ork! Dweeb! Nerd! Geek!" Like a marble tumbling down a slide, the names keep rolling with delicious momentum.
"Dufus. Loser. Mama's Boy. Wimp." Blank stares abound.
"All right, what would be the equivalent in your language?"
Luckily, a few in the back begin to respond: "Prise, Vole, Kozel."
"No, man, I'm not talking about animals. I'm talkin' annihilation and Shakespeare. PROTECT YOURSELVES NOW: Nikes and Levi's 501s to start. Then baseball caps, silver jewelry, and John Lennon glasses. Finally, when you're ready: grunge, gangsta, guns, guitars, and guacamole. Get it? To be or not to be-cool."
Call this an interactive approach to teaching language, or just plain wing-it chaos. I'm jumping around, acting it all out. Sweating. Cool: they understand it after five years of Himi's jeans on every corner. But lack of cool is still a difficult concept to convey. Even harder is describing the dangers of not being cool. I try harder.
"'Hey! Where are you going? How come you never hang out with me?' Class, this guy tries too hard. He wants friends, but he's too enthusiastic, too... sensitive. He deserves to get beaten up."
'They attempt to translate again from their own language: Bull. Sheep. Swine. Cow. Derogatory, for sure, but not exactly the level of cruelty I had in mind.
Nonetheless, this heartfelt effort makes my eyes tear. Fluids. Why am I losing fluids over this silly impromptu lesson?
Wouldn't a couple of phrasal verbs have been more useful-and easier? But I can't stop; I'm on to something: "Bubblehead. Faggot. Numb nut. You'd better run 'cause we're going to kill you."
But violence is not what I had in mind either. What I had in mind was fun, American style. Because if Americans know anything, it's how to have fun. And what's more fun than being cool? 'The two are a natural combination, the zenith of American culture. And so I thought a deconstruction of American cool - a sophisticated judgment of people based on the clothes they wear, what they buy, the emotional distance they do or don't keep - would be fun too.
But today, my students are having a problem, and I think I know why: apart from communist officials and black-market artists, hierarchies based on socioeconomics didn't exist here until five years ago. But now that the capitalist merry-go-round is here to stay, I feel that it's my obligation to tell which brass ring to grab. Or else.
"Bookworm. Egghead. Retard." It could happen to anyone.
But perhaps I'm misguided. Perhaps they can't recognize the right brass ring-the cool one, because they're not sure what cool is.
Maybe some role models would help. I search my mind for examples: Jack Kerouac, Billy the Kid, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Spike Lee. 'These guys are ... guys. That's it!
"Class, being cool is like being a guy. Well, not quite. But close."
Well, what is it then? It's definitely a series of abstract qualities- cynicism, stylishness, superiority, toughness-whose combination is greater than the Sum of all parts; whose manifestation we can see in the above role models; Whose Virtue We can come upon by copying these guys, what they wear, what they say, how they behave. Maybe being cool is abiding by certain parameters and staying within certain parameters that form a square, a box (I love geometry!). It used to be said that people who weren't cool were square. I think its 1more accurate to say that the concept of cool is a square. If you're cool, you're "in" the box; if you're not, you're out.
And there are hundreds of boxes in America, each one like a miniature planet having its own criteria for citizenship: tattoos, motorcycles, baggy pants, nose rings. (I don't think America is the only country with these boxes, but I'd to say it has the most restrictive ones).
It turns out that America, the land of individuality, is really the land of conformity. If it were really a land of individuals, people would express themselves in ways that were truly idiosyncratic: cowboy hats with Reeboks, handmade saris with drawstring pants, pink clogs, and purple lipstick. Remember at the end of Grease how Sandra Dumbrowski put on all that black leather and skin-tight stuff to win the acceptance of her peers? Well, the real world is exactly like that. Either you conform and have love and respect, or you don't and you're ridiculed or killed. Luckily, I conform. Despite my affinity for geometry (and musicals), I'm snugly inside my cool box, equipped with my requisite uniform: Levi's 501's, Doc Marten footwear, and black clothes - because I know the truth: that all those that refuse to conform arc either natural born victims whose every inadequacy invites attack or they're pretentious wannabes whom everyone hates.
Of course, being cool is the real pretentiousness. Nonetheless, how am I going to impress upon these children that they must pretend in order to avoid senseless amorphousness and contempt? First I must evaluate where they stand. So I've a test:
1. What is the coolest color in the world?
B) Army green
D) lime green
2. What do you put on your legs?
B) H.I.S. jeans
D) Marine blue leggings
3. What is the coolest fabric in the world?
4. How many body piercings do you have?
A) More than 12
B) Between 5 and 12
C) Between 1 and 5
5. What is the coolest headgear in the world?
A) Baseball cap (backwards)
B) Baseball cap (frontwards)
C) Beret (backwards or front wards)
D) Ski cap in lime green (any direction)
6. Would you rather die than wear purple snow boots?
C) Can't decide
While they're taking the test (and concentrating so hard, the little darlings), I contemplate the next step in indoctrination. Probably the joys of attacking the uncoolsters. First verbally - "Goofball. Twerp. Dipshit." Then physically. A lead pipe is usually best in these cases.
"They are a threat," I'll say. "It's like you're 13 again and they won't let you sit at the cool table in the lunchroom. And now you're grown up and you must attack all that reminds you of yourself. And you must do this until they're obliterated." The bell rings.
And I'm so dehydrated. And exhausted. And they still don't rasp the intricacies of social hierarchy in America, or the dangers of being an outcast. Which is good because then they might recognize the sadness of being an outcast. Which is good because then they might recognize the sadness of love and respect. They might also see a whole silly world of people feigning indifference and denying an effusive love of humanity just so people will allow them inside.
But maybe being cool is really only a part of youth culture and I'll eventually grow out of it. And then I suppose I'll be a dorky, dweeby, nerdy, geeky old woman who is mocked by children, young and old, for the clothes I wear, the things I say, the way I behave. I hope so.
By the way, just in case you took my quiz, here are the answers:
If you have four "A" answers, you are hip. Cool as a cucumber. People look to you for advice and think you area god. Your aloofness keeps you from forming close attachments, but that's compensated by all the people Who worship you from afar.
If you have two to three "A" answers, you are a wannabe hipster who sports the right gear, but only with lots of deliberation and strain. You probably are in terrible debt due to these efforts.
If you have two to five "B" answers, you are a near-coolster with a flair of your own. You care about fashion, but not enough to buy this month's latest; you are so five minutes ago. However, you probably sabotage a lot of other efforts in your life.
If you have any "C" or "D' answers, you are a freak who isn't accepted by the people who matter most to you. On the other hand, you are most likely a person with a strong sense of who you truly are. Consider yourself blessed.
Laura Zam is a monologist, actress, and playwright. She used to be cool.