High School

“What About Prom, [Shane]?”

True to the masthead I write under, I learned everything I know about high school traditions from the movies of John Hughes. Which is to say, I spent more time watching movies about high school traditions than I spent participating in them. Today, these movies are more dated than a “Where’s the Beef?” T-shirt. As such, my oldest son Cal pays zero attention to the high school lessons I preach. Lessons he aptly named: The Gospel According to John Hughes.

The kid’s got a point. Up until my senior year, I never participated in any of the major high school traditions. I observed them. I never swigged the booze or bagged the babe, but I could tell you who swigged the babe and bagged the booze. I guess you could say I was a bit of a high school anomaly. I was an extroverted introvert who studied hard, had a few close friends, just said “no” to everything, and lived vicariously through the lives of Hughes’s high school heroes and heroines. For me, there were no parties (Sixteen Candles), no detentions (The Breakfast Club), no cutting class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and no school dances (Pretty in Pink). In fact, I had virtually no life after midnight (The Gremlins).

So by the time my senior prom arrived, the thought of scoring a date sounded downright prom-posterous. For starters, I wasn’t exactly on any girl’s A-list of eligible bachelors. In their rolodexes (remember those?), they filed my number somewhere between N and O. And with the exception of my two sisters, and maybe a few of their mannish friends, I hardly even talked to the opposite sex. In their minds, I was the opposite of sex.

“Good morning! Welcome to another day of higher education!”

In my defense, my oldest siblings didn’t exactly paint a pretty-in-pink picture of high school proms:

  • At her prom, my sister Cindy walked through an unopened glass door and wound up concussed.
  • My sister Sherry’s prom dates equaled the collective coolness of Ernie and Bert.
  • My brother Brett never made it to his senior prom; or senior year for that matter.

Even so, I knew that the senior prom wasn’t just another dance. This time, I couldn’t just say no. As prom night grew closer, my family started reminding me of this very point. Actually, they started to sound like Andie (Molly Ringwald) hammering Blane, her would-be prom date and major appliance: “What about prom, [SHANE]!?!?!” 

Sadly, up until 2 weeks before prom, this Ferris Bueller-sounding promposal was the best offer I got: “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who said she might go with you.”  

“This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me!”

Inspired by Pretty In Pink’s Duckie, I finally summoned the courage to ask the sweetest girl at Morristown High School to the prom. As I recall, my shaky-legged promposal sounded an awful lot like Rocky Balboa proposing to Adrian:

“Hey yo, Selina. I was just wonderin’ if you
wouldn’t
mind goin’ to the prom with me too much?” 

Nonetheless, Selina said YES! I wore a slightly ironic mismatched black-and-white tuxedo. We shared a limo with my 3 best friends. And I enjoyed a prom night that still inspires me to this day.

Flash forward 27 years…

As I worked late last night, and watched social media drive MHS prom photos into the local zeitgeist, I was at a loss for words. So overcome with pure pride and joy, I could only text the following to my wife: “I can’t stop smiling and crying!”

I share my slightly exaggerated story above because I know that every kid at the prom last night has his or her own story. And like bookends to each kid’s story, there are parents who’ve supported their child through it all. As parents, we see beneath the newly coiffed hair, the flawless tuxes/dresses, and the generous helpings of tan spray paint. We see the long, winding, sometimes bumpy road of adolescent life that brought our kids to this destination. And when it comes to high school, let’s face it, getting there isn’t always half the fun. But boy, don’t the memories of “getting there” make moments like last night so much sweeter?

I think of all the demands that parents, teachers, coaches, peers, and cellular devices place on kids. Heck, these demands are probably nothing compared to the demands our kids place on themselves. But for one night–and a long weekend down the shore that has every parent praying to whomever they pray to in times like these–there was only one demand being placed on our kids:

Just go out there and have the time of your life!

For me, prom is the American high school tradition. It’s truly a rite of passage and the one important ritual of American youth that I was proud to have participated in. Today I’m so proud and excited for all those self-tanned and smiling faces that I recognized on social media last night. As for what lays ahead for them this weekend, I’ll let Duckie sum it up for you:

“Oh you know, beer, scotch, juice box… whatever.”

Have a great weekend everybody! “I’m off like a dirty shirt.”

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The First Cut is the Deepest

We’ve all heard the story by now. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team only to persevere and become a national champion at North Carolina, a 6-time world champion for the Chicago Bulls, and the undisputed king of crying memes.

In 1978, Michael Jordan was just another kid in the gym trying out
for the Emsley A. Laney High School varsity basketball team. There were 15
roster spots. Jordan—then a 15-year-old
sophomore who was only 5’10” and
could not yet dunk a basketball—did not get one.

This very true story has become every parent’s rallying cry when their child gets cut. In movie terms (and these are the only terms I understand) getting cut is like being shipped away to Shawshank Prison or to a solitary cell at Alexandre “Dumb-ass’s” Chateau d’if.

Let’s stick with the Shawshank Redemption theme. You might say that when it comes to being cut, it comes down to a simple choice, really:

“Get busy living. Or get busy [crying].”

As a little league “All-Star” coach, I had to cut kids as young as nine. Nine!?!? Sure, I handled the cutting process delicately and I challenged each player to work hard and prove me wrong next year. Like Jordan before him, one player did prove me wrong. By age 12, he finally earned the right to be called an All-Star. Sadly, other players phased out of baseball and phased into lacrosse, track, or Grand Theft Auto.

In cases where cuts lead to quitting, it’s easy to blame the coach. And as “the coach”, it was easy for me to stand on my soapbox and deflect criticism with
coach-speak replies that were more cliche-ridden than a Bon Jovi set list. Heck, I’d even extend my “You Give [Cuts] a Bad Name” anthem to friends and family members whose kids didn’t quite, well, cut it.

“Uh, [Shane], I do believe you are talking out of your ass.” 

It turns out that being a former coach with cutting privileges means you don’t know jack crap about what it’s like on the other end. When my son got cut this season, my natural response was to shape-shift into Mama Bear and shove porridge up Coach Goldilocks’s ass.

  • Your first thoughts are irrational ones: He has something against my son. It’s all political. He must know I like pineapple on my pizza.
  • Your second thoughts are equal parts constructive and destructive: Maybe I should call the coach…call the cops…send him a letter…lace it with anthrax.
  • As the blood finally recedes from your vein-bulging forehead: I’d better shred the letter…hang up the phone…put the pineapples back on my pizza…have an honest conversation with my son.

And that’s exactly what I did (the honest conversation part). And when you do that, you might find that your child won’t take “cut” for an answer. In fact, he just might look forward to proving his coach wrong.

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” 

As a former little league coach, I enjoy watching my former players ascend the ranks from middle school to high school ball. The coach in me can’t help but project their futures and grade them like stocks in my very own baseball portfolio. There are “5-toolers” and “bench-droolers”, “can’t misses” and “couldn’t hit water if they fell out of boats”. But like the 9-year-old who ultimately proved me wrong, there’s nothing that I enjoy more than a baseball redemption story. Especially when, in my humble opinion, the coach gets it wrong at first.

To me, a baseball redemption story is no less dramatic than Andy Dufresne crawling through a river of shit and coming out clean on the other side of Shawshank Prison. And like geology to Andy Dufresne, baseball redemption is a study in pressure and time. “Maybe that’s all it takes really…is pressure and time.” If you’re lucky enough, your time will come. And when your time comes, you hope to handle the pressure of that moment. Because, let’s face it, all good redemption stories come down to that one moment.

“I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.” 

This past week I watched two such players take full advantage of their respective times in the most pressure-filled moments of a high school baseball game. For one player, his moment was an indescribably beautiful, run-saving, full-extension, diving catch. For the other player, his moment covered three dominant, scoreless innings on the mound. What both players had in common was that they weren’t the coach’s first choice over the past couple of seasons. And it would have been understandable if either player had “vanished like a fart in the wind” after being cut and/or having to serve a commuted sentence on the varsity bench.

The redemption lesson here is that the players didn’t lose hope when their number wasn’t called at first. And, I’m pretty certain, their parents didn’t let them lose hope.

“Remember, [parents], hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

I hope that every player who was cut this year works hard to prove their coach wrong.

