After divorcing my father, mom married Hank. He was an alcoholic, but I preferred him drunk. It was the only time he’d speak to me in anything but monosyllabic directives. We moved into Hank’s widowed mother’s house. I got the only free bedroom. Hank and my mother opted to sleep on musty couches in the unfinished basement. Several nights a week, they’d stay up until dawn, smoking pot they bought from an exterminator they called Bug Man, while the muffled sounds of Fleetwood Mac radiated through the floorboards. Hank’s garbled voice would join in off-key harmony. My mother’s saw-tooth cackle following behind. This was the New England of gas station calendars: streets lined with rustic clapboard-sided colonials, oak trees in fiery red autumn bloom. The move was meant to be temporary. Just a year-or-so while they saved enough for a down-payment on a place of their own.
I hadn’t known Steve long. He was my first friend in town, and he had the cackle of a hyena. I jumped him as he poured off the bus and threw my black earphones around his fat head. We stood on the quad, tethered by one long, thin wire to the Walkman in my hand. I carefully scanned his face for any sign at all.
Over the weekend, I had discovered that I could sing while playing my guitar into my computer microphone and create a one-track recording. To start, I covered Incubus’ Pardon Me. It was a brilliant feat of audio engineering. I hadn’t met anyone who had recorded their own music. The track had no confidence of voice, which bled shakily over an out-of-tune guitar in a hushed whisper. It whipped in and out of tempo. A bedrock of bum notes. But surely, the novelty of its making would overshadow any of its flaws?
A few years earlier my uncle handed me a cassette tape of an alum. Soon after, I got my first guitar. Nights spent in the dark, with earphones blasting, envisioning myself up on some mythical stage: a third Gallagher brother, the French-Canadian one, with glasses as thick as small saucers. Our town’s rock-and-roll star. The tape was worn, and I’d re-spool it by cranking a pencil into the cassette’s geared teeth. Lately, I’d been stashing my allowance for an Epiphone, its body painted with a big Union Jack flag.
Steve glanced at me like I was a puppy who had shit on the dining room table. He passed the earphones to Greg. Greg sampled, then passed them off to Neil. I let them, pot-committed, nervously thumbing the STOP button, waiting for their verdict. Their snickering eyes, their knowing smirks, it was an implosion of my rock-and-roll fantasy. My vision danced, sweat pooling at my hairline and armpits, I wanted to skitter into an empty, darkened locker and hide, unmoving, until the dismissal bell. Six hours later, it rang.
I passed Miss Munn on the way to the parking lot. She was subbing for our Miss Cooney, our English teacher, who left a few weeks in to have her baby. Every afternoon Miss Munn stood, framed in the doorway of her classroom, a lone beacon of sweetness watching the salmon run of students flow home. Sweeping raven-colored hair. Floor-length denim skirts. She’d greet us all with a smile injection-molded in honey. Molasses eyes. Miss Munn wore virtually no make-up on pale, unblemished skin. It was her first year of teaching. We were transitioning to high-school together.
The yellow buses filled the parking lot like shapes in a Tetris game. I boarded, sinking into the pock-marked vinyl seat. The whole way home, I watched the low winter sun sparkle through the treeline and wondered if the dream was dead. Or just on life support.
The TV was on. Always. Mindless chatter to fill the space. I had wired my bedroom for cable a few days after we moved in, splitting the line where it snaked into the basement and drilling up into the corner of my closet one afternoon when everyone else was out. A comedian, Stephen Lynch, was singing homophobic songs about hermaphrodites. I picked up my guitar and started strumming along. A rudimentary E-major to C-major. That’s when it hit me: make-em-laugh.
I scrawled the most vulgar lyrics I could muster onto the last empty page of my Algebra notebook. Two takes, and The Miss Munn Song was born. Fueled by hormonal lust and a stolen chord progression. Now it sat in a digital realm, a stream of ones-and-zeroes. I logged onto Napster, seeded the song, and begged Steve to download it. He did. He laughed, told me it was great. Sleep came quickly that night.
Lovely Miss Munn, you’re the one.
You make my fantasies oh so much fun.
It’s a war of the heart I want to wage,
I really don’t care that you’re double my age.
Getting off bus 9 was different the next day. A bit like the Beatles landing in America. The song was rocketing through school. If you hadn’t heard it, you were aware of it. Seniors, who any time before would have blown right by without as much as a second look, would stop me in the halls and ask if I was the guy. They towered several feet over me, all facial hair and biceps. Drivers’ licenses tucked away neatly in their wallets.
