JMHS Hall of Fame Speech, in the cyberflesh

Way back in 1996 I graduated from John Marshall High School in Cleveland. About six months ago I found out that this year I was among the honorees for the school’s Hall of Fame. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to make it to accept the award in person, but I wrote a speech for my sister Dawn to read at the ceremony.  Now I feel inspired to post it here, in part because I’ve been far too quiet in the cyber-place, in part because it serves well to illuminate my brain space. Despite the obstacles of the past three years I’m infused with surprising optimism and creativity, and I suspect I’ll have a lot more to share with all of you in the coming months.  Thanks again to Dawn for reading this, and to my mom for attending the ceremony alongside her.

“It’s a great honor to be part of the distinguished (and growing) list of John Marshall Hall Of Fame honorees. I’m also grateful that my sister, Dawn, volunteered to serve as my stunt double for the purposes of this speech. As a teacher, she still goes to school every day, so this is kind of her thing. Organizing myself into a speech is a challenge for me, since my preferred topics are rarely casual fair. My favorite subjects in seventh grade were the first Gulf war and pandas. In fourth grade, it was the Holocaust. Once a year I get an email from one former classmate or the other that begins, “remember how you used to always talk about Hitler and the holocaust?” Yes, I remember. Dawn probably also remembers, which is why she’s standing in front of all of you and I’m safely tucked 3,000 miles away.

Still, the instructions on the paperwork indicated that this is an audience that “will be very receptive to almost anything that you may say.” This is a dangerous statement in the wrong hands, and I happen to have two of them.

On one hand: In 2016, after riding on a boat for three shivering hours to the borders of Vancouver, BC, I had the honor of observing the unexpected formation of a super pod of orcas. The resident whales of Puget Sound joined with transient whales from two other pods for socialization; this event was closely supervised by the resident pod’s matriarch, Granny, who patrolled the waters with two sister whales that mirrored her every move. The Pacific was alive, with bold males performing stunts Sea World isn’t ready for, and with baby orcas surfing waves in perfect sync with their mothers, one giant, bold head breaking the surface next to a smaller, rounder head. The orcas surrounded the boat, communicating through sighs and clicks and whistles and sprays of water, and every human fell silent and lowered their cameras and phones to honor this sacred moment with our ancestors of the sea. And I wondered what their means of recording was, what allowed the patterns of sound to be passed on from Granny to the small round babies, and whether their brains preserved and transferred things in a way our brains also could, if we simply lowered our gadgets.

a wee orca sprout sneaks to the surface

The other (wrong) hand: This year I observed a total solar eclipse through paper safety glasses on a tulip and filbert farm in Woodburn, Oregon. Just before the ring of fire the sky took on a green-grey cast, and every insect and bird fell silent. The absence of buzzing and chirping made space for other sounds that usual serve as static underneath the chatter, like the whisper of wind across grass, the plunk of a dew drop splitting earth. There’s no way to record this lack of sound; you have to simply sit in it. The sun was nearly swallowed and it was safe to remove our glasses, and my eyes searched the ground for the promised shadow bands, and instead I found a bee, unmoving on my sleeve. It was possible to pet it, so I did, before returning my focus to the sky, for the remaining minute of totality. When the sun returned the bee flew away, and silence sunk into noise. Later, a gentleman from the Astronomy Society heard me talking about the bee, and told me, “Oh, that bee was asleep. During eclipses, they go to sleep.” A bee dreamed on me. This is amazing.

the most beautiful thing I’ve seen


Both hands are to tell you what I do: observe and record and dream. These are the ingredients of a writer, to me.

The third hand (when you are the wrong hands, you can have as many as you want) is insomnia, without which I’d be a completely different well-rested person observing different things.  Not sleeping creates this black mirror of time where the brain has the ability to notice things, but lacks the faculties to make complex decisions or perform physical labor. Sufferers of this affliction know that 4am is a beautiful hour to craft unrealistic goals that can only be achieved with the full cooperation of a large bank, several startled friends, and the department of public works. 5am is the crossroads, where you either dive deep into a haze of coffee and grumbled conversations with imaginary demons at bus stations, or you like, watch TV or something. My first stint with insomnia happened when I was seven, when I waited until my parents went to bed and then went downstairs to watch televangelists weep and plead with viewers for big dollar donations. The theater of the whole thing was fascinating, the rhythm of their language, the way repeating key phrases functioned as a drum beat to soften the skulls of listeners. I waited for it to seem convincing, and it didn’t come, and I couldn’t tell if it was because they didn’t pick the right word or because they didn’t mean it. So I decided to observe and record the televangelists themselves, and their perceptions about the fate of my immortal soul. I wouldn’t call it journalism, but I would call it my first personal essay.

