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Please Don't Kill the Freshman

freshman

Zoe Trope is a smart, expressive, queer girl at a Portland high school growing up in a post-riot-girl world. "Please Don't Kill the Freshman" is her memoir, a collection of short prose-poems that are both dense and playful.

The book was published by her eighth-grade creative writing teacher. It started out as a regular email exercise, but soon her teacher Kevin Sempsell offered to publish the writing as a small-press, zine-like paperback. In the book's introduction Sempsell writes, "When she began high school she started to send me these little journal-like updates about her friends and teachers...She was good in my writing class but this was pure inspiration, pure adrenaline. I told her to keep sending me the updates and that she was 'on to something."

"Please Don't Kill the Freshman" is about Zoe, and her friends, and her life, but about much more. It's about the uncertainty of high school friendships and intimacy and about growing up in a school, at a time where it's accepted among your peers to be gay, queer, bi and to have crushes that defy all those labels.

In one early piece she writes about a young woman whom she is interested in, referring to her as "Plum Sweater." "Plum Sweater on my voice mail," she says. "Heart palpitations induced. What a punk rawk goddess. I'm going to faint. My fingers are shaking. I'm so f**ked up. I am SOOO...fourteen."

But she clearly has a crush on many of her male friends as well, most of whom are also questioning their sexual identity. In another passage she says, "Yesterday I learned all my friends are gay and I feel responsible. Wonka Boi, a boy with black hair, exploring his uncertainty as I sip a Sprite. I hold him, filled with guilt. Not a bad score. Out of four male friends, I've managed to turn 2.5 gay. Beat that, Margaret Cho."

While Zoe pours her feelings out, she treads very carefully and doesn't make the reader feel as though they are crashing into her personal life or snooping into her diary. Zoe is candid in some moments while cryptic in others through her use of keywords, and half sentences. She is constantly dropping hints, hoping her readers will take the time to figure out the answer. She talks about dropping in to the "the wife of Burger King" for an ice cream cone and hopes we'll know she means Dairy Queen.

Although this is still a highly personal work, Zoe's guard is definitely up. In fact, Zoe Trope is a pen name and she gives all the people in her life nicknames for the purpose of the book. Instead of picking "normal" pseudonyms for her friends, she names them things like Linux Shoe, Plum Sweater, Vegan Grrl, and Wonka Boi. The first page of the book has a handy "Cast of Characters" list, with descriptions like you'd read at the beginning of a play. On these pages, she defines them and yet works hard not to put them in boxes. When describing Linux Shoe, she writes: "fourteen years old. freshman. best friend. homosexual. beautiful. has made me cry many, many times. disgustingly insightful."

"Linux Shoe nods and tells me I think too much and say too little. I never thought of myself as such a person but he is right. Sometimes I don't say what I think. That makes me human. He comes over and we sit in my nineteen-seventy -something Bug and listen to the radio. The seats aren't even cracked. We ride public transportation and eat Mexican food and look at books and boys. He is not perfect. But he's the closest thing I've found."

The tone of the book is as if Zoe were writing a letter to a very close friend, she hasn't met yet. She holds the reader at arms length, through her use of dense prose-poetry and through, since this is a memoir, her use of very little background information. But this is all done so smartly that you don't mind being constantly reminded that we are not part of this inner circle that is Zoe's life. And there are still plenty of characters to identify with. Her friends are characters in her life, and we see only the sides of them she sees and wants others to see. You are constantly reminded that this is not a work of fiction, this is someone's life.

Zoe describes both the monotony and excitement of her high school days with wit and hilarity. She is obviously more worldly that many girls her age, she is still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. But she also has a strong instinctive sense of what lies ahead. "Argh. I will not be an angry 20-something," she says. "I will not grow into an angry 20-something. I will not... meet. my. fate."

She chronicles her teachers' bad taste, the classroom chatter, recess hand-holding, school trips, weekend outings, homework. She also talks about what it is to be a smart, skeptical teenager in the American public school system, an experience she finds painful. "I move into a political class next and ignore the teacher. Three tests on Thursday. My neck throbs. F**king state tests. Neck bent over fill-in-the-bubble hell."

The fact that these prose poems were written as email messages is especially important and the book as a whole seems to ask questions about the way our language is changing. Zoe's work is filled with choppy, one and two word sentences. And yet, somehow, it flows. The fact that she names one of her characters after a language to code computers and refers casually to technology as if it were just another part of her and her friends' lives is also telling. "Speaking of my Linux Shoe, he was choke-sobbing this morning. His parents removed the modem cord from his vein."

It's clear that "Please Don't Kill the Freshman" would be a different book if it had been written in another part of the country. Zoe was raised in a progressive environment and it shows. (You have to wonder if this book would have been possible elsewhere--if her teacher had not run a small press.) But you don't have to be a liberal West-Coaster to read this book, or understand it.

"Please Don't Kill the Freshman" does seem like it is aimed at wider audience than just high school freshmen. It could probably open minds about teens, their sexuality, and where they actually are at the age of 14 in the process of figuring themselves out. But that doesn't necessarily mean it should become a primer for eighth-graders everywhere to understand freshman year. If anything, it's the kind of book you should read after you have found yourself, and suffered through freshman year, and can look back, without too much ill will, and say "yeah, I remember feeling like that."


If you'd like a copy of "Please Don't Kill the Freshman" by Zoe Trope go to Future Tense Books.


Elizabeth Zipper is the WireTap editorial intern.












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