Shades of Glee

After reading a Time magazine essay in which a youth minister described the television show Glee as “anti-Christian,” I tuned in and watched. I was absolutely dumbfounded by what I saw, but not because it was any more “anti-Christian” than anything else on television. Indeed, I was far from offended and found Glee to be great fun. What took me by surprise was seeing that Glee is set in a place called William McKinley High School. My mind reeled as I remembered the awkward days when I attended William McKinley Junior High School in Flint, Michigan, and sang in the boys’ glee club there.

Junior high isn’t a terminal condition–eventually we all do move on to other chapters in our lives–but sometimes I wonder if any of us ever leaves those challenging years behind completely. I haven’t. In some ways I’ll be twelve forever, and watching the eccentric teachers and fragile kids of Glee‘s McKinley brought the eccentric teachers and fragile kids of my McKinley back to life. Seeing Glee‘s cast of misfits made me wish I could travel back in time to my adolescence and make everything and everyone alright somehow.

Glee is sort of a cross between a teenage soap opera and a Broadway musical that explodes on the screen in vivid colors. I wish I remembered junior high that way–but my memories of McKinley are all in black and white. Did the colors fade, or is that just the way it was? Maybe Technicolor vistas were there to be seen, but I don’t remember them. The mental picture I carry of my school is of a large, dark, brick building, surrounded by a sea of cracked blacktop parking lots and filled with white-shirted teachers. Our school colors were white and funereal black, because when it was built, William McKinley was still in the public’s mind as a recently martyred president. The building’s mammoth size was a sign of Flint’s faith in progress. America had fallen in love with the automobile and Flint boomed while workers for her factories migrated from places as diverse as the Mississippi Delta, the Ozark Mountains, and even Eastern Europe. Nowadays both Flint and the American automobile industry have been fighting for their lives, but eight decades ago Flint was synonymous with prosperity, and daunting schools like McKinley were built to house the children of the automotive revolution. Our school looked like the Fisher Body factory whose smokestacks we could see just beyond our playing fields, where the United Auto Workers had been created in the legendary sit-down strikes of the 1930s.

I took the usual math and English and science classes at McKinley, but what made it different from any other school I’d attended were the vocational offerings–classes like wood shop, metal shop, and drafting. The curriculum had been influenced by the work of developmental psychologists who theorized that the years of early adolescence were when young people learned industry and gained self-confidence as they used tools to create things with their hands. The shadow side of industry is inferiority–a side I went ahead and explored. Inferiority is how I got into the Glee club in the first place.

While other boys in wood shop were fashioning lamps out of bowling pins or making gun cases and knotty pine rumpus room furniture for their delighted mothers, I made a napkin holder. The wood on each side was cut into a V, but I couldn’t get my two V’s to line up, so in profile my empty napkin holder made a W. My mother adopted the napkin holder, and for the next few years its uneven varnish, W form, and orange splotches of plastic wood sat on our kitchen table, bearing silent testimony to my incompetence. My accomplishment wasn’t the napkin holder; it was that I had spent three months using power tools and still had all of my fingers.

The semester after wood shop I was sent to drafting class. The first assignment–drawing a two-inch by two-inch square box–proved especially challenging. Mr. Barney generously gave me a D-. It was only because I had turned something in that I was saved from an F. By the time I had finished, my paper was torn and smudged, and my figure might have been more accurately called a lumpy trapezoid than a square. Mr. Barney said the idea was not to draw freehand, but I had a hard time negotiating the slanted draftsman’s desk–my pencil and eraser and T-square kept sliding off. I wondered how far I might advance when I couldn’t draw a straight line on a piece of paper. Mr. Barney’s first response was anger, which he tried to use to scare me into precision. He succeeded in frightening me, which made my already trembling hands shakier, if that were possible. I dreaded going to class but saw no way out. After about three weeks, Mr. Barney rescued me. He said that the school had another option for boys like me and transferred me into the Glee club, where I sang my head off for the next two years. The boys’ Glee club was derisively known in the halls of McKinley as the “gay boys’ club,” a label that didn’t help my struggling self-confidence one bit. Like the kids on Glee, we were a collection of misfits. We were the special boys, the sensitive boys, the singers who just wanted to put on a show. So what if we liked big production numbers and our heroes were Julie Andrews, Mitzi Gaynor, and Sandy Duncan? Was that any reason for us to be the only kids in the student body forced to learn the incredibly inane school song, which featured the line, “with every lassie and lad so gay”?

We were ridiculed, but I was saved from the deeper humiliations of spending eighth grade in metal shop and Drafting II, classes that would be especially important in Flint. My schoolmates were being prepared for life in a factory, a really big metal shop, where you could earn good money keeping the assembly line moving. Those who excelled in drafting were pulled out and sent to become engineers at the General Motors Institute, Flint’s premier institution of higher learning. Unbeknownst to us, computers would soon be programmed to do drafting, and in Japan robots were being created to do assembly-line jobs. In the mid-1970s, we were blissfully unaware that Flint was on the verge of a long downhill slide.