When I went to school to share these opinions with a teacher who always seemed startled by me, she told me that she could see me getting somewhere, but that I wasn’t going to get there in a straight line – it would have to be spirals and circles. And insomnia is what coaches me through the spiral, because at 6am you are back where you were at 1am, and by 1pm, there you are. Tired.

My senior year at Marshall, which was also my only year at Marshall, was heavily defined by insomnia, which directly informed decisions to leave early or not enter the front doors at all. There was a lot of eating sloppy breakfasts at Denny’s, wandering around city parks, and then watching Gullah Gullah Island and napping. Sometimes I talked to my Internet boyfriend, who I only knew as Hideo723. It should go without saying that I did not go to prom. All this behavior might have been acceptable if we were stoners, but we were just tired nerds.

The only thing that startled me awake was Mr. Wasowski’s European history lectures, which included a lot of detail about Katherine the Great’s questionable romantic decisions. Mr. Wasowski was also the basketball coach, and had an animated teaching style that was half on the court, half in the classroom, which meant he was basically yelling historic anecdotes at us for forty minutes a day. It was awesome. An extra credit question was introduced with “ding ding ding ding dong dong” which seemed to activate some dormant brain chemicals capable of immediately producing the desired factoid. I salivated over the return of my papers and tests, which would serve as evidence that I remembered everything this dude said. I wanted to be his history MVP. My final grade in the class bordered on absurd, since I scored 100% on every test and also managed to snag every extra credit point. At the year-end award ceremony, Mr. W gave me a trophy for this, and let me tell you, the best introduction you could hope for comes from someone with a gravely voice who shouts as their default communication, grasping the podium and leaning forward to emphasize the spectacular nature of your academic achievement. The only thing missing was a drumroll; I wanted to run down the aisle like Rocky with my fists in the air. Instead I just walked up and accepted the award, and spent the evening pleased that I was graduating from a high school that actually gave awards for such things.

In fact, I often tell people that I only really had one year of high school, and that was my senior year at JMH. My original high school, John Adams, closed at the end of my junior year, and even though I felt connected to the people there, it had a puzzling way of operating, and if there was any encouragement to pursue academic excellence, I never saw it. I arrived at JMH having been in the top ten of my class, and had no idea. JMH never let me forget I was in the top ten, or that I wrote for the Plain Dealer, or that the SATs were coming up, or that a scholarship application was due. If I was willing to walk a little, they were going to push me to run. So I did, all the way to a full scholarship I never would have received if not for the assistance of the guidance counselors and teachers.

And I never would have survived college at all if it wasn’t for Mr. Lakovic (sp?), the first English teacher to ever give me a C on a paper. He told me in terse language that my writing was overly emotional and that I’d failed to answer the question. He asked where my thesis was, and I asked him, “what’s a thesis?” Then he threw my paper in the air. That’s my kind of teacher. A surge of glee rushed through me as it dawned on me: my writing was going to improve, and this guy was going to help me. He did, and my work in that class crafted a strong foundation for my future academic writing. And he did not get in the way of my preferences to observe and record and dream.

I live in Portland now, but when you grow up in Cleveland and attend Cleveland Public Schools, you never forget where you came from. For these reasons, I’m probably the least passive aggressive person in the Pacific Northwest, which is useful when bargain shopping and in parking situations. I can see Cleveland in my Polish nose, my suspicious eyebrows, and my affection for the underdog. Continuing to create, to achieve, to help others, feels like a commitment I agreed to honor a very long time ago. Again, I think of the pods of orcas, joining together from three different places, whistling and chirping and groaning to one another, each asking to be witnessed. Language and story reaches all of them, generation after generation, while every human witness takes a different something from the collective agreement to simply listen, and watch, and wonder. To observe and record, or just remember.

This is story. And it’s 3:15am, and I am tired, but not sleeping.

Thank you again for including me in the Hall of Fame. Buy thousands of copies of my book. (I really mean this part. We all need to get paid.)



