High School (Aren’t We Joe Cool Yet?)

I’m not convinced I got the most out of high school. But at least I got out.


To be honest, things didn’t change much in high school. The hair of the student body didn’t pose the fire hazard that it used to, but we stayed in the groups that we’d split into as junior high people. I don’t condemn it because it just happens and seems as natural as plate tectonics: huge masses rushing towards each other and one would inevitably grind the other down, but not without rumbling and trembling. It’s not always a wasteland, though; sometimes you find genuinely honest and wonderful people, like some of my neighboring locker-owners. We all had to deal with the peculiar quirks of the school, such as how it was designed for southern California weather (and hence was a series of disconnected buildings) while experiencing a snow-belt reality. I still like almost all of the people who graduated with me, but it was difficult to reach across the group borders afterwards; I have yet to contact probably 90% of my graduating class with something stronger than a rumor.

I just had a disturbing thought: out of all the people you knew in high school, who would you most like to contact? My response was “all or none.” I guess that it explains a lot. It’s not that I absolutely loathe my high school experience, but rather that I’d rather know what happened to my class as a group. The intervening years have seen me grow tremendously (unfortunately, mostly in belly girth, but some mental and spiritual) and I have no reference to compare — when I go back for reunion, I’m planning on figuring out who I was and hope that I like who I am.

Before I start to write a page, I usually write up some notes for myself to consult; the ones for this page look like this:

bryant strampe tan mcdermott butler dibert hallett
hattie jodi dani missy teresa
phil pete mike emmitt normal donnie bill cory
little theater trailers folding walls
knowledge bowl soccer 3-d charts math tests psat art

As you can see, better than half of what I’d like to talk about is the people — friends, teachers, crushes, and the rest is what I did in school. Maybe that’s what high school is about, beyond the foreign language and the AP/shop trackers: who you deal with and how you do it. After all, it doesn’t seem like you get to fully experience the joys of living without realizing that you’re finally alive, something our numbed minds don’t see until high school.

Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.

— Archimedes (reputedly)

I have the benefit of incisive hindsight to say that my experience was that of quasi-adulthood — young enough to feel invincible and old enough to start to listen; young enough to be careless and old enough to have doubts; young enough to spend and old enough to cut costs; young enough to love and old enough to loathe. You begin to wonder why — why things are, why you’re here, what you’re planning on doing with it … and somewhere in between the questions, you begin to live; your life begins to bud, the sap quickens, and you feel all-so-powerful yet restrained. You begin to dream not the technicolor lights of youth but more mundane dreams: you and the exoticar-equipped you, you and the stereo-owning you, you and the athlete-you (or perhaps you and the athlete), you riding into the sunset. They’re the dreams of promised comforts and bright hopes; you say that it only takes a little more effort to reach out for the stars, having come so far this quickly and in another five years, nothing is impossible. I was personally convinced that I’d put an end to fusion confinement woes within a few years of graduating from college, having brought a fresh perspective to the hoary old gnomes at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, who would point out my work to those in higher places, and so the Nobel Prize in Physics would be mine for the taking.

Of course, you got brought down every so often, if not because you realized your own limitations, but because you had chores/practice/homework to do not for your own benefit, but so that that your parents would get off of your back. As an undergraduate, I met and developed a friendship with someone who had gone to an arts and science magnet school — it was publicly funded, but as there was only one in the state, he had to board there. I have to confess that my first thoughts, upon learning this, were amazement at his self-motivation and discipline, rather than at his talent and ability (both tremendous, then and now). My father was fond of saying that “Even prodigies need a push,” referring to my own lack of motivation (not that I was a Mozart by any stretch of the imagination). So, for me, part of realizing that I was growing up was not that I grew the odd bit of hair here and there but rather than I no longer needed someone standing over me, letting me know that I had to do x many hours of piano and y hours of homework before I could participate in more exciting activities.

