Locked in my own shyness, so terribly self-aware of every fault and inadequacy, I barely poked my head out of a book long enough to notice what was happening for four years. If I could have sped up the time, I would have. I knew my future was golden and beautiful, and this was just a place to suffer through to get to that promised land. But my classmates from West Rowan High School Class of 1983 are gathering today to remember, recall and rejoice at a reunion in Salisbury, North Carolina. At first, I wondered to myself. What can they possibly be thinking?
The few shiny, happy people on top of the social totem pole who ran for touchdowns and partied hard through those years might have something to celebrate. Those were the days, they might say. But I had nothing to offer to that conversation. Then I thought a little harder about it.
I did nearly kill everyone in the car during Driver’s Education class once. We were on a skinny strip of state highway in the middle of nowhere when the instructor asked me to do a three-point turn. I was a bit nervous. We had practiced this sort of thing back in the parking lot with cones, but this was the first real road test of my three-point turning abilities. I began backing up the car into position. A deep gulley stretched down to our right. Not straight down. It was a long and rolling green hill that seemed to have no end. There was a tense moment when the car seemed to want to keep backing right down the gulley. The back wheels may or may not have dangled over the edge of this gulley. Who’s to say this many years later? And then the instructor hit the dummy brake so hard the car shuddered to a stop. My classmates in the back seat had plenty to say about it. Our instructor hit them with an icy stare that shut them up. He had a gravitas that compelled fear. It was unclear what he could do to you, but you never wanted to find out. I completed the three-point turn and we drove back to school in verdant Mt. Ulla (a place so inconsequential it exists more as a postal address than anything else.) A few of my classmates kissed the ground on getting out of the car. I wanted to throw up.
There were moments of success. I spoke passionately for nearly two glorious periods in front of my Advanced Placement English class about the book Les Miserables. My classmates could have cared less about the book and my minute dissection of the themes and characters. They did heartily congratulate me on keeping the teacher occupied. No one else had to give their report. No homework was issued. Time stood sill as Jean Valjean sought redemption. I can only imagine what was going through my English teacher’s mind. Maybe she thought, Here’s someone who not only read the book, but cares about it. She was probably also stunned to hear me talk in front of people. So that’s what he sounds like out loud, she might have said to herself.
Another personal moment of triumph came during another English class. We had been forced to read the short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I hated it. I wrote two reports. When it was my turn to stand at my seat and read my one-page analysis, I asked the teacher whether she wanted the paper she wanted me to write or the one I wanted to read. “Read the one you want to read,” she said. A brave if misguided choice, I thought. “OK,” I said. “I don’t understand why we were assigned this short story. There’s nothing appealing at all about Hawthorne’s writing. His moral is unclear, and the story is ridiculous.” The critical rant went on for a bit in this vein, and I sat down with an exhausted thump shaking just a bit from fury and nerves. My classmates were appalled. I had questioned the status quo, threatening the order of the known universe. Her response was magical. “Many times we read an author who has no personal appeal to us,” she said. “But personal literary tastes vary, and we gain a deeper understanding of the world of