Observation 3: Cooking in July

Here’s how to get from point A to point B: stick one ice pack under your hat, stick another icepack in the laptop compartment of your backpack. Shut all the windows of your house, because you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. Does this keep the cool air from the night before in, or just create an oven of stale air? Don’t bother with google; that will just make your computer hot. Congratulate the cat for peeing on the only fan. Grumble to self that fans don’t do anything anyway, except blow down the aforementioned stale hot air. Put the pee-fan outside, to aggravate the neighbor’s cat, aka your cat’s arch nemesis. Remember to not get mad at any of the cats, because mostly you’re worried about whether they’re drinking enough, and you really wish they would cooperate like other cats that accept icepacks. This is a good reminder: check the cat water. Overdo it. Feel bad about the neighbor’s cat who is outside, and leave a bowl of water out there, too.

Now, sunscreen: how do you feel about it? One website will say that you will absolutely die if you don’t slather yourself in a tennis ball sized goo cannon twice a day, even indoors, even if there are no windows and no doors and it’s raining and winter. Another website will swear that sunscreen doesn’t actually work anyway, and that scalding beet-red burn you’re experiencing is actually the conspiracy, rubbing your nose in your own titanium dioxide. Now comes the means of answering this question: what would Australians do? You slather on mineral sunscreen (aka Zinc) and adjust your complaint filter so that the long stream of whining remains an internal lubricant, and not a strategy for getting out of a meeting sooner.

Clothing. This is not about fashion, or function, but what the skin is willing to tolerate. Shoes are the only essential article of clothing for admittance into most convenience stores, as well as something to cover the genital region enough to avoid arrest. Of note: a bikini is a totally acceptable outfit, especially if you intend to ride a bike. This wisdom applies to all genders. You settle on something that straddles the line of conventional decency, and is least likely to inspire heat rash. Science.

Putting things in a bag: this is hard. It’s important to give the icepack premium placement over your kidneys.

Time to go. One step outside, and you’re overwhelmed by the strength of your own genius. Icepack under the hat? There should be an award for that. At the ceremony you would thank your cats, your Polish genes that leave you armored against cold and defenseless against heat, your partner who somehow left the house in Carhartt’s that day, and the heat stroke you didn’t have. Icepack in the laptop compartment? You need to secure a patent for that one. With every step, you consider yourself more of a fashion pioneer. Everyone looks miserable, and you gobble it up like the vampire you are, swallowing their salty sweat and turning it into personal glee. No one knows of the genius happening all over your body. This is amazing. You are a terrible person, and an excellent imp.

You will hide in an air conditioned hovel as long as imps are permitted. Then you will enter the oven all over again, the fist of the drought more brutal when it delivers its second blow.

this is how it happens

(Trigger warning. This is a discussion of rape and rape culture, and it’s about to get raw, because I cannot take scrolling through message board stupidity anymore. So there’s this, and it’s all I’ve got. – Amanda)

It’s the first big pop off of spring, and whether the snow melts or not it’s on. Some of the team comes over and you spend a long time getting ready, acting like you don’t care while they fuck up your Playstation and eat your mom’s food. Before you leave the house you have a few. Not sloppy, just enough for confidence. Your boys feel the same way, and they have a few, too. You look good before you leave, and you know it.

The yard and front steps are a mess of players and cheerleaders and wannabe players and wannabe cheerleaders, screaming and flirting and play-hitting each other. It smells like hairspray and gum. There’s a keg in the basement and a collection of bottles harvested from lost liquor cabinets. You pick the bottle that sounds like something your grandpa would drink and decide to just carry it and take swallows. Who the hell gets fancy at parties? This isn’t the place for martinis or blue shit with umbrellas. It’s a good time. The girls you texted all week are there. All you have to do is fake like you aren’t interested long enough, and it’s on.

Then one of your boys hands you a drink and says, “Drink deep, brother. It’s special.” A jolt of suspicion moves through you, because you don’t trust anyone who grins like that. So you ask “Special how?” and kinda laugh, and he tips the cup up to help you swallow and you are drinking. Then he hits you on the shoulder and walks away. You figure it’ll be fine. This is your boy, your teammate. Besides, he’s bigger than you. Don’t fuck with it. Just party.

The drink hits hard and fast. You didn’t feel so drunk a second ago. Hell, you didn’t even hit buzzed and just like that you’re hammered. Then your legs are gone and so is the rest of you, and there you are. Gone.

The part of your brain still dialed into what’s happening thinks about that movie you saw about the dude who goes into surgery and the anesthetic only half-works. He can’t move, but he hears, sees, and feels everything. That’s you, on the ground, and you can’t even talk. When you try, this gurgling comes out.

“Son is done,” someone says, and you feel something wet hit your cheek. It’s his spit, drooling from his mouth. Then you feel something else wet and warm. Piss. Yours.

From out of the corner of your eye you see one of your teammates, even more gone than you are. Both of his eyes are closed and his mouth dangles open near a puddle of puke. He’s also totally naked.

Within minutes he’s like a booth at the county fair. People arrange objects on him, take pictures. Out come the Sharpies to draw a dick on his ass, boobs on his back, balls on his chin. You can’t tell if their faces are actually elongating into the masks of jackals or if that’s the last of your consciousness running for cover. The guy who gave you the drink is talking to another in a corner and you can tell he’s full of ideas. He walks up to the limp body, pulls him arm back like a slingshot, then jacks him in the face. Just like that. Hits him hard. Again. The dead body is suddenly coughing.

“Damn,” someone says, and rolls him on to his stomach so he doesn’t choke on his teeth, on his blood.

Someone squeals, “Don’t let him choke!”

Not stop punching him — don’t let him choke. You try to say What the fuck but all that comes is another gurgle.

Out come the cell phones.

He punches him in the face again, on the back of his head and shouts for everyone to notice that when you hit the back of his head, blood comes out the front. Punch to the skull, blood from the nose! Science! This is awesome! Another guy lines up behind him because this is going viral, and he wants to get in a good clean punch in too, while he’s there. He’s excited, hopping from one foot to the other, and it’s making the rest of the team excited, so they line up. They’re a team. They do things together. Someone points at you and says, “Too bad your running back is out” and another says “We know. He’s next.”

Your whole self says fuckgetup, and still, you can’t.

This guy is a bloody mess but it’s like Lord of the Flies around his carcass, everyone whooping and hollering and high-fiving, kicking him and shouting GOAL, passing around booze and joints and then suddenly pissing on him, a massive golden shower sponsored by 10 bloated athletic bladders.

Twitter lights up. #drunkpunch

Somebody starts to get pissed about the blood on the carpet. What the hell is he going to tell his mom, some dude got his period? This is hilarious, too. You’re hoping the focus on the other dude’s face and the carpet is going to make them forget about you. So much time has passed, and you can’t even raise your arm. They decide he’s going to be a burden to take care of. They decide the same thing about you.  You’re cold. That’s how you realize you’re naked, too.

The next day you wake up, and have no idea where you are. Wait: your bed. You remember your bed. Mom. That was who found you on the front porch, naked and covered in blood. All you know is what the mirror reveals: you’re missing a few teeth, and your cheek might need hospital intervention to properly heal. Still, you prepare yourself to say something about how the night was alright, and you fell. Boys being boys and all that.

Downstairs your mom is crying. You can’t deal with her yet, and she lets you walk right on by her. You plug in your cell phone, turn it on. The phone lights up. The first thing you see is a picture of the quarterback’s nuts on your forehead. One dick for each one of your eyes. There’s a foot on your face. Teeth, resting on the stained carpet. #drunkpunch.

Another photo shows someone writing something. You can’t tell what it says, so you lift up your shirt. Your stomach reads: “Turned out slut.”

There’s naked pictures of the other guy everywhere. You see more of his intimate anatomy than you’ve seen of your own. You throw up. Hangovers, they’ll do that.

You try to think of what to text him, but you don’t know what to say. Finally you come up with: I guess we got pretty wasted. 

No response.

You’re still trying to come up with what to say to your mother when the police come by. They’re hoping you’ll come down to the station. There’s a bit of confusion, because there’s been an assault, but they’re not really sure it was an assault. You play dumb for a second, which is hard when your whole face is bruises and blood. Instead you try, “People get punched. It happens.” The police say that yes, his teeth got punched out, and he has a concussion, and contusions all over his body, and even a few puncture wounds. They’re not sure whether this was consensual. He says it wasn’t consensual. You say, “Well, he went to the party.”

