The Beatles song “Back in the USSR” played over the speakers at a gas station. Maybe because the car stereo was broken and we were taking this trip without tunes, I was susceptible. I can usually block out the music in public places. Even when I can’t, I keep certain catchy songs in my mind. This way, if I hear something I don’t like, I play the catchy song I do like in my head and get the other one out of it. It’s a good trick for fighting the tyranny of store stereos. But my defenses were down. “Back in the USSR” rode an earwig into my brain and got stuck on repeat there.
I’m not a Beatles fan. I could live a happy life without ever hearing another Beatles song. I doubt that I’ve ever listened to them voluntarily, though I know all the words to dozens of their songs. My parents were big Beatles fans. They played the hell out of a two-volume Greatest Hits album. They had it on eight-track, and because it was a double album, I spent much of the early eighties hearing all sixteen tracks of this collection. “Back in the USSR” was on it. Hearing it again after years of avoidance, getting it stuck in my head, sent my mind down a long-abandoned neural trail to a memory that came from another world.
Somewhere around 1981, I was in an elementary school program called “Gifted.” It was set up for kids who did well on an “intelligence” test. I put gifted and intelligence in quotes because something had to be wrong with that test. Only white kids tested into Gifted. Originally, only white boys tested in. After one year, a couple of girls passed the test and joined us. Us boys were not happy about this development, especially considering the cootie epidemic that had run rampant through our elementary school for years. We became more accepting of the girls, though, as we got older and closer to puberty.
Even though more than a third of the students at my elementary school were African American, no black kids were deemed gifted. This suggests to me that either there were no intelligent black kids at my elementary school or that the intelligence test was designed to privilege the experience of one race of kids while denying the experience of another race. You pick which option aligns more with your world view.
Us gifted kids were bussed to another school on Fridays. We took a variety of classes there. The class sizes were smaller. We got to choose what we studied. We were taught by teachers who had worked their way into the gifted program, who had paid their dues and won their awards and earned a spot teaching a small group of motivated, studious, well-behaved kids. It was the best part of the week for us.
In 1981, I signed up for a gifted course called “World War.” It was mostly a geography class. Our teacher explained on the first day that we would form groups of four. Each group would create our own country. We’d name our country, decide who in the group held which office, amass points based on the work we did over the course of the semester, and, at the end of the semester, battle other countries with our points. Whichever group won those battles ruled the world. I teamed up with three other white boys and ran for president of our little country. I won for a couple of reasons. Maybe the biggest reason was that I was the only kid in the class who had to learn how to fight growing up, so while I certainly wasn’t the toughest kid in my elementary school, I was the toughest kid on the gifted bus.
I know that being the toughest kid in Gifted is like being the smartest kid in the dumb class. Fuck it. I got to be president, anyway.
We wanted to name our country the USSR. Not because we were budding Bolsheviks. Because we grew up near Kennedy Space Center during the Cold War. For us, USSR would stand for the United States Space Race. We were reclaiming USSR for ourselves, for America. Our teacher, whose name wasn’t Mrs. Arrien but I’m going to call her that because it sounds just right if you read it out loud, told us we couldn’t do it. We dropped the “States” and became the United Space Race. One of us got cracking on the logo immediately.
Since it was essentially a geography class, our country earned points by doing projects on foreign countries. We’d have to write reports on where other countries were, how they made their money, who their leaders were, what their culture was like, and things like that. Luckily, we had one boy in our group who was really into that kind of thing. For some reason, he loved to write and research things. While most of the group goofed off in the library, this one kid actually read all about different countries and wrote a bunch of reports. He didn’t just use the encyclopedia, either. He asked the librarian for help and found a bunch of books. He read them and took notes. He wrote stories set in those countries for extra credit. Mrs. Arrien also gave him props because he was the only kid in the class who could answer the question, “What are the customs of Germany?” correctly. The rest of the class had just assumed that Mrs. Arrien had forgotten the “e” on costumes. They talked about lederhosen and shit.
