to do; I was worried for my friend, but I didn't want her to get in trouble, but I didn't want her to die, and she seemed so happy really, and what would possess her to write such a dour message in such a sprighty, giddy script? She practically dotted her i's with flowers, for pete's sake.
Class was dismissed and I chased Jenny down to ask her about what she had written.
"Come on, Dave! It's from the Police!"
Turns out it's a lyric from "I Can't Stand Losing You," which I'm sure I proceeded to interpret as my friend Jenny coming on to me. I was a wimp, so I didn't follow that line of investigation. I did, however, become a much more serious student of song lyrics after that.
Now I'm older, and I've known people who have killed themselves, and I've known people who have lost loved ones to suicide, and I've watched my flippant comments inadvertently cause them pain, and I've tried to convince suicidal friends to seek help. With the passage of time I find that I have little tolerance left for song lyrics that deal cavalierly with life and death.
Lyrics offer articulation to people who can't otherwise articulate their feelings. Go to a myspace page and you'll be introduced to the song that most effectively evokes the blogger's current state of mind. Borrow someone's i-Pod and you'll see how they arrange their music to attend to their mood changes. Ask them what song is in their head and you'll get some small insight into what else is in their head.
But when a songwriter, even one so gifted as Sting, commandeers language of desperation to communicate an otherwise mundane point, he betrays his audience. Sting likes irony, and he finds it funny when people dance to his stalker song "Every Breath You Take" (1983) at their wedding. But he's not great with hyperbole: I hope he would weep if a teenager quoted "I Can't Stand Losing You" in a suicide note--weep for the person who had overestimated the intensity of young love; weep for the naivete that allowed a person to assign such power to his words; weep for the victim, weep for himself, and weep for what the world has become.
The apostle James speaks in more controlled hyperbole in his New Testament letter:
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)
I'm in the business of words these days, and so I can't abide by flippancy or carelessness--even in my own use of language. My authors count on me (whether they realize it or not) to tame their tongue; I likewise count on my coworkers, my friends, and the readers of my blogs to rein me in when it's needed. The tongue is too dangerous without some checks in place.
That's not to say that every lyric must be shiny and happy, of course. Irony has a powerful voice, and when used properly it communicates--even ministers--better than straightforwardness. If Jenny had instead written these classic lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, set to a melancholy tune and ripe with subtle meaning, I like to think I would have kept worrying, and I would not have accepted her dismissive response:
Smile though your heart is aching;
Smile even though it's breaking. . . .
That's the time you must keep on trying,
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile.