“Hey everyone.” Too quiet. I try again.
Blank stares all round. It’s lunch period and I’m standing by the annexes* on the playground of Summerbee Senior School with Gary, Chris, Jonathan, and Stuart. Debbie is further away, but wanders closer following my outburst.
“Go on then,” she says as she approaches.
“Well…” I begin, a bit anxious now, but I pitch forward. “It looks like we’re moving to Texas.”
“Texas?” says Gary finally, single eyebrow raised. Debbie folds her arms, all sardonic disbelief. “You what?”
Honestly, I can’t blame them if they’re a bit skeptical. Over the past few months I’ve made a few dubious announcements regarding my imminent emigration: Canada, California, New York. Now Texas. To be honest, I hardly believe it myself, but it’s true: Dad has been trying to find work overseas for months, and he’s finally been offered a job in San Antonio – bright, mysterious, hotter-than-hell San Antonio.
Stuart jumps down from the annex steps. “When is this happening?” he says, giving his carefully gelled fringe** a quick and gingerly caress. I admire his mod jacket. His school tie is high and tight, as always.
“No idea,” I reply. “Next year I spose?”
“I can help you with this,” he says, eyes glinting.
“‘Help’?” I reply. Stuart is inexplicable to me. He hangs out with us every day but rarely says a thing, and when he does it’s almost always worth a listen - even if a bit mystifying. I recall a time when the group was discussing the new wave of house music that had been making its way onto the charts - one song in particular, House Nation by the House Master Boyz, had especially fired our imaginations. Stuart found a pause in the conversation and calmly interjected, “I’m thinking about buying The Joshua Tree this weekend.” Every one of our mouths hung open in unison. Is he actually talking about U2 right now? I mean, honestly.
Lunchtime the next day and Stuart walks up and hands me a small stack of magazines. He’s got a properly sly look on his face and I notice he’s wearing a couple of new pins on his jacket—Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure—so he must be feeling particularly sure of himself. I look down at what he’s handed me: Mad Magazines, every one of them.
“What are these for?”
Stuart raps his fist on the top of the stack. “These’ll tell you everything you need to know about Americans.”
“Trust me mate.”
At home that night I flip through a couple of Stuart’s magazines and come across a spread breaking down—in comic detail—all of the different social classes of the average American high school. There’s the “Jock”, muscles a-ripple and football in hand; there’s the “Princess”, fringe piled high and full, shining lips pulled back in a sneer at the “Stoner” stood uncomfortably close to her; there’s the “Prep”, the “Nerd”, the “Cheerleader”, the “Metalhead”. It’s all literally foreign to me, and even a bit far-fetched if I’m honest. I close the magazine with a sigh and go to sleep.
About a year later I walk into an American high school for the first time. I’m 15, so I’ve avoided the relative ignominy of being a freshman and gone straight in as a sophomore. I’m wearing jeans and a plain t-shirt along with a brand new pair of Pumas - my one bit of flair, not counting my viciously hair-sprayed spike haircut. I somehow manage to find my first class, Journalism, and sit down in the back of the room. Two kids come and sit next to me - long hair, Metallica shirts, sleeveless denim jackets, studded black boots. “Bloody hell,” I think. “Metalheads.” (I come to love both those guys over the course of the year - they will refer to me, affectionately, as “England Dude.”)
Moments later a girl walks in with curlers in her hair. I think it’s a mistake at first: she must’ve forgotten she had them in there. But she sits down, pulls a mirror from her purse, and elegantly, defiantly, tends to her still-cooking locks.
“Princess,” I murmur with a slow, knowing nod.
The day continues, and I’m playing mental bingo as I walk through the halls: Cheerleaders, Nerds, Jocks, Stoners. There’s even a new one: Cowboys. They’re all distinct, proud, card-carrying members of their own clubs. It’ll be another couple days until I settle into my own, (“New Kids”), but I'm dazzled by it all in the meantime.
When I get home that afternoon my Mum is waiting for me in the kitchen. “So how was it?”
“Hang on,” I say, and run upstairs. I come back down with Mad Magazine issue 272 and open it to a familiar and dog-eared spread. “It was like this,” I tell her.
You were right, Stuart.