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Who Will Survive Temptation Table?

Memories of a mean middle school game offer Observer columnist Mike Cavaliere perspective on parenting.

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  • | 7:35 a.m. February 29, 2024
The Indian Trails Middle School cafeteria, circa 1998-2001, was the site of so much hi jinx for friends Simon Brown, Will Rockey and Mike Cavaliere.
The Indian Trails Middle School cafeteria, circa 1998-2001, was the site of so much hi jinx for friends Simon Brown, Will Rockey and Mike Cavaliere.
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At age 11 — next summer, she’ll be “almost 13,” she’d want you to know — my stepdaughter, Charlotte, is finally old enough to bully her parents.

“Your butt is squishy,” she tells my wife, who tries to take it as a compliment.

Then she gets me in her sights: “Is your forehead so big because you’re losing your hair?”

Mike Cavaliere

Her attacks are sometimes sneakier. Last week, she begged us to watch a movie then, once we agreed, she set out on a Napoleonic-like campaign to ruin said movie by relentlessly repeating “bruh” throughout it, anytime something “weird,” such as dialogue or action, occurred onscreen.

It was a blitzkrieg of “bruhs.” A bombardment. Our spirits were quickly broken.

But we had this coming. Like death and taxes, the karmic onslaught known as Parenting is one of life’s few certainties. In our youth, we unknowingly sowed nuclear seeds, and now, honest farmers that we are, we reap radioactive fruit, the kind that grows eyes, a mouth and an attitude — all the better to sneer at you with whenever you do something “cringe,” like make a dinner that’s not chicken nuggets.

We were no angels.

Eighth grade, Indian Trails Middle School, 2000: My friends and I weren’t yet farmers. We were terrorists, and we hated grownups most of all: the way they flaunted their freedom — to drive, say “no,” stay up past 8. To hit ‘em where it hurts, Will and I once perforated a fresh cantaloup with blow darts in his parents’ living room. Simon and I once pushed a swivel chair down his parents’ staircase, cratering a hole in the drywall at the foot of the steps.

But we were equal-opportunity crusaders. If no adults were available, we happily terrorized each other.

“The name of the game is Temptation Table!” I announced to my classmates in the cafeteria. The rules were simple: Everyday, write a friend’s name on a piece of paper. You get the most votes, you’re gone. Find a new lunch table, bruh.

We were inspired by “Temptation Island,” a new realty TV program that was part dating show, part “Survivor,” all lust, desperation and rejection — which, coincidentally, are the three words I’d use to describe the whole of my childhood.

“You are the weakest link!” we’d happily tell each day’s loser, borrowing from other realty shows as needed to twist the knife. “Goodbye!”

Then this schlub would slink away to sit alone, and the rest of us would laugh and laugh — until the next day, that is, when it was time to vote again, banish another friend again, until just one of us remained — one 13-year-old to rule them all.

None of us saw this as bullying, though. Remember: We were still just radioactive fruit, products of our parents’ mistakes, unaware of our place in this cosmic cycle.

Around this time, we started launching full Dasani bottles down the length of the cafeteria table. We’d rear back then slide the bottles rocket-fast past our classmates’ Styrofoam lunch trays, or maybe into them, blasting their food into their laps or knocking their milk cartons over to glug-glug onto the tabletop. As we threw each one, we’d howl, “MISS-ILE!” (pronounced: miss-eye-ull), then dreamily crunch into our Dunkaroos, sure that life would always be this simple.

“IsThat … your … finalAn-saw?” I asked as Regis Philbin when it was my turn to count Temptation Table votes. I peeked at the name scrawled on the first slip of paper:

“mIKe,” it read.

I’d survived weeks so far, but Will and Simon were stiff competition. Both were funny and well-liked and had dogs to play with during sleepovers. All I had at home was my collection of Pez dispensers.

This did not bode well.

Another slip: another “MIKE.”

Uh oh.

“This game is stupid anyway,” I probably told them then, stopping the count to suggest that sitting together is actually way more fun. And let’s oppose bullying, guys. And let’s be inclusive. Be the change we want to see. And let’s start today!

In the silence that followed, I likely cleared my throat.

“I mean … um, who’s up for another miss-ile?”

Mike Cavaliere is the author of The Humorist: Adventures in Adulting & Horror Movies, available now.


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