Now, was this geeky kid who did all the work for the USR the same geeky guy writing this column?
I’m still fascinated by geography. I often read books in translation, study the news of the world, and embarrass my wife when she introduces me to her Bulgarian friend and I start talking about Hristo Stoichkov and my desire to travel to Sofia someday. I can even tell you the names of the leaders of faraway, exotic places like Canada. It’s the Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau, right?
So anyway, as president of the USR, I pooled all my brainiac strength. Our country amassed a point arsenal that was nearly enough to overpower all the other groups in class at once. The day came for our world war—the whole point of the class. Mrs. Arrien explained the rules. Two countries would face off. Each country would bring enough points to the battle to win. Whichever country had the most points won the battle and kept all their points. Whichever country lost had to sit quietly and sulk like a bunch of losers. The residents of the USR were cocky. We knew we had way more points than the other groups. We brought all our points to the first battle. The other country, the Jedi, were quaking in their boots. We knew we’d destroy them because they weren’t even smart enough to name themselves something cooler, like the Rebel Alliance or something. We laid our heavy load of points down on the table and said, “Bring it on.”
Mrs. Arrien asked us if we were sure we wanted to do that.
As President of the USR, I said, “Of course.”
Mrs. Arrien said, “Countries can form alliances. They can team up, pool their points, and defeat more powerful countries. You know that, don’t you?”
No. We did not know that.
And now it was too late to change. All of the other countries had seen how many points we had. It was almost, but not quite, three times as many points as the other countries had. So the Jedi teamed up with the Islanders (named after Merritt Island, the town we all lived in) and Vader (named after the disposition of their evil leader). They found enough points to beat us. The USR, my presidency, ended there. My other group mates cursed me. The failure was all my fault. I pointed out to them that I was the one who earned all the points, anyway. “Fat lot of good they did us,” someone said. I was sunk.
Angela Whitman, the president of Vader, outplayed the other two countries. While they were pooling their points, she casually asked each group how many points they each had. The other kids hadn’t quite figured out that the key to winning the game was to not let anyone know how many points you had. They spilled the beans to Angela. After the three of them defeated the USR, Angela allied Vader with the weakest country (the Islanders). Together, the took over Jedi. As soon as they did, Vader turned on the Islanders and crushed them. For the rest of that class period, Angela Whitman ruled the world.
I sat in the corner and wore a funny hat. Maybe not literally, but that’s the way I remember it.
A few decades later, driving north up Highway 101 with “Back in the USSR” lodged in my brain the way a torn fingernail gets lodged between your teeth, I thought back to my old presidency. I’d like to say that Angela Whitman went on to become the corporate raider that World War taught her to be, but she didn’t. She got pregnant the summer after high school. Last I heard, she was still a stay-at-home mom. I didn’t use her real name in this story because I didn’t want anyone looking her up on Facebook and seeing the pictures of her youngest daughter graduating from high school. At least that’s what I assume you’d see. I don’t have a Facebook account. I can’t see who from my childhood got fat, who hates their job and always posts that it’s humpday on Wednesdays, who’s divorced and trolling, or who “likes” what. I’m in contact enough to know, though, that no one from the old gifted days amounted to much. Our training in taking over the world never really panned out. Just as, fifteen years ago, I came to terms with the fact that I’ll never be a professional athlete, I can now come to terms with the fact that I’m too old to start on a path toward dictatorship and world domination. It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be a pro athlete or a tyrant. I’m okay being who I am.
I wonder, though, about the long-term effects of my upbringing. Obviously, classes like World War and programs like Gifted taught some troubling values to me as a little kid. They instilled in me an ideology of tyranny and white supremacy before I was old enough to do much critical thinking. My defenses were down. I wonder how much of that ideology is still stuck in my mind like a silly Beatles song.
And, because my childhood wasn’t unique for a kid in America, I wonder how much the ideologies are stuck in all of our minds.
Author’s note: This is the first chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #69. For more information about the collection, read this post.