I admire my parents for sticking to their guns, explaining that I’d realize sooner or later that they were not so much torturing me than making sure that I’d be able to do what I wanted, later on in life. I was convinced, at the time, that they were part of a secret parent bloc to sap the fun out of childhood. I really can’t criticize how I was raised until I get kids of my own, I suppose, but after some thought on it, I’ll risk the unfilial cries: part of the reason why I never felt completely at ease, socially, in high school, was because I was forever worried about what other people would think about me. Part of that, I realize, was junior high scarring, but I learned the paranoia of appearances above all else, not the importance of one’s own self-image, from my parents. Maybe I’d be able to talk to my old friends without cringing at the thought of me then, but the past is yet solid. High school is not a time to spend getting your helping of learning, slopped down on your tray and slowly congealing there (next to the mashed potatoes, in case the meat’s too tough to chew) to be picked over later, infrequently or not. You’ve got to ask for more, and hope that the snacks and desserts you ate between classes go down easy with the rest, and when it’s over, this single certificate says that you can do whatever you want, as you’ve paid your dues now, right? You shouldn’t spend your time being timid in high school; it’s your first taste of choice, and you don’t want to spend it blinking in the sunshine, confused — and scared. At long last, you CAN, and that is all the difference you need (the business of should or would inevitably leads to could, and that’s something to be savored by the pseudo-adults, like me). It’s time to start living for yourself, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that your parents have to be happy about what you do all of the time (please remember that these were the same folks who brought you in to this sensory extravaganza of a world), it also doesn’t mean that you do things just to make them unhappy. Use your head; after fourteen or more years of growing, it should be big enough for you to start deciding what you want out of life, and how best to go about it.

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.

— Sir Isaac Newton (allegedly)

Of course, where would I stand? Of course: the teachers. Not only do they impart knowledge, but inspiring teachers push their students to believe and trust in themselves, to realize potential, and to dah dah dah … I had more than my share of good teachers, and I’m sure that you did, too: it’s difficult to characterize them without sounding like the Beav. Good ones defy description yet are almost immediately recognizeable.

I think I liked best the teachers that treated me more as a person than as a reservoir. It could be little things, like making sure that you had enough to eat that day, or letting you in on extra learnings; it could be significant things, like declaring that you’d be an excellent son-in-law (I got a couple of stares that day). Through it all, they never lost sight of the person writing the papers or volunteering more information. It’s all too easy to dismiss a student as a manufactured good, shuffling through an assembly line education, rather than someone to care for and win over.

take all i have i’ve no secrets left to steal
what would you give me for a trip behind your steering wheel

i need high heels just to stand up
got to carry some stairs to get near enough
i need some wheels to move you around
i’ve borrowed some tools to chisel you down
tie me up and i’ll confess
a thousand ways to make you statuesque

— Sleeper, statuesque

It’s almost like relearning to walk, this business of building lasting friendships, as it’s something that you’ve got to nurture and protect and pray that the distances don’t smother. After all, it’s simple enough to bond with people you see every day, but on the weekends and holidays, what have you done with them lately? Go ahead: call someone. I’ll wait. The internet is dispassionate enough in dealing with various emotions that a bit of human contact is always welcome.

Part of my quest in high school was for everlasting fame, whether through academics (I was recently told that one of my reports is still used as an example/threat, based on its length) or impression (I took up a favorite teacher’s prep period, just chatting, while visiting once). I’ve since discovered that fame is what you make of the thin threads stringing all of us together after leaving: whether you’re annoyed, happy, or frightened that someone can track you down after years apart. What your arms, crossed or open, could tell about you … Part of it is colored by doubt, that anyone is as bored as me and actually stoops to seek me out, and the rest comes from thinking about how much someone I haven’t seen for years can know about who I am now. Granted, I’ve not reinvented myself lately, but I did a good deal of growing up while I was an undergraduate, and to have missed that in others — and in myself — makes me think that we wouldn’t have a single phrase in common any more. I’m sure that people are much more flexible than I give them credit for, but I still have doubts.

