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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Future Failures of America

The guidance counselor, I remember, was a tall, slim man in a blue shirt with graying hair, glasses, and the biggest, floppiest goddamn set of ears I'd ever seen on a human being. And he laid it all out with a smile.

"No, if you're interested in zoology," he said, while looking over my file, which was open in front of him, "then I'd suggest you take Large Animal Maintenance. That'd be a good class to take."

It was true--I was interested in zoology at the time. I was going into the ninth grade, and I wanted to be an ichthyologist. And if I wanted to study fish, I guessed that it would do me some good to study a few other animals along the way, pick up some of the basics. So together with social studies and language arts and biology and geometry and a few other classes I can't remember anymore, I signed up for Large Animal Maintenance. I trusted that gangly fuck. Last time I ever did that.

My meeting with him had taken place in the dwindling days of eighth grade. I was attending Washington Junior High and would be doing the same the following year. I left his office feeling confident and satisfied and relaxed about the classes I had chosen. Weird thing was, as I talked to other friends, most of whom wanted to be scientists of one stripe or another, none of them had ever heard of such a class. It's not just that they weren't taking it--they had never heard of it. Nobody had ever heard of the teacher, either--a Mr. Ciezlwicz. That was okay, though--I sort of liked the idea of having uncovered this hidden gem of the junior high curriculum, this class nobody knew about. Who knows? Maybe I'd be the only one there. I liked that idea, too.

The summer came and went as peacefully and quickly as it always did in Wisconsin. I did a lot of reading but hardly thought about school at all until I got on the bus to go back.

Large Animal Maintenance met three days a week, so I'd be finding out what it was pretty quickly. It was my third class of the first day.

When I walked into the room, I saw immediately that the secret was out. I wasn't the only one in the class. In fact, most all the seats were filled already. There must've been 25 kids sitting there. Weird thing (again) was that I didn't recognize a single one of them. It wasn't just that I didn't hang out with them--I didn't even recognize them from passing them in the halls of what was a reasonably small and narrow public school. And though I tend to be a harsh judge--even more so at the time--a quick glance across the faces didn't seem to reveal a room full of potential zoologists. A lot of these kids looked a little...dirty. It wasn't just that their clothes were kind of shabby. A lot of them, quite literally, had dirt caked on their hands and faces, and their finger nails were blackened with grime. And I could smell them. I could sense that they were looking at me--in the "first day of school" clothes my mom made me wear--with the same sort of befuddlement.

As I looked beyond my fellow students to the classroom itself, I saw posters on the walls of eggs and chickens and cows. I was getting the first stirrings that I had made a terrible, horrible mistake.

Mr. Ciezlwicz, or "Mr. C," as he was known, was a rugged, friendly man with curly blonde hair and an Elvis twist to his upper lip. After the bell rang and he ran through the names, he started describing the class, and I felt my guts slowly start to sink.

Cows, pigs, sheep, chickens. Beef, dairy, poultry.

I wasn't exactly sure what I'd been expecting--tigers, maybe, and elephants and rhinoceroses. I guess that wouldn't make much sense where I was. The closest thing Green Bay had to a zoo only housed deer, foxes, geese, and raccoons. I should've known better, but Christ, it was ninth grade. The thing that made me choke back a scream was the last sentence Mr. C uttered before getting on with things--just a little off the cuff remark:

"Oh, and you'll all be expected to join FFA."

FFA?! my brain howled and spun and I could feel my throat tighten.

For those who grew up in urban environments and wouldn't know such things, "FFA" stands for "Future Farmers of America."

Now I have nothing but the greatest respect for farmers. Both of my parents grew up on farms. But I had no desire to be a farmer myself.

It was more than that, though. In smaller communities around Wisconsin, FFA is just a given. Every student joins and participates, because that's where every student was headed. Around Green Bay, though, FFA was a joke, and a nasty one. Future Fuckheads of America. Fucking Faggots and Assholes. It was looked upon as a kind of "special class," for those kids who weren't smart enough to get jobs in one of the local paper mills. FFA, to put it bluntly, was for retards. The classroom itself was even located on the delicate fringes of Washington's special ed wing. And taking another look around at my fellow students, I could see why. That goddamned guidance counselor never told me anything about this.

