From kindergarten through eighth grade, I attended a private Christian school. After nine years, that sheltered environment felt familiar and comforting. It was also expensive; by the summer before my freshman year of high school, my family could no longer afford the tuition, and I was forced to transfer to the local public school.
It was a rough transition. I now had 150 classmates instead of twenty; I felt lost in the crowd. To my naïve astonishment, kids brazenly smoked in the restrooms. Fist-fights broke out on the lawn outside the school almost daily. Like clockwork each day before lunch, snickering bullies shouldered me into the lockers. Worst of all, I knew absolutely no one in my class; I had to start new friendships from scratch, years after most cliques had set in stone.
Starved for social contact, I treasured those few friendships I had outside of school. In particular, I clung to a younger neighbor from our low-income neighborhood. We rode the same bus (he attended the junior high), so each day we’d hunker down in the same seat.
And there, on that bus, we’d invent worlds.
Over time, we had developed a sort of spoken role-playing game that translated well to the bus trip. My friend would talk his way through an interactive adventure that I imagined and described. I’d place his character in some godforsaken place—an abandoned warehouse, a subterranean lair, a tall tower—and he’d have to “battle” his way out. He’d tell me each move he wanted to make, and I’d explain him what happened as a result. Each bus ride became an impromptu, oral performance of a text-based adventure game—think Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide.
This imagined world was haunted by pop culture’s most famous arch-villains: the Joker. Chucky from the Child’s Play horror movies. Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger. My friend’s avatar faced off against each in turn—a series of “boss battles,” advancing from the least threatening to the most vile.
Who was that chief bad guy? None other than the Terminator, everyone’s favorite homicidal android. We so adored the Terminator films that we even named our game “Zzz-ching”—the noise the robot made as it stalked my friend through deserted corridors. Zzz-ching became our default pasttime, on the bus and off.
That year in public school was scary. I felt lonely and overwhelmed by an unfamiliar, chaotic context. As silly as it might seem, our little game represented a welcome escape. It was a world I could control completely, when the real world seemed dangerously unpredictable. It was creative work that someone else appreciated, when I felt ignored in the mass of other students. For a few minutes each morning and afternoon, Zzz-ching provided some distraction and camaraderie—just enough to make public school a bit more bearable.