On Melt Day

They used to yell “Melt!”

Down the hallways of the high school. In the cafeteria. Now and again, even in a classroom. A ragtag group, mostly boys—or at least it was the boys whose voices carried most clearly. Not popular, but not particularly unpopular, either. A mix of nerds and musicians and misfits who didn’t fit the school’s football culture, but also couldn’t rightly be called losers by any meaningful measure. Truth be told, were I year or two older, or had the dice of my own social life rolled one extra time before settling on the chosen faces, it’s not unreasonable to think that I might have ended up among them.

Melt!

To my recollection, it was a nonsense syllable. Just a thing to say. I have a suspicions that I might be forgetting some inside joke to set it up as the word, but regardless, if it did have meaning, that meaning seemed to dissipate over time. These guys yelled melt. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was annoying. As far as I could tell, it was always harmless.

And then we arrived at Melt Day.

March 2, 2000. More to the point, a date that read “3/2,” which was converted to 32—the tipping point degree at which water freezes. The point when ice may begin to melt (though some sticklers for science and semantics argued that March 3 would have been a more appropriate Melt Day).

[Note: Someone closer to the situation contacted me to indicate the actual date was March 3, 1999. In lieu of any official documentation, I have to defer to his memory and presume I was mistaken.]

Melt Day would be an informal holiday. A day when the Melt crew would scream Melt a little louder and more often, and maybe even welcome new members into its fold, if just for one day. One of the Melt guys told me about their plan to bring a large block of ice into the school and yell “Melt” at it throughout the day until it had fully given way to water.

The thing is, in March of 2000, our high school was less than a year removed from the news of Columbine. Rumors swelled--I don’t know the source--that Melt Day, executed by these not-quite-cool kids, would be a day of massacre.

They’re going to throw snowballs at people outside school and shoot at anyone they hit.
they built a bomb. They’re going to melt the school.
They’re going to kill everyone.

The rumors moved fast. A letter went home to parents to explain that the administration did not have reason to believe anyone was at risk, but that they understood some students and their families would not feel comfortable attending school that day, and so absences on March 2 would not count against any student’s attendance.

The story made the local paper and at least one local news channel’s TV coverage.

I went to school on Melt Day.

Most people didn’t.

Included among the absentee—every recognizable member of the Melt group, who I anecdotally heard were advised it was in their best interest not to come to school that day.

I don’t have any specific statistics to cite (indeed, in a quick Google search, I was interested to have not found any references to Melt Day), but from what I remember, about two-thirds of my classmates were missing that day. I never experienced another school day quite like it, and my best approximation would be teaching a morning class on the day before Thanksgiving when I was in grad school. The teachers couldn’t cover any meaningful content, and yet were still compelled to hold all of their classes. It was a strange, wasted, awkward day.

Action movie sequences did flash through my mind once or twice--what I might do if there were a shooter. But these thoughts were far more fanciful than practical. I knew some of the Melt guys reasonably well and didn’t perceive any likelihood of an attack. It felt entirely more likely that one of the bigger guys who picked on me on and off over the years might take a swing at me than that anyone from the Melt crew had a weapon, much less any thoughts of mass violence.

Most of my teachers didn’t address Melt Day. They put on a movie, or went through the motions of some sort of exercise in place of advancing their teachings. I do recall my math teacher delivering a soliloquy, though. One of the teachers I really liked that year—a man who not only taught his subject well, but had a rare combination of a sense of humor and the gravitas of a sage. He looked down and stood in front of the room with his hands in his pockets. “There are people who created this situation today,” he said. “And those people will have to meet the consequences of their actions.”

I had taken the day as a farce. A big misunderstanding that snowballed on account of students who wanted an extra day off and overprotective families still reeling from school shootings far away. But here this teacher was, assigning responsibility and casting blame.

It was one of my first encounters in which I both respected someone talking to me and fundamentally disagreed with what he had to say. A time when I understood the opposing position and couldn’t help but sympathize on account of the stakes and how Melt Day must have affected his teachings, while simultaneously finding it absurd that he’d isolate all of the weight of the disorder on a small group of students, one of whom I knew for a fact had been one of his prized pupils the year before.

Melt Day passed without incident. The next day, the hallways were full again. Our lives at school went on as normal. But those yells of “Melt!” which had grown scarcer and quieter as the Melt Day situation took on greater gravity that winter, disappeared altogether at that point. No longer harmless. No longer fun.

Over the intervening eighteen years--a literal lifespan of a new crop of graduating high school seniors, the US has seen an unfortunate number of mass shootings, some of them in school settings, some of them tragically recenly. I’m grateful that none have occurred at my alma mater. Grateful that all of this hubbub can go forgotten--scarcely spoken of among those friends I still have from high school, scarcely documented anywhere I can find. I doubt I’m alone in this gratitude. But here’s the twist. I regret that I haven’t heard anyone yell, “Melt!” since. That nonsense. That laughter. That sense of unity among a strange group. That bit of innocence that has vanished not after running its natural course, and not out of impropriety, but rather a collective circumstance.

That piece that melted away.