I worked up the courage to raise my hand.

"Uhhhh.....Mr. Ciezlwicz?" I began, hesitantly. I already knew what I was going to hear. "Ummm...I was sort of under the impression that this was supposed to be a zoology course."

"You thought this was a zo course?" he snapped back. "Where'd you get that idea?" He wasn't being snide--just obviously surprised to hear such a thing.

"Um, from the guidance counselor?"

"No, uh-uh. Any other questions from anyone?"

I sat in my seat, numb, blushing for having revealed myself so readily.

For most people, I suppose, the answer would've been easy. Go to the office at lunch and drop the course, sign up for another, and hardly miss anything at all. Happens all the time. But for me it wasn't that easy. I'd never dropped a course before. First, because it would seem like quitting, and second because I've always had an overwhelming fear of paperwork and to this day avoid it at all costs. It seemed that dropping the course would end up becoming a Kafkaesque nightmare that I wanted nothing to do with. So I decided to swallow my pride, lower my head, and force my way through the next nine months.

It turned out to be worse than I could've imagined.

Most of the other students hated me from the moment I raised my hand that first day because they thought I was an arrogant smarty assed prick. Whenever Mr. C turned his back on us, I could usually expect to be socked in the back of the head or have all my pencils snapped in half or be spat upon. I would never report on the kids who did this, though, because I knew that would only make things worse.

There was no textbook, just an occasional hand-out. Once or twice a week, we were subjected to long, tedious films about the history and goals of the FFA (which, despite what Mr. C said, I didn't join), only to be tested on what we'd seen afterwards. And every couple of weeks, we went on day-long obligatory field trips.

Now field trips by nature never thrilled me, but these were worse than most. I had other classes and other work to worry about, despite what Mr. C seemed to believe, and we always ended up going to either a farm or a canning factory or a dairy plant. In each place, we were confronted with brutal, dead-eyed factory drones who wanted nothing more than to die so they could be done with it all. I always climbed off the bus afterwards weakened, grim, and hopeless.

Instead of pull-down maps of the world or diagrams of the human digestive system, Mr. C's classroom was equipped with pull-down charts of all the various cuts of meat you could get from a single cow. That didn't seem much like animal maintenance to me, but no matter--we were expected to know them all.

We were taught what to look for when judging beef cattle, and how to taste the differences between 12 different kinds of bad milk. The exam for the latter was a particularly ugly one. We were brought into an auditorium and lined up before 12 paper cups full of milk, each of which had been soured in a different way. Our job was to taste each one and explain what had gone wrong with it.

To be honest, though, apart from that, we didn't learn much else about the maintenance of large animals. Mostly, the class prepared us for a lifetime of factory work and the proper rules of procedure at an FFA meeting.

I still held on, though, and did my work. Wrote little reports about milking equipment and various fowl diseases. Went on all those goddamned field trips. Kept my mouth shut. Put up with the endless jibes of my fellow students, both in and out of class. Got my grade and got the hell out of there.

Now, two decades later, it would be easy to look back on my time as a tangential member of the Future Farmers of America with a strange fondness, to realize that, despite my efforts, I really had made new friends and learned a whole bunch of things I never would've learned otherwise, things which have become surprisingly useful over the years.

But that would be untrue.

All I really learned was that modern farms can be savage places, that factory work, which had remained pretty much unchanged for a century, was one of life's greatest nightmares, and that the kids who aimed no higher than that were smaller but equally cruel and hopeless nightmares.

At the same time, though, when I look back on that endless nine-month stretch, I can't help but feel a bit ashamed at myself. Because as I fought that class and fought those people all the way through, I can see how I was arrogant and was a prick and did look on these kids--who came from nothing and were headed nowhere--with scorn. They were just doing what they had to do. Unfortunately, quite a bit of that involved tormenting me for wanting more. But I can't blame them for that. Not now, at least.

Morgan and I were sitting at the bar the other night, and I was telling her about Large Animal Maintenance, all the horrors and all the field trips, and she, much to my astonishment, was impressed.

"I don't know," she told me. "I think it's something to be proud of."

"How's that?" I asked.

"Being able to judge a cow. I'd look at that as a point of pride."

And you know, thinking of it now, I'm beginning to think she's right.