The Rodney Dangerfield of Junior High


Billy Crystal in This is Spinal Tap

It’s 7th grade. I’m twelve years old. Our drama class is going to compete in a citywide speech tournament; all the middle schools are participating. And competing in the tournament will be part of our final grade. The individual categories range from oratorical recitations to prose and poetry readings. I would have recited a poem, (all the girls are reciting poems) but I also want to win. I’ll never stand out in the poetry category. Besides, I know my mom will try to pick out my poem, the way other mothers pick out their daughters clothes. And I know that as a former speech and debate coach, she’ll give me some geeked-out poem to read, like Vachel Lindsey’s “The Congo” when everybody else will be reading Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabbywocky.”

So instead I sign up for the pantomime category. It’s not the sexiest of categories at a school district speech tournament; it’s more like an afterthought. But no one else in my school signs up for pantomime; so at least I’ll stand out. I like that. And if few enough kids sign up across the district, maybe I even have a chance at winning.

My prescience pays off. It’s just me and five other junior mimes in the whole tournament. We have two rounds of competition before the final round, but it’s just a formality. We all advance to finals.

The first rounds test our fundamentals. We pick a scene out of a hat and have three minutes to prepare our gestures: pouring a glass of something to drink, raking leaves, walking a dog. Always looking for an edge, my beverage is something hot and on my mimed sips, I burn my tongue. It impresses the judges. I get a perfect score. But what I’m really trying to do with my pretend coffee cup that’s too hot to touch is hide the fact that I’m a terrible mime. I look nothing like the Shields and Yarnell shows I watched on T.V. as a little kid. When I lift the cup to my mouth I’m not sure how tall the cup is supposed to be or if I’m dipping my head right into the lip of the mug. So I pretend that the cup is too hot to pick up in the first place. I lean down and blow. It’s funny. I know I’m good at funny. And I know I’m good in front of an audience. This much I’m confident of after years of daily ballet classes and rehearsals.

My act is so funny and so original to the judges they don’t even notice that I haven’t actually mimed anything.

The final round is an act choreographed to a five-minute piece of music. During the weeks before the competition, I shut myself upstairs in my bedroom, choreographing to 70’s instrumentals (elevator music hadn’t been invented yet, but that’s what these albums would become). I was painfully aware of how little I could pantomime anything. So I choreographed a magic act. My hat turned into a bird. I rolled a ball that suddenly started bouncing off the ceiling. I perfected my facial reactions to reflect something mysterious or unexpected, but again, there was very little pantomime.

The judges loved it. My whole class came to watch my round, since I was the only person who made it to the final round of anything.

I won first place and snagged a big trophy, back in the days when they were just for winners. I was the best tween mime in all of El Paso—maybe even all of West Texas—an early brush with fame.

The trophy went straight to the trash.

Maybe because I didn’t think I’d earned it. Maybe because I was twelve and mortified easily. Or maybe because—hello? A mime. Ain’t no respect to be had for mimes. They are the lowest of the silent stage performers.

I wish I could say that I never performed as a mime again. But alas, the taste of success was sweet, even if its fruits made me want to hide under a rock. It’s hard to say “no” to the easy win. Especially when your grade is riding on it.

Too bad I didn’t stick with it. I coulda had a career.

Post Script: I’m not sure what I danced to, but it was something like this:

4 thoughts on “The Rodney Dangerfield of Junior High

  1. Phoebe Bode

    Very nice. Wow–7th grade memories. What vivid details. It was easy to imagine your performance. What fun you had in middle school.

    • Mom, do you still have that set of LPs? I think they were in a red case, probably part of a Time-Life set or something. Know what I’m talking about?

  2. Jilanne Hoffmann

    What?! You dumped the trophy? How about photos? Your mom must have taken pics! Great story!

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