My Best Kept Secret
For a year, we had something special.It wasn’t big.It wasn’t flashy.
But it meant a lot to me. Welcome to JTOP: an arcane collectivity within the walls of Lower Merion High School. JTOP stands for Justin Timberlake Operation Project, an opaque title chosen to baffle anyone who might overhear us mention the organization. I was inducted as the fifth member in November of 2008, joining Maggie, Jake, Patricia and Sarah. At the time, I knew no one in this coterie but Jake, who provided me with little information.
He insisted that I would find meaning in the group—that together we would be able to channel our restless frustration and curiosity into something worthwhile—but that I must first be sworn to secrecy. I was dubious, nervous, and excited. Okay. Okay. This is peculiar right? I’m not from Hogwarts, I’m not some top-secret CIA operative—I’m just a girl from a suburb of Philadelphia… right? And what did “JTOP” even do? That question cannot be answered so easily. JTOP was a chance for bright kids who love learning…to explore. Every meeting, every task, every debate felt like a new adventure.
One day Maggie came home from school and informed us of hearing about trepanation, the practice of cutting holes into one’s skull. This was creepy… yet fascinating. Why would anyone willfully drill a hole into his or her head? What would that be like? So on a Wednesday night, after we finished our homework, we furtively gathered and watched a documentary that Maggie purchased entitled “Hole in Your Head,” all about the history of trepanation. Once we decided to make “circle poetry” for other students whom we admired throughout the school.
Some of the students we didn’t know personally—just respected from afar. Taking a black Sharpie and ripping out pages from The Philadelphia Inquirer, we began to circle words and letters creating personalized messages. I wrote a poem for Hannah, a girl I knew only through her insightful comments in English class. Hannah had lately been bemoaning that she was turning jaded by the stressful experience of junior year. I wrote that she shouldn’t let the school system break her and that her infectious enthusiasm is too important to be replaced by cynicism.
When we finished, JTOP looked up the recipients’ addresses in the phone book, drove to the various homes and anonymously deposited the poems into each of their mailboxes. Once we all attended a school board meeting at which our district was considering proposed changes to the high school grading policy. I stood up and made a speech before the administrators, teachers and community on the defects of the proposal. Another time we found ourselves sitting in a coffee shop trying to figure out if we were stuck on an island which mix of 20 people from our school would we need along with us in order to survive.
Another time we clandestinely met at an out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant (JTOP avoids locations where we could be likely spotted) and, over egg rolls, debated the merits of biological determinism. Patricia, a fierce advocate of Richard Dawkins, battled Maggie and me, advocates of environmental factors also playing a fundamental role in pushing genetic “limits. ” We decided we needed an adult figure within our organization so we divulged the details of our club to Mohsen Ghodsi, our old 9th grade gifted support teacher, and asked that he serve as our mentor.
He was enthusiastic in his support. He not only allowed us to hold JTOP meetings in his classroom during free periods but also supplied us with book titles and journal articles that he felt might interest us. We went creek-walking. We cooked homemade dumplings. We gave opera music a try. We debated the injustice of calling “shotgun” in the passenger seat of a car. Once, we decided to write “JTOP” on all the dollar bills we owned in the hope that some day, years from now, they might come back to us in currency recirculation. In June I decided to read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons.
The novel describes an idealistic young girl starting her freshman year at a prestigious university, who is recruited for an intellectual discussion club with an opaque misleading name—The Millennial Mutants. The resemblance between Charlotte Simmons’ club and JTOP was uncanny. I realized though, it wasn’t mere coincidence that Tom Wolfe described a society similar to JTOP. And, importantly, the parallels did not make me feel generic. To the contrary, they made me feel like I was a part of something much bigger. Something universal.
It was exciting to think about people living “the life of the mind” elsewhere, in different schools and states and perhaps in secret clubs of their own. The notion that there are many people out there who band together in the free pursuit of ideas and experiences was comforting and validating. Maybe it all sounds trivial. Perhaps intelligent students shouldn’t be “wasting their time” writing acronyms on dollars and instead direct more focus to investing time into an internship or “getting ahead. ” But I disagree. When I look back on my junior year I feel lucky to have received such a precious experience.
Where is JTOP now you might ask? Well, we’re all still friends, but the club definitely lost its fire over the summer, and I can’t really predict what the future holds for it. But, that’s okay. Just having been able to experience unfettered adolescent discovery, with people who have the same interests as I, is something that I believe really matters. And knowing that I’m not alone, and that others out there are also exploring—well that matters too. And knowing that I’ll meet many more people in college who share the same passions, well that’s the most exciting prospect of all