There was a tall, skinny boy I sang with in glee club named Eugene Wilson who had a sweet, clear, soulful voice. He once sang “I Heard It through the Grapevine” in a way that would have made Marvin Gaye swoon. He had delicate features and oversized glasses and wore white painter’s pants with striped rugby shirts and penny loafers. Although Eugene never had a girlfriend, he was usually surrounded by girls. He’d blow kisses in the hall at good-looking girls like Jennifer Lindsay and Laura Olsen, and they’d say “dahrlink” this and “dahrlink” that to each other like Zsa Zsa Gabor, and use words like “wonderful” and “fabulous” while they giggled loudly about purses and shoes. I didn’t get any of it. My dad always said that he thought Eugene’s “shorts were a little tight,” but I thought that was a funny reference to Eugene being a tenor. I was clueless–as clueless about Eugene’s sexuality as I was about purses and shoes. The only label I remember anyone using in reference to Eugene was “effeminate,” because he really was more like one of the girls than one of the guys. I never made any connection between that and gay.

I know I sang in school with Eugene because there are pictures of us together in my yearbook, but I really got to know him in my church youth group. That “I Heard It through the Grapevine” rendition was on a youth group trip to Disney World. He was one of those kids who just sort of popped up along the way–he had no brothers or sisters that I knew of, no family of any kind that I ever saw. He came to church alone. It wasn’t just the girls who liked him; everybody liked him because he could be so funny and theatrical at times. Surely the youth group leaders must have been more aware than I was–or maybe not. I don’t know, those days seem like a simpler time to me. He was just one of us, and I’m sure our youth group became a sort of family for him.

Like any family, we had our moments. On a youth group trip to Canada, our bus was stopped at the Niagara Falls border crossing. As a customs agent was coming onto the bus to question us, our youth group director said, “Please don’t goof around. Just tell him you’re all from the United States and don’t say anything else.”

The customs agent came on and looked us over, and then said, “Are all of you US citizens?” We murmured assent, and then he said, “Were you all born in the United States?”

Again, we mumbled yes. The customs agent picked out a random kid and asked where he was born, and the kid said, “Lansing.” Then he looked at Eugene and asked if he was born in the United States.

Eugene said, “No, I wasn’t.”

“Where were you born?”

Eugene said, “Germany.”

“Do you have your birth certificate with you?”

When Eugene answered “No,” the agent said, “Come with me, young man.” We all groaned and Eugene shamefully got off the bus. One of our youth group leaders, a businessman named Don, whom we all inexplicably called “Bosco,” turned to his wife and said, “I’m going with him.” The rest of us started an extended conversation about how long this was going to take, and what a weirdo Eugene was, and why couldn’t he have just said he was born in the US–it’s not like he was an exchange student or something. The people in the back wanted to know where he’d said he was born, and someone said “Mars,” and that cracked the whole bus up because Eugene was different. But no one ever said, “He’s gay” or anything like that. We just knew he was different–not different in a negative sense but different in a “one of a kind” sense. Half an hour later customs decided Eugene didn’t pose a threat to international security and sent him back to us. He was visibly upset as he climbed onto the bus, and obviously felt the weight of slowing us all down. “Sorry,” he said, and then he burst out saying, “I’m not going to lie to him. I’m with my church! My dad was in the army and I was born in Germany.” Bosco came back on the bus, sort of nodded to his wife, and then sat down next to Eugene. We all fell silent, knowing that Eugene had done what his conscience told him to do.

I lost track of Eugene after school, and it was only when I heard he had died of AIDS in the late 1980s that I put two and two together. Of course, rather than talk about what a tender-hearted and warm kid he was and how even when we all got mad at him we still wound up admiring him, we just made jokes about him. He always was one of them “funny boys,” somebody said, “queer as a three dollar bill–a little light in the loafers.” No, he was just a kid, a quirky, funny, lovely, skinny kid with a great singing voice and a clear conscience.

There’s an openly gay character on Glee with a beautiful voice like Eugene’s. His schoolmates have the same sort of fears and prejudices we had, but they talk about them in ways we never did. That sort of openness just didn’t happen in the 1970s, at least not at McKinley School. Eugene never told us who he really was. That would have been devastatingly difficult. All I can say is that I’m sorry, and, for what it’s worth, a lot of us never felt like we could fully be who we were in those days at that place. And, for what it’s worth, too, I can still see Bosco the youth group leader getting off the bus with Eugene at Niagara Falls and walking into customs with him, and I can still see Bosco, a guy we considered dreadfully old but who was probably all of 35, walking back and sitting down in the seat next to Eugene on the bus, not saying anything, just being there, incarnating the gospel in achingly beautiful ways I didn’t understand at the time but will never forget.

Glee is glossy fun and can be compelling to watch, but it doesn’t come close to matching the drama of reality. In reality, sometimes beautiful kids don’t make it. Sometimes the church is there in powerful ways and at other times it is absent. Sometimes we’re happy with the way things turned out and sometimes we live with deep regret. In reality, we go to dingy schools with very human teachers and muddle through the best we can, not even knowing or being able to imagine how some kids feel because we’re so focused on our own anxieties and fears. I cried when I first wrote these paragraphs about Eugene Wilson, cried because it made me so sad to think about how different he must have felt and how blind I was to it all. It’s taken me about four decades, but I can finally accept that Mr. Barney knew what he was doing when he sent me to spend my afternoons with the boys’ glee club. I fit better there. So did my friend Eugene Wilson. Yeah, we were in the boys’ glee club. You want to make something of it?

Jeffrey Munroe is a minister in the Reformed Church in America and freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.