Fame seems to be notoriety, if not acclaim, among a certain group; our American culture feeds us a steady diet of People and National Enquirer stories proclaiming that Jaremon Harbleek is the newest and greatest celebrity. That’s ok; the group in this case is the overall population. My own group has shrunk to the point where about ten people know who I am and might actually care about me; I’m glad. I always thought that it was more important to clutch a few cards and hold on tightly, and envied those who had plenty of friends and made new ones easily (all part of others’ perception, don’t you know). All right, that’s a lie: it took me the better part of my undergraduate career to realize that it was more important to shoot for quality friendships — not that all of my high school friendships were entirely shallow, but I’d occasionally plot to befriend the girl making my pants itchy, although that never worked for me — that if you kept on trying to befriend everyone, you’d end up with three people who actually liked you and hundreds who vaguely knew you enough to avoid you in the future.

Just a perfect day
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone new

— Lou Reed, Perfect Day

That just to know that you liked someone was enough, some days. To hold such a great and terrible secret over yourself, that was excitement, and you almost ran all the way home to bury it deep, but all you’d let out was a thin-lipped smile or casual, burning glances, and never more than maybe an imagined kiss; a stolen embrace might pass one day into more graphic dreams, after all. But holding yourself away from the flame keeps you safe — and cold. It’s no life, to spend your days dancing with the fire and forgetting that it’s only you alone, most days, most nights.

My most cherished dream in high school was to wake up next to a woman and bask in the warmth of two together; not so much the actual sex part of it, although I devoted plenty of time to that, too, it wasn’t the main, er, thrust of what I hoped for: no, for me, heaven was (is) waking up and knowing that in your arms was all the friend you need, all the fame you’d hoped for. Lassitude would then set in and I’d drift back to dozing and knowing that we had nothing better scheduled that day than just to spend lazy hours together. Of course, by then, I’d be independently wealthy and would have no need to grub for money any more.

I was, after all, lucky enough to fall in love at least once during high school, though it’s hard to say if at that age, I could recognize love if it bit me (at least not until we get to know each other better, no thanks). That much has been detailed in previous pages, and you’d do better to read those. In the end, it’s more difficult by far to know that I spent enough time self-satisfied and not chasing flowers and hardy blooms; again the doubt and the reasoning: that to suffer failure would be too much to bear, that it was better by far to hide than seek. My load was light, though.

Up, down, turn around
Please don’t let me hit the ground
Tonight I think I’ll walk alone
I’ll find my soul as I go home

Oh, you’ve got green eyes
Oh, you’ve got blue eyes
Oh, you’ve got grey eyes
And I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before
No, I’ve never met anyone quite like you before

— New Order, Temptation

Six months shy of graduation; the bite of ice and sobbing in the halls: I went to school one day in December and hadn’t realized that one of my fellow students had killed herself the day before.

I didn’t know her well enough to call her my friend; although she was one of the first people I realized I had a crush on, we circulated in different social strata and though we collided occasionally, we produced hail, no lightning. It’s more than possible that no one was her friend, as she saw it; with the short-sightedness of the young, we spent the remainder of the day assigning blame, everything short of magic bullets and dancing dwarves.

And it’s easy now to look back and judge the me of then, and apply the RMS Titanic philosophy: what could have happened to this woman, that she thought that this was the only way out? It’s impossible to know now. Suicide demands close introspection by the survivors: was it something I said, was it something I did, was I not enough, what could I do, what do I do now?

But ultimately, I think it all boils down to regret: that I’d never be privileged enough to know what she’d wear to the prom, that I’d never see her cross the stage in shapeless gown and four-cornered hat, that I’d never know how and why she changed through the years and grew steadily more graceful, slowly more beautiful, that we’d never get the chance to mark the tracks of time and laugh together at it. That someone as bright and talented as she might have had hope crushed from her makes me apprehend the future as it rushes, bright and discrete.


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