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Written by Rick Epstein   



Dad, do you think I should take my duct-tape bag to school?" My oldest daughter Marie is about to start high school and is fine-tuning her Image. The item in question is a big shoulder bag and it's constructed entirely of duct tape. She made it using instructions she found in a teen magazine and carries her schoolbooks in it. The bag is remarkable, but not for its beauty.



Marie has been in the same little school, K-8. Because it has only one classroom for each grade, she's been with the same kids for nine years. Mystique is impossible. The classmates are like siblings; they are all onto each other. Now, for the first time since kindergarten, Marie is about to venture out among strangers. Wearing braces, yet.


Second born Sally, about to enter sixth grade, is no more concerned about image than a hyena is. Some people think my kids are free spirits because their socks never match. But really it's because when I do laundry I'm too lazy to pair them up and I can't tell whose are whose. So they all go unsorted by the dozens into one central drawer and the kids just pull out any two that fit. Sally is the one who's most at ease with the situation. When someone sees her socks and asks, "Why?" she laughs and counters, "Why not?"


Her little sister Wendy, now entering second grade, is cute enough to be in movies. But she has a serious self-image problem. Last year she claimed, "The teacher gives me extra homework because I'm so ugly." Her issues are too complex to be addressed by a metallic-gray bag, even accessorized with duct-tape shoes, hat and belt.


I don't really understand the extremes of Sally's confidence and Wendy's despair. But I can relate to Marie's self-consciousness. I remember making image strategies before each September. But I never fooled anyone for more than an hour or two.


"I don't know about bringing the bag," I said, "You've already got the mismatched-socks thing going. You might want to keep a low profile until you know your way around. It might not be wise to be sending out major signals of weirdness the first day."


"What was YOUR approach in high school?" she asked.


I mentally dredged up days I'd been glad to forget. "My approach is nothing to follow," I said. "I spent the first half of high school lurking on the edges of the In-Crowd trying for acceptance."


"Why?" she asked.


"Because of Jean Horgan, Marianne Russo and Donna Narroff, the most beautiful girls in the world. If Michelangelo had seen them in their cheerleader outfits, he would've painted THEM on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I wanted to be near them."


"Dad!" she said, "Were you like -- a stalker?"


"No, those guys are dangerous creeps. I was a pathetic and wistful creep. But at the end of sophomore year, I began hanging around with four or five guys who didn't want to be in the In-Crowd."


"Were there girls in that group?" Marie asked.




"What kind of things did you do?"


"We went to basketball games and yelled fresh things that were funny only to ourselves. We played tackle football without equipment. We played Monopoly for money and made up our own R-rated version of Monopoly and played that. Someone had given my brother Steve a real straitjacket made out of canvas with leather straps. One night we buckled Russ into it and took him to an all-night cafe and fed him a sundae with a spoon. Doug was our leader, so the cashier took him out in the lobby and demanded to know what was going on. Doug would only say, 'Don't worry; he'll be OK.' Once we stayed up all night and then went to a football game, so giddy from lack of sleep that people thought we were on drugs. Another time, when we visited Ron in the hospital, we all changed into our pajamas to aggravate the nurses.


"If you had to characterize us with a clean word, I guess 'wiseguys' would be it. We spent many evenings roaming the streets, chatting and laughing. One Saturday night we found a dead 'possum in the road and then hoisted it up the school's flagpole. We used to tease and annoy the In-Crowd."


"Was it envy?" she asked.


"In my case it was," I said, "But the other guys had a genuine lack of reverence for them. It was a healthy attitude. But the important thing was that even if everyone thought we were jerks, at least we were REAL jerks.


"Remembering all this makes me think that if you try to hide your true self, it'll only delay contact with the bunch that'll be right for you. You probably SHOULD bring your duct-tape bag to school."


"Never mind the bag," Marie said, her braces gleaming. "Has Uncle Steve still got that strait-jacket?"



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