I hope that every coach welcomes the opportunity to be proven wrong next year.

I hope there are more baseball redemption stories to be told in the future.

I hope.

 

John Hughes, John Green, John 3:16

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My “Song of Summer 2015” is an oddly titled countryfied pop confection from Keith Urban. He’s my favorite Australian singer who’s not a Wiggle. Lyrically, the song name-drops to illustrate Urban’s influences in life. Drenched in so much coming-of-age nostalgia, each verse culminates with this catchy hook:

Just another rebel in the great wide open,
On the boulevard of broken dreams.
And I learned everything I needed to know, 
From John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.

When I break down these lyrics, I can’t help but ask: Why in the Wiggly World do I like it so much?

  • Rebel in the great wide open? My most rebellious act was shaving my 18-year-old head like Vanilla Ice.SCN_0002
  • Boulevard of broken dreams? My boulevard has been a straight and narrow path of more broken bones than hearts or dreams.
  • John Cougar? I prefer John Mellencamp over John Cougar; Van Hagar over Van Halen.
  • John Deere? I don’t own a tractor or a mower. And I’m pretty sure that toolbox in the garage is my wife’s.
  • John 3:16? Okay, 1 out of 3 Johns ain’t bad.

Nonetheless, I sing along…much to the secondhand embarrassment of my wife and 3 kids. I belt out lyrics that recall a childhood of “backseat freedom,” “TV dinners,” and a yearning to “never grow up, never grow old.” I sing it word for word, but I tweak the final hook. It’s a shout-out to the John who influenced me as an insecure teen (Hughes), and the ones who continue to inspire me as an immature parent (Green) and an imperfect man (3:16).


JOHN HUGHES
In my younger years, despite the fact that I was the poster child for the All-American boy, I always felt different. And for me, the word “different”, used in any context, was horrifying.

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“Shane, you’re wearing a white tux with turquoise blue bow-tie and cummerbund to an 8th grade graduation ceremony. And you’re singing ‘We Are the World’? That’s different.” 

As a late-blooming freshman in high school, I was too insecure to run with the “cool” crowd and I assumed that girls filed my name under “N” and “O” in their Trapper Keepers. More like Urkel, less like Urban, I wasn’t “baptized by rock-n-roll.” I wasn’t a “rebel in the great wide open.” And if not for the Gospel according to John Hughes, I’d have felt like a guppy in the great wide abyss of the high school fishbowl.

shane

“Shane, you’re wearing Bugle Boy khaki suspender pants on the first day of high school? Didn’t Kids R Us have something different?”

The karma chameleon-like way that I blended into the fabric of my high school was comical. I wasn’t the brain, jock, princess, basket case, or criminal. I was a mix of all the John Hughes archetypes. I was built like Molly Ringwald; I had Ally Sheedy’s dandruff; and I longed to be the brainy, jocky version of the Judd Nelson criminal minus the dope in his locker.

Why was I insecure? For starters, I was built like 6 o’clock and I had more tics than Lewis Morris Park. But thanks to John Hughes, I took the day off with Ferris Bueller. I blew out Sixteen Candles on Samantha Baker’s birthday cake. I even partied with a Chinaman named after a duck’s dork. Through the most awkward moments of my freshman year, John Hughes reassured me (and countless other teens like me) that we weren’t so different and we certainly weren’t alone:

“We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us
are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
–The Breakfast Club

If John Hughes were alive today, I wonder if he’d appreciate that 30 years after the release of The Breakfast Club…I choose to write a blog under a masthead that his unique voice inspired. [Nah…he’d probably call me a “neo maxi zoom dweeby.”]

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My view from a 30-year anniversary screening of The Breakfast Club with my nephew (a second-generation Hughes disciple).


JOHN GREEN

I’m a father of 3…master of none. I try to be the best parent that I can be. I teach my kids right from wrong, but I also give them the freedom to figure out wrong on their own. Some parents lament how “connected” their kids are…fearing the many vices that their mobile device-obsessions may fuel. Not me. I think back to a time when there weren’t many social outlets for teens. If you were “different,” there’s a good chance you felt different and alone. Today, there are so many more positive ways for teens to celebrate their “differences” together.

