It’s Summer 1983, and I’m one of about 150 high school juniors from across Massachusetts spending the summer at Milton Academy, a prestigious private boarding school just south of Boston. This is the “Massachusetts Advanced Studies Program,” and we are “MASS-Pees,” 16- and 17-year old kids who get to live here for six weeks in what amounts to a trial-run for whatever overpriced college is probably in our future.
Milton Academy’s campus looks like a miniature Harvard Yard, and — unlike our friends back home looking for jobs at the South Shore Plaza or playing Pac-man at the local Pizza Hut – we are working our way through two college-level courses every day for half a day. Our teachers are accomplished astronomers, noted journalists and former politicians. Our graduate student resident-assistants, all of whom hail from Ivy League schools, keep telling us that they are very accomplished, too. We are this summer’s chosen few, the smartest kids in the state who ever applied to this particular program this particular year, and we think we’re pretty cool.
Well, I think everyone else is pretty cool.
All the girls are Molly Ringwald-cute, and most of the guys, despite being academic overachievers back home, are also super-confident lacrosse players who don’t think twice about taking their sleeveless T-shirts off while playing Frisbee on the manicured quad. I am surrounded on all sides by Jake from “16 Candles.”
But me? I’m dealing with a measurable level of anxiety about my right to even be here. I’m struggling in my astronomy class, unable to correctly weigh the moon using the astro-mathematical formula provided by our world-famous teacher. I haven’t caught the attention of a single Molly lookalike yet. And there’s no way I’m taking my shirt off during pity-Frisbee games with the guys: back acne and teenage man-boobs can have that affect on a young man’s confidence.
A few weeks into the program, when calling home (collect) from the rotary payphone in the lobby of my ivy-covered dorm building, my mom tells me that Channel 56 — a local UHF TV stations best known for repeats of the “Creature Double Feature with Dale Dorman” on Saturdays – has been calling my house.
It seems that my years-old membership in the station’s “Star Trek Fan Club” finally qualifies me to host an upcoming rerun of Star Trek on TV.
Can I be there this weekend to videotape my introduction?
You bet I can!
And so two weeks later, a few nights before our little academic sleep-away camp will come to an end, a large crowd of Mollys and Jakes are crammed around the wood-paneled console TV in the lobby of my dorm. They are there to watch my broadcast TV debut.
As word got around that I would be on TV, I have somehow acquired a nickname. It’s the first nickname I have ever had in my life, and it’s a cool one at that: “Shady Grady.”
Someone even made a poster to promote the event.
6 p.m. arrives, and there I am on screen, feathered Scott Baio hair and all, describing how “the Enterprise crew encounters a race of mysterious aliens whose plight is hard for humans to understand” or something like that, “until Mr. Spock, of all people, teaches Kirk and the crew a lesson in empathy.”
I had no idea what I was saying when I read the cue cards in front of the Channel 56 cameras a few weeks ago, and now I am dying inside as my tanned and talented summer classmates watch the broadcast.
On the small, square TV screen is a pimply-faced goofball wearing a purple “Channel 56 Star Trek Club” t-shirt, his un-muscular arms extra pale from all those long-sleeved Frisbee games. I am on TV talking about alien space stuff in the most sincere and earnest way possible.
And when I’m done stuttering through my intro, and after the U.S.S. Enterprise wooshes across the screen, my classmates cheer.
They actually cheer!
Two days later I am informed I’ve been voted “most popular student” at Milton Academy this summer. For the short remainder of the summer, I am a legitimate celebrity in the little bubble we inhabit on campus. People like me, pimples and all.
On move-out day I pack my Arthur C. Clarke paperbacks and my Maxell cassette mixtapes (Phil Collins, Men at Work, selections from the Blade Runner and Cosmos soundtracks) and head home with mom and dad knowing that I learned something this summer — the power of mass media to turn a nobody into a somebody.
Who cares that I flunked astronomy? The space aliens made me popular for 72 hours.