As I noted in a guest post on Tammy Patrick’s excellent blog, Nurse’s Notes, I’ve been thinking about high school after a recent visit from one of my oldest friends.
Unlike Mia, I wasn’t one of my high school’s cool kids. My hair insisted that it was Born Free and refused to be tamed into an attractive page boy, flip, or back-combed bubble. I needed braces, and my glasses, chosen by my mom, tilted up at the sides and had rhinestones in them. I got contact lenses in my senior year, but it was too late. I’d been pegged as a geek.
I had one date in high school, with a boy who was even geekier than I, bless him. Weekends I spent in my room, reading everything from Robert Benchley to Vanity Fair. My equally dateless girlfriends and I took turns giving Friday-night slumber parties in each other’s houses, waiting until after midnight to order pizza because some of us were Catholic and couldn’t eat meat on Fridays.
I’d have sold my soul to be a cheerleader. I lurked around the boys’ gym – the likeliest place, I figured, for Satan to materialize – but he never showed up to strike the bargain. Instead, as co-editor of the school newspaper, I interviewed the popular kids and wrote earnest editorials about The Importance of Doing Homework and Why We Should Respect our School Mascot. As you might imagine, that did nothing for my popularity.
So why do I remember those years with such fondness?
“Starry-eyed and laughing, I recall when we were caught … ”
High school is that heady time when, if you’re lucky, you’re still under the care and protection of your parents, while at the same time you’re being granted more and more grown-up freedom. There’s an intensity of feeling that is special to those years, before you really do grow up and learn that the price of freedom is the responsibility that your parents have been carrying for years.
High school was the one time in my life when I cared about sports. I did briefly root for the Giants baseball team until I learned that none of the players actually came from San Francisco. It wasn’t San Franciscans playing, just a bunch of men who’d been bought and sold like so many coffee beans. Luck and money were the agents behind pro sports: the same agents, as I was learning in high school, that lie behind wars, slavery, politics, almost everything.
But in high school, sports were pure. Those Friday-night heroes in padded uniforms and helmets were boys who walked the halls and sat behind me in algebra, and whether they won or lost (at my high school, they usually lost), the thrill was in watching them play: for us.
With my friends, I sat in the stands in the black and floodlit night, looking at a field of grass that glowed green with a radiance it has never held since. I watched the high clear arc of the ball as one of the boys – a boy I knew – kicked it halfway down the field.
Up and up it soared, into the waiting sky, and I knew that swiftness, that eagerness, that urge to break free (oh keep going, keep going, keep going!) – and then the check in mid-air, the hesitant hover (do I dare? Is it time yet? What will I have to leave behind?), followed by a descent that felt both reluctant and relieved.
Just so, later that night, I would walk out of the wild, free night back into my parents’ house. “Hi Mom. Hi Dad. No, we lost again, but it’s okay. We’ll do better next time.”
“ … trapped by no track of hours, for they hang suspended”
A few years later I was off to college, grad school, travel, jobs. No reluctance now; I reveled in my freedom. I’m still lucky enough to have it, and all the tough choices that go along with it, and I still have the high school friends. Plus it turns out to be a good thing to have read a lot of great books if you want to be a writer.
But nights no longer feel wild and free, and the house in which I spent the last years of my childhood belongs to other people. I would be glad to return to it once more — bad hair, funky teeth, rhinestone glasses and all — just so I could say to the parents who are no longer here: “Hi Mom. Hi Dad. No, today wasn’t so good, but it’s okay. I’ll do better next time.”
[Quotation from Bob Dylan; screen captures from “Bear Prints.” ]