Our world is far from perfect…but I’m encouraged to know that today’s teens are influenced by a new breed of authors who present very real, multi-layered teen characters. And there’s none better than John Green. From Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines to Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars (yep, I’ve read them all)…John Green shows zero appreciation for the paint-by-number teen archetypes that Hughes introduced.

Where John Hughes wrote characters in black and white (wait, weren’t they ALL white?), Green’s characters are more colorfully drawn than an episode of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting. We’re talking dark sienna, van dyke brown, yellow ochre, and titanium white characters who spout verbal poetry with the same ease that Bob Ross painted happy little trees.

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John Green’s characters don’t only embrace their “different”, they often shout it from their own little treetops. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Green describes a super-sized football player named Tiny as “the world’s largest person who is really, really gay.” Tiny is “not the type to go around unnoticed”, and I’ll bet that’s how John Green wishes all teens could be. Further, where John Hughes was the introverted auteur with an almost creepy-uncle vibe, John Green (a self-proclaimed nerd) connects effortlessly with his millions of fans.

  • Green and his brother Frank host a popular educational channel on YouTube called Crash Course. Their Vlogbrothers channel boasts millions of fans who refer to themselves as “Nerdfighters.”
  • Green’s mantra to fans: “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.”
  • The mission of Green’s Project For Awesome Foundation: “Decrease world suck.”
  • Green also connects with fans on social media and he’s never afraid to put himself out there to help normalize different.

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Yep, being a teenager can sometimes suck. I’m grateful that my kids (and yours) have voices like John Green’s that inspire teens of all colors, shapes, and disguises. And let’s be honest: “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome” is far more inspiring than the decidedly downbeat Breakfast Club anthem, “Don’t You Forget About Me.”


JOHN 3:16
Which brings me to the “Gospel-in-a-nutshell” Bible verse:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

I’m a go-to-church-every-Sunday Catholic and the John 3:16 verse means more to me than I care to share in a mindless pop-culture blog. Like many things Catholic, however, these same words are often used to promote an elitist agenda hell-bent on exclusion over inclusion. So I guess I’m what the holiest of rollers call a “Cafeteria Catholic.” The term is applied to those who assert their Catholic identity yet dissent from some of the more rigid Catholic moral teachings.

To better illustrate, let me use the Meg Ryan deli scene from When Harry Met Sally. 

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Sorry, not the fake orgasm part. The part where she’s being very particular about her lunch order. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=IxeeeSUFpmE

Just like Sally substitutes food items and requests items “on the side”, Cafeteria Catholics pick the doctrines they’ll uphold from an a la carte menu at the Catholic Cafe…

Waitress:
“What can I get you?”

Harry:
“I’ll have a number three.” 

Sally:
“I’d like the pre-marital sex please with the condoms and
the rhythm method on the side.”

Waitress (writing, repeating):
“Pre-marital sex, condoms, rhythm method…”

Sally:
“But I’d like the life begins at conception and I don’t want the holy days
of obligation…I want them on the side. And I’d like gay “marriage”
instead of “civil unions” if you have it. If not, then nothing.”

Yes, I’m a Cafeteria Catholic. My right wing sometimes points left, and my thou-shalt-nots are guided by my own moral compass. This makes me “different” in the eyes of the church, but well, I’ve always been a little different (see my Urkel and Vanilla Ice pics above).

In the final verse of the song that started my rambling, Keith Urban sings about the end of his journey to self-discovery:

I spent a lot of years running from believing,
Looking for another way to save my soul.
The longer I live, the more I see it,
There’s only one way home.

Along with the words in John 3:16, I like to think that the believing he speaks of is simply believing in yourself. The way to “save your soul” is to embrace your “different” and accept the differences of others. And the “only way home” is to follow your moral compass…even if it sometimes points more left than right; right than left.

If the second coming were to come tomorrow, I choose to imagine a Twitter account with hundreds of millions of followers. The first tweet would be influenced by witnessing a past century of equal parts social/moral progress and decay. In other words, there’s still too much “world suck.”

The simple message would be shaped by the most universal religious virtues of faith, hope, and love. My faith gives me hope that the tweet would look something like this:

Long Duk Dong’s Back-to-School Fashion Guide

long
What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see…he was wearing a red argyle sweater, and tan trousers, and red shoes………Hmm? No, he’s not retarded!”

Don’t spend another second feeling sorry for Long Duk Dong. For a “Chinaman named after a duck’s dork”, he had an epic first day as an American high school student. Sure his taste in “appetizing food fit neatly into interesting round pie” was square, but his style was all his own. And he rocked that style harder than the Porsche-driving, sleeveless-swea   ter-wearing object of Samantha Baker’s affection. “Donger’s here for five hours, and he’s got somebody. I live here my whole life, and I’m like a disease.” Yes, for those who kept score, Long Duk Dong nabbed a “new-style American girlfriend” before Jake Ryan did.

It’s back-to-school-time again, and we want to tell our children that the content of their character matters more than the contents of their closet. And it does. But we’re talking about the first day of school here, and you always remember your first. So whatever first-day fashion statement your child is about to make…be sure it’s one of their own making. I know this may not be the best lesson to preach, but I preach from a painful personal pulpit.

“Why do you think you’re a dork? I don’t think you’re a dork. I don’t think Mom thinks you’re a dork.”

My mama always said that I was born with Forrest Gump feet…so my fashion choices were limited. She had the option of sending me to school with braces on my legs or with special shoes. Back in those days, “special shoes” was the medical term that podiatrists used to describe saddle shoes. And “saddle shoes” was the politically correct way of saying Shane dressed like a f**king cheerleader.

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Vintage saddle shoes from the late ’70′s…as worn on the Gump feet of a young Shane Smith.

While it took a few years, and some ribbing from my classmates, I managed to grow out of my Gump feet. In time, I also rose above my reputation as Morristown’s cutest cross-dresser.

In mom’s defense, I had medical issues that forced her to dress me like Cindy Brady boarding The Good Ship Lollipop. My sister Sherry, on the other hand, had no such reason to send me to school looking like the love child of Steve Urkel and Punky Brewster.

[NOTE: Before I continue, let me just say that I adore my sister Sherry. I idolized her growing up, so I had no reason to question her fashion advice. She wanted her little brother to avoid all the trappings of high school. The  trappings that could turn a “super-cute boy” like me into…well…a teenager. So I took her “Stay gold Pony Boy” advice to heart, and I never gave the outfit that she picked out for me a second look. And since I was able to charm the parachute-pants off girls in middle school…I really didn’t think one outfit could change all that in high school.]

“Take those ridiculous things off!”

I can still recall the most minute details from my first day at Morristown High School: a school where they brew a melting pot of more than just John Hughes clichés. We’re talking white, black, and yellow; straight, gay, and crooked; clean, burnt, and extra crispy. Scared freshman struggled to doggy-paddle their way through a sea of hacky-sac circles, decked suede Pumas, and cigarette smoke rings. You could feel their uneasiness. Desperate to climb the first rung of the high school social ladder, yet fearful of belly-flopping into the shark-infested waters of the high school fish bowl. And then there was me…

As soon as I stepped off the bus, it was clear that I had committed a wardrobe malfunction of Janet–Miss Jackson if You’re Nasty–proportions. I wore Bugle Boy khaki suspender pants on my first day of high school. Not pre-school. High school!!! Belted just below my nipples, the clown pants made me look like an anorexic alcoholic who hadn’t eaten since the Irish Potato Famine.

shane
Shane is wearing vintage 1986 Bugle Boy Khaki Suspender Pants and pure white Jaclar high-tops with untied shoelaces. Hmmm? No he’s not retarded.

I’m not sure about the rest of my body, but my cheeks were flaming more than my favorite WHAM cassette. I considered hiding, but I had already drawn attention from two of my former girlfriends [let’s call them Blonde and Blonder]. I knew I was fried the moment Blonde and Blonder waltzed up to me and started surveying my wacky khaki package.

