In this wide-ranging conversation, director Bo Burnham and actress Elsie Fisher discuss their experiences in eighth grade, and on the film Eighth Grade.
While most people tend to abhor our personal passage of time, I hold a bit of a fascination with it because it grants objectivity, distance, the breathing room to look at where you’ve been in life, what you’ve been—and moreover, who you’ve been.
Who have you been?
This special live episode of Design Matters with Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher took place last fall at Adobe Max in Los Angeles. As Burnham told The Atlantic when discussing the film’s origins, “I think eighth grade is a time where your self-awareness is just flicked on like a light. All of a sudden you look at yourself and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, have I been this the whole time?’ And then you’re trying to build a parachute as you’re falling.”
As it likely does with most viewers, the film prompted me to reflect on my own eighth grade experiences … but when I went back to find them, they were fleeting, and mostly composite sensory images of place—the faded paint of school hallways, increasingly skilled levels of art punctuating the walls room after room, grade after grade; the taste of water from the humming gray fountains; the seemingly invincible faux wood of the desktops in the nicer classrooms, and that moment when you’d come across one with a chunk sheared off, revealing it to be plastic, and wonder, What could be so strong in this world to do that?
Pondering Eighth Grade’s focus on social anxiety brought more back, and caused me to ask the sole friend I maintain from those years: Who were we, really?
Given the relatively nerdy and quasi-reclusive adult that I am today, an author, design geek and journalism professor, people in my life might be surprised to learn who I used to be. Because I was decidedly not a model pupil.
I wasn’t popular, and I wasn’t unpopular (that would come in high school). I was just sort of there. And in the course of being there, I was bored. Perhaps going to the same school from Kindergarten to eighth grade had run its course—or the fact that it was a Catholic school had. My brain was alight with possibilities, futures, but all I could see were the walls around me. Given an inherent problem with authority that I’m long-delayed to decode with a therapist and a general disinterest in whatever my poor educators were trying to affix to my brain, the majority of the school’s faculty was exasperated by my friends and me. (It’s worth noting that, as a teacher today, and an admitted highly hypocritical one, I would have been, too.)
There were the innocent, troll-ish happenings—on a gardening day for a science class, we planted flowers on a hill in the configuration of a four-letter ‘F’ word, and anxiously awaited spring. On a day set aside for “reflective prayer” and meditative music in a religion class, a friend slipped a Nirvana cassette into the stereo, bringing the teacher to tears. I learned to smoke cigarettes behind Lookout Bowl (a poor decision that would haunt the next couple decades of my life), sought to trade a surplus of said cigarettes for marijuana from an older kid at Hardee’s (turned out to be oregano, or another spice of unknown provenance), made unfortunate fashion choices, like the sporting of wallet chains (which seemed so gratuitously long that had I actually ever dropped my wallet, I’d have had to retrace my steps for several hundred feet), and had my parents called into the principal’s office for an intervention/possible expulsion because, eclipsing my other crimes, I stood accused of huffing the breath freshener Binaca (something I still don’t believe is possible).
For an aspiring delinquent there were, of course, the more serious happenings: Getting ahold of psychiatric pills that would not get one high but would get one deeply in trouble (yet, awesomely, help one with bouts of depression later in life); vandalism (hailing from Kentucky, we had access to terrifyingly powerful “fireworks” advertised as quarter sticks of dynamite, which we purchased from an ice cream store that was later raided by the ATF); disappearing from one’s parents’ house for uncomfortable stretches of time (even though I was often just out playing mini golf); run-ins with police (see: quarter sticks of dynamite); an instance or two of petty theft (candy I could have bought with my allowance); cutting (a more serious matter that does not merit a joke to help me make peace with my past).
And then there were the constants in my life that arguably saved me from the jails and prisons (or worse) where a handful of my friends would end up: reading and writing, the closest things I had to religious rites; the aforementioned friend consulted for this essay; parents who were perplexed and irate yet wildly patient, who never believed that their son would condescend to huff Binaca.
When I look back on it all now, I recall an innate sense of screaming—of being trapped, not unlike the bugs encased in amber that I was fascinated by as a kid. Perhaps that’s why I avoid looking back. Or maybe it’s an elemental sense of shame, a desire to disown. Or it’s akin to reading someone else’s memoir, and I’m just the type of person who never reads the same book twice.
But it’s important to remember. And to reach within and seek to decipher.
All the acting out feels like just that: acting. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. So I chose various parts to play, as did the bullies and jocks I would get to know in high school when I moved on from such pursuits to writing and photography clubs and punk bands. Being so claustrophobic in the same tiny rectangle for so long with the same people—all, I should add, of largely the same background and socioeconomic status and ethnicity—would breed an intense curiosity for the rest of the world, which led me to become a journalist, a profession where you’re the master of nothing but an explorer of everything. It also bred an obsession with travel, of escaping, of absorbing.
Eighth grade. The last strap of the bridle was coming loose.
The film Eighth Grade captures one character’s experiences in a strange time we all share. And everyone’s experience is marvelously unique, a wonderful or terrifying or brilliant or painful microcosm in which you indeed build your parachute as you fall.
What was yours? If you’re so inclined, please share it with us, short or long, and how it impacted the creative you are today. We’ll be selecting a medley of our favorites for a roundup we’re putting together.
Enjoy this special episode of Design Matters—and, please, stay away from the Binaca.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief