Boots and Rallies

by Aaron Pellowski | 4/16/15 6:08pm

I went to a really good high school. I know this because when I look up my high school on any of the websites that rank high schools and say which ones are the best, these websites all agree my high school is one of the best. Statistics and algorithms don’t lie. I know this because I don’t understand how statistics or algorithms work, and — as life has repeatedly impressed upon me — anything I don’t understand is probably smarter than me and also probably true.

One of the reasons my high school is so good is that all students are enrolled in a series of mandatory elective courses during their freshman and sophomore years. You’d think that an “elective” course would mean you’d have a choice in the matter of taking it, but then again, you probably didn’t go to one of the best high schools in the United States of America. I did, so these things make a little more sense to me.

In “Sci-Tech,” you learned how to build a machine that could fit in a two-foot cubic box and complete a simple task using a few dollars’ worth of materials, just like real engineers do. I have many former classmates, now seniors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, who have done pioneering undergraduate research in building small machines out of mousetraps and rubber bands that pick up wiffle balls and put them in plastic cups.

In “E-Zine,” you learned the hard-hitting basics of electronic journalism. I spent most of this class doing crosswords.

In “Planet Earth,” you learned a lot about climate change, ecology and botany. I’ve kicked off many a Tinder date by grabbing my partner by the hand and, pulling her through the woods, aggressively pointing out flora while screaming, “Now that’s a cedar elm! You can tell because it’s trifoliate!” Sad world we live in these days, where botanical prowess buys a boy less romantic leverage than a lacrosse stick or a $15,000 watch.

My favorite of these “Signature Courses,” as they were known, was “Great Ideas.” Not only was it a course about great ideas, the course itself was a great idea. In six weeks, we covered all six of the major topics of the Western Humanities: Socrates, Existentialism, Orientalism, Freud, Shakespeare and Some Paintings. A few spiteful nerds who spent their summers at Winedale Shakespeare Camp voiced a rather flimsy objection that seven days studying for Othello reading quizzes wasn’t the best way to approach The Bard. I didn’t listen very closely to them since I was busy doing crosswords.

The final project for Great Ideas was to create a photo reproduction of an important painting or photograph from art history. The reproduction had to contain at least one human being, and you had to be in it. The pedagogical aim of this exercise escapes my memory, but I do recall it turned out some really fascinating products — including all five girls who realized they owned both a towel and at least one pearl earring and posed as Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” with astonishing verisimilitude.

To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, the painting I chose to reproduce was Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” Rendered in gratuitous chiaroscuro, the painting depicts a young male in a billowy white shirt, hopelessly immersed in the image of his own reflection. I think, at the time, I believed there was something meta about reproducing a painting that was itself about reflection — but I can’t remember. Now, unless you’re a classics major (like I am) or you went to a really, really good public high school (like I did) you’ve probably never read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. If you had read it, you’d know that in the original story, Narcissus was the most beautiful young man in the world. It’s not that he was like, sorta kinda attractive and just really obsessed with his appearance. His desire to look at himself all the livelong day was actually justified. He died drowning in the puddle that bore his reflection, but there isn’t a shred of tragedy to that side of the story. Narcissus died happy.

To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, I get called a narcissist an awful lot. Detailing all the elements of my character that give rise to this accusation could fill an entire issue of The Mirror — though just the existence of “Boots and Rallies,” if you have even a newcomer’s sense of what kind of column this is, should supply ample evidence. Nevertheless, I think that, just as with Narcissus, my own breed of narcissism is misunderstood. The kind of narcissism worth hating shows up in people who place themselves at the top of their ethical and aesthetic systems. Axiomatically, they are the best and most beautiful. A symptom of such narcissism is a tendency to think and talk about oneself.

I think and talk about myself a lot, and as such, share a crucial symptom with the Narcissist Worth Hating. But unlike the NWH, I don’t think I’m the best or the most beautiful — not by a long shot. I think and talk about myself a lot to find out all the things that are wrong with me — so I can get better — or so I can find out what’s good about me — so I can share it. How could I ever find someone with whom to commiserate if I didn’t understand my own sadness and wear it on my sleeve? How could I ever love anyone unless I knew that there were things about me worth loving in return? Maybe these are questions that only seem relevant to me. But then again, I went to a very good high school, so you can’t expect everything I write to be relatable.