As Blonde squeezed my flaming cheek, Blonder plucked my suspenders like Eddie Van Halen. And to this day, I haven’t forgotten the looks on their faces or the eight words that Blonder uttered in jest:

Blonder:
“Ooooh, look at Shaney!  Isn’t he so cute?”

But she didn’t say this in a “Chachi’s so cute” kind of way.  No, these were the words of a grandparent squeezing the cheeks of an infant who’d just discovered the joys of eating poop. I was the infant, minus the diaper. Hell, who needed a diaper when I had Hefty-brand suspender pants to carry my shit.

By the time I crossed the entrance to MHS–like a threshold between boyhood and manhood–my Bozo T. Clown pants had already made me public enema #1. I clicked my Jaclar high-tops and mimicked Dorothy by heart.  “There’s no place like [middle school]. There’s no place like [middle school].” But I wasn’t in middle school anymore, and the great and powerful Oz was about to eat me up before lunch.

Speaking of lunch, that’s where my next huge embarrassment awaited.

“This information cannot leave this room. Okay? It would devastate my reputation as a dude.”

If you are what you wear on the first day of high school, then I’m convinced the rest of your social existence rides on who you share a table with at lunchtime. I prayed to the gods that I’d share a lunch period with at least one of my best friends, but no such luck.  Actually, I think all my friends took one good look at my suspenders and begged for a schedule change.

Fearing fashion guilt by association, I imagined they stormed into the Principal’s office and pleated their case:

Friend #1:
“You don’t understand Mr. Rooney, he’s wearing Bugle Boy khaki suspender pants.”

Friend #2:
“I’m pretty sure they’re the same pants my brother wore to kindergarten.”

Friend #3:
“I mean, what’s next?  An Alf lunch box?”

Mr. Rooney:
“Boys, I’ve heard your statements.  And quite frankly I am horrified!!!”

Friend #4:
“You mean, horrified that we’re such awful friends?”

Mr. Rooney:
“No!  I am horrified that Bugle Boy makes suspender pants for high school students.”

The office erupts with laughter.

Meanwhile, I was looking for at least one familiar face in a cafeteria filled with  sophomores who ignored me and freshmen who pretended not to know me.  Christ, with the get-up I was wearing I had a better chance of scoring a seat at Chuck-E-Cheese.

I finally set up camp next to several harmless-looking gnomes who must have raided Alex P. Keaton’s wardrobe.  We’re talking Izod sweater vests and Jox-brand velcro sneakers.  The closest thing to a jock among them was wearing a varsity jacket with a harp on the back.  I offered a faint hello to my new best friends, buried my head in my tray, and started eating. Until suddenly, and inexplicably, I found my bony index finger was lodged in my proboscis.

As luck would have it, my quick pick caught the attention of [let’s call him Biff], a sophomore whose brains were in his love handles. Destined to work in the school cafeteria upon graduating, Biff couldn’t let this opportunity pass him by. So with all the dimwitted passion of Rocky Balboa calling out to his equally dimwitted Adrian, Biff let out the following cry…

 ”EEEEEW! Look at the Freshman picking his nose!”

Knockout!  Before I had a chance to get up off the canvas, all eyes were glued to a suspender-wearing, booger-picking freshman in need of a standing eight count.

Naturally I did what any other proud high school student would do in that situation. I dropped my tray and ran straight the hell out of the cafeteria and upstairs to the library. The library became my lunchtime sanctuary during freshman year. It was my quiet place, where I could reflect on the most humiliating first day in high school history. A day that began, and ended, with a fashion statement that wasn’t of my own making.

“It’s really human of you to listen to all my bullshit.”
If there’s a lesson to learn here, it’s that we all tell our children that the first day of school is about being respectful, paying attention, and making new friends. And it is. Unfortunately, making new friends and making the appropriate fashion statement aren’t mutually exclusive. When in doubt, just be sure the fashion statement your child is about to make is one of his own making. If that doesn’t work, rent Sixteen Candles, or tell him the story about the  “Chinaman named after a duck’s dork”…and the numb-nuts who let his sister dress him like White Urkel.

P.S. Sherry, I still love you. More importantly, I forgive you.

[keep scrolling]

Now will you forgive me?

“SOFA CITY SWEETHEART!”

sherry