Still, you go down to the station.

The police are concerned about you as well. They ask about your own beating and missing teeth, and you tell them you’re a football player. They ask if the other guy is one too, and you say of course. And you say hey, if you’re a football player and go to a party, stuff is going to happen.

When they leave the room you check your phone to see what’s up on Twitter, Snapchat, all your internet business. There’s video. Video is the worst.

No: the discussion underneath the video is the worst. Words like sloppy-ass bitches pop out. People being cute, saying that football players like hitting things, so maybe they enjoyed the ass-kicking. How it’s not like anyone said no.

Then you get a text from one of the girls you like. It says, I saw a video of you. I’m sorry. 

You still don’t know what to say. You do know you won’t text her again.

The police come back in and recommend avoiding the internet. You say that’s kind of like avoiding oxygen or avoiding waking up, but they’re not listening. Instead, they say you have to go to the hospital, as some of your wounds are significant and require documentation. Shit.

At the hospital, the doctor is concerned. She needs to take a lot of tests. There’s a number of infections you could have been exposed to, with many open wounds, with being naked and exposed to the elements. That means a Qtip shoved up your dickhole. She shaves half of your body and puts it into a bag. She clips your fingernails. You think it’s all ingredients for some kind of voodoo, but you’re done talking.

She’s not. She says it’s also important to document as much as possible for the police report. That means getting naked again. That means remaining that way, while the camera flashes.


On the way home you realize there are 45 new posts using 45 different variations of #punchingbag, including #dickpunch and #dickbag and #punchingdick. You’re officially in the mix with #teabag, which seems worse than #punchingbag.  You tweet: I might be a teabag but I’m not a snitch. #punchingbag Someone responds, Whatever #snitchbag.

Then the other guy texts you: I might be a snitch, but you’re a coward.

You don’t say shit, because he’s right.

Your front lawn is lined with media wolves, and you wonder how they found out so fast. Right. Fucking internet. They are careful to use words like alleged. They want to know if they can use your name. Then they want to know if they can use your name after you turn 18. When do you turn 18 again?  It’s hard to not notice the one reporter who always screws her eyebrows up in concern and talks about the “potential to ruin a whole season.” She really wants to talk to you. You really don’t care.

Weeks later you still don’t have any front teeth, and neither does he. The dentist estimates implants will cost $8K, even with your insurance. You wonder what his dentist said. He’s still not talking to you. He quit the team because he gets these dizzy spells that make it hard for him to stand up for long periods of time. Everyone says he’s faking it. That he’s just embarrassed, is all. They paint his locker pink and write Punching Bag Bitch so he knows where he lives. You wonder if he still has a scholarship, and if he doesn’t, what he’s going to do. You think your mind might be tricking with you, but it seems like he’s shorter.

They haven’t let up on you either, but it’s easier to focus in on him.

The prosecutor says there isn’t much to go on. All he has is four videos, about a dozen still images, his testimony and yours, 46 witnesses, 342 Tweets, and a signed confession from the boy with the chemistry experiment drinks. This really isn’t enough for a conviction. Your mom is pissed. She says all it would take is four joints to get another type of conviction. Then the prosecutor holds up his hand and says, “It’s not enough. Not for this type of case. It’s simply not enough.”

Your mom is talking about suing somebody. She says all the boys in the pictures need to go to jail. You are thinking about how everyone knows your body, your face with fewer teeth, and your name everywhere you go. The media sort of tried to hide it, and then they didn’t. When people don’t know your name, it’s Snitchbag.

His parents are talking about moving. His mother was smoking outside one day and you walked passed and she waved you over. Then she pointed at her house and said: “Tell me, just how many eggs does that supermarket sell?” You say you’re not sure what she means, but you know.

Here’s something else you know: you’ve got four more sessions with the counselor, and then they might leave you alone. This counselor likes to talk about your role in going to the party, about having a drink in the first place. That all of this could have been avoided if you had just stayed home and never played football.

You don’t say anything back. You’ve got nothing to say. If they don’t leave you alone, you might just leave.

And even though you can’t remember that night, you keep trying to remember. Then you try and remember to try and forget. You’re supposed to find it all funny. You’re supposed to let it all go. You’re supposed to remember that it was just a party. A party you chose to attend. That you could have been okay with it. That it could have been okay. You should know.

Your wounds have been recorded.