Maybe Simba the Cat is helping students at Westbrook High School in Maine survive their adolescence. I know a cat would have helped me get through high school with more of my soul intact.
It’s hard to overstate how miserable it was to come of age in the 1980s, as a queer kid in a small-town high school where homophobia and jock worship were the orders of the day. Even if I didn’t know I was queer at the time (I was so far in the closet, I might as well have been in Narnia), I knew for sure that it was not safe to even suspect such a thing.
When you hear people talking about "beatin’ up some faggots" (that’s pronounced "feggits" in Maine-ese), and if you were suspected of being "quee-yah," your locker room experience could be truly miserable.
When I got home, it wasn’t any better. Every day on the school bus ride home, I worried that I’d come home to find the house on fire because my mother had passed out while tending the wood stove, or injured or even dead because she’d fallen down the stairs.
The swirling chaos of living with an alcoholic parent — never knowing what to expect and never knowing what would set off a tirade of verbal and emotional abuse — made my life a 24/7 walking-on-eggshells experience.
At least at home, I had my cats to help me cope. There was Maddy-Gold, who would allow only me to pet her. Then there was Iris, our little mama-cat and her baby boy, Kitty, the only survivor of Iris’ first litter. There was also Purr Bear, a huge and manly Maine Coon cross. There were Castor and Pollux, the first cats who were truly "mine."
These cats kept me sane. They provided unconditional love and quiet acceptance. They purred and kneaded on me as I cried. Being a midwife for Iris’ kittens gave me an opportunity to feel like a protector and guardian, and I’m sure the "secondhand oxytocin" from witnessing the birth helped elevate my mood.
I can’t help but wonder if a school cat would have provided a reprieve from the quiet misery of high school life. Snuggling with a Simba in study hall would have been as re-energizing as the lunches I spent with my small group of friends in the band room, playing the piano and singing. (Several of these folks, it later turned out, were also gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender — if only we’d been able to speak that truth back then!) I have a particularly fond memory of all of us singing Crosby, Stills & Nash’s "Southern Cross," with full improvised four-part harmony, with my amazingly talented friend Sandy — who also had a beautiful and strong alto voice — on the piano.
Can you imagine? Singing AND cats? What a powerful remedy that would have been for the loneliness of being a freak and the burden of keeping secrets that, if I’d actually known and revealed, would have gotten me ostracized (at best) and beaten senseless (at worst). I’m not exaggerating here: The summer after my sophomore year, a group of high school boys in a city near where I lived beat up a gay man and threw him off a bridge into a river, where he drowned because he couldn’t swim (trigger warning: graphic description of anti-gay violence).
A school cat might also have been therapeutic for other students who were facing a violent, chaotic, and abusive life at home. Trust me, there were plenty of us; my hometown was and is a place with enough dark secrets to fill a Stephen King novel.
What do you think? Would a school cat have made a difference in your teen years, regardless of who you are or what you believe? Would a feline friend have made high school more tolerable? Let’s talk! Let me know in the comments.