Two weeks of stardom. Then someone slipped a CD they’d burned with the song under Munn’s door. The next morning’s announcements noted she would be absent, all classes report to study hall. Same thing the following day. Everyone cast knowing glances in my direction. I sank deep into hard plastic and cold metal until I was one with my desk.
A discrete period of intense fear and discomfort. Palpitations, accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking. I didn’t know what a panic attack was, but the symptoms I exhibited for those few days lined up clearly with the DSM’s definition. On the third day, Munn returned. I avoided walking by her classroom in the morning and scuttled to the first-period Biology. Halfway through class, the loudspeaker interrupted: “Derek Dubois to the office.”
Walking the halls of high school between periods was surreal. The usual chaos, akin to a kind of animal migration – hundreds of students flowing simultaneously in swift, powerful currents – was gone, leaving only the soft patter of my sneakers on the linoleum and the aggressive drumbeat of my heart murmur thrumming in my ears. My throat lodged with wool.
I entered the vice principal’s office and found my mother sobbing, red eyes cast down. “What did you do!” she glowered, unable to meet my gaze, still in her white button-down and black slacks from the day shift waitressing in a local diner. The school had called for her early into the breakfast rush. “There’s a situation with Derek.”
We were packed into a tiny cinderblock room. One window hissed with a draft of frigid air. Three well-worn vinyl chairs were set before the desk. I took the middle, my mother flanking my left. My father arrived soon after, the physique of George Costanza, adorned in an ill-fitting suit, sat to my right. He was a police detective and dressed the part. It was the first time I’d seen my parents in a room together since they sat me down to tell me they were splitting up ten years before.
The vice-principal took a seat behind the desk, a short man with a round, full belly that hung over the shelf of his slacks. Neatly parted auburn hair. His thick fingers fumbled for a boom box by his feet. Power on. Disc whirring. Play. I recognized the low-fi E-major to C-major progression immediately. When the song completed, he alerted us matter-of-factly that I was to be suspended for ten days.
“Is there an appeals process?” my father asked.
“Yes,” he said, passing over a student conduct handbook – “but I really don’t see this being overturned. It’s a grave offense.” He spoke without a hint of humor, the dispassionate eyes of a hammerhead shark.
I rode home with my mother in deadly silence. The stark tilt of the earth finally settling. At least it was out in the open now. A few hours later, my father called saying that he had contacted the ACLU and that they agreed to take the case, assigning us a pro-bono attorney, named John.
Our lawyer came of age in the 1960s, went to law school at the University of Pittsburgh, and spent much of his career practicing first amendment cases. He told us he sought these kinds of cases because they had emotional weight that transcended the legal issues. He argued that since the song happened off school grounds, it raised concerns of free speech and the scope of a school’s authority over its students. I was recast in this narrative as the David fighting a Goliathian dystopia: some substantial, faceless body attempting to punish students for behavior outside of its jurisdiction. I was allowed to return to school, avoiding suspension while we awaited appeal.
The following day – again, over the loudspeaker – I was summoned from class. At the office, I found my father waiting for me. Still in his suit, his workday interrupted.
“Grab your stuff,” he commanded.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. The office secretary looked me over with wild-eyed curiosity.
“We gotta go. Now.”
It was lunchtime as our car pulled away. The busses were already finding their places for afternoon dismissal. As we turned out of the campus and onto the main road, a throng of local news vans emerged, parked just outside of the school’s entrance.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Engaging the ACLU enraged the school administration. The school’s superintendent made a motion to try and upgrade the punishment to expulsion in response. He was an aggressive man with a shock of grey hair, sitting across his desk, hunched, overly tan, with dark, deeply-set eyes. Apparently, when denied the approval to kick me out, he leaked the story – and specifically – my name – to the press.
We drove in an unmarked police car, the band scanner squelching with intermittent bursts from dispatch. On the seat between us was a newspaper, folded in half. My father nodded his head towards it. It crinkled, leaving soft blooms of black ink on the pads of my fingers. Splashed across the top, one gigantic headline: SEX SONG GETS STUDENT IN TROUBLE.
The next few weeks morphed into a phantasmagoric nightmare. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. First, it was the local reporters. Then the national ones. They’d call every ‘Dubois’ in the white pages asking if there was any relation to the kid who wrote the song. The song was everywhere, along with my name, my face, and the ugly thing I’d done. It was played on The Howard Stern Show. From cable news to talk-radio to editorials in the local papers. I had become numb, moving through some blank void of space and time. It still wasn’t clear to me that I had hurt someone. There was no period of reflection, just strategy – of how to shoulder the collective gaze of disdain, of newfound popularity. One afternoon, I came home to find a message on our answering machine from a producer at the Today Show who wanted us to fly down to New York to be interviewed the next morning. I declined.
We appealed to the state Board of Education.
I crammed my gangly body into a dress shirt (swimming in a neck two sizes too large) and a wide paisley tie that my mother picked up on clearance from J.C. Penny. On one side of a large conference table, lawyers for the school district, the superintendent, and Miss Munn herself. For two full days, my eyes fixed on my shoes. The proceedings started with the song, our own national anthem.
For three-and-a-half minutes, listening: why did I need to add the extended outro making sex puns out of freshman reading material? (“Big Fat Summer…give me a hummer. Chocolate War…yeah I want more”). Counsel cited the rapid strumming of the guitar like some sort of coded subtext of aggression, a veiled threat. Explaining that it was Stephen Lynch’s aggression accomplished nothing. Proceedings ended. I finished freshman year attaining honors in most of my classes.
That summer, my father remarried. He asked that I play a song at the wedding, my live debut. I practiced for weeks (Satellite by Dave Matthews) until my fingers bled. The day of the wedding, my stomach was a white-hot ball of fire, and I spent most of the reception sitting on the concrete stairs outside the venue, with the smokers, tamping down the urge to vomit.
The DJ stopped his set, the room quieted. A chair was brought out into the center of the dance floor as a spotlight fixed on my face. My shaky fingers fumbled over out-of-tune strings. Two lines in, my mind went blank. I stopped cold, mortified, and launched into the only other song I knew how to play: Weezer’s Hash Pipe. The room full of off-duty cops in suits looked at me cock-eyed.
No one danced.
Later that evening, when removing his tux and balling it up to return to the rental shop, my father received a call from Dineen that the appeal had been denied. It was now my decision about whether to take this into the courts. Dineen said he felt good about our chances by citing various legal precedents.
My father looked at me, hand cupped over the receiver, eyes optimistic.
The final day of my suspension was a bright, cloudless day. Sharp rays of sunlight beat through the thin slats of window blinds, piercing my eyes, yanking me awake. Ultimately, I balked and accepted the suspension, which meant that I would miss the first ten days of my sophomore year. It didn’t matter now anyway, nothing seemed to matter now. I flipped on the TV. A camera feed fixed on a thick black column of smoke rising into the morning sky. Three minutes later, flight 175 rammed into the south face of the South Tower. I watched it live from the warmth of my own bed while outside my window, the last of the summer’s birds readied the migration south for winter. First responders dove into the dark and terrifying unknown, the country seized in collective panic, while I wondered what to have for lunch.
I am sure The Miss Munn Song has been the primary catalyst in my life. Screenwriters would call it the Inciting Incident of my narrative arc. Several years later, entering college, I would ditch the practical Computer Science major transitioning to Media Studies, concentrating in Feminist Film Theory. Now, for the first time, I had something (concepts, vocabulary, a vast landscape of thought) to better understand gendered power dynamics: semiotics, the male gaze, representation, spectatorship, agency.
Laura Mulvey writes that “woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on [her].” How apt to the perverse lyrics of the stupid song. The audacity I had to ever think it was my right to possess another person that way.
Peggy Orenstein’s recent book Girls and Sex evocatively describes the world girls are facing. She writes that “when we’ve defined femininity for [this] generation so narrowly, in such a sexualized, commercialized, hetero-eroticized way, where is the space, the vision, the celebration of other ways to be a girl?”
At fourteen, I was incapable of grasping that my song reinforced this ugliness. It was hostile towards women –girls (my classmates). What kind of culture was I propagating? Today we look up to a commander-in-chief who grabs ‘em by the pussy. Things have not improved.
That was eighteen years ago.
Not much changes in small towns. I drive past the high school, standing precisely as I remember it. I swig from a soda picked up at a fast-food joint. The syrupy sweetness enters my bloodstream like a drug. I’m headed home. Eventually, my mother and Hank did get their own place. When they buried Hank’s mom.
Back then, I was an awkward and curious kid with too much access and not enough good sense. Acne-riddled, my oily pores conduits to a poisonous id. Feelings that, if unchecked for too long, could consume entire cities like the Blob. I ruined a life by taking away a young teacher’s agency. All for a shitty joke. She left her post at the high school, uncomfortable as the subject of a story that never really went away. I graduated three years later, my whole life still ahead of me. I’m not sure what she’s up to now.
With the blinker on, I turn into my old neighborhood. Up to the same streets as the school bus that brought me home. The air is growing crisp. The chill hits at the base of my neck. I roll the windows up. Wonderwall starts to play on the stereo. I smile – an autonomic response – and crank up the volume until it’s overwhelming, and I can no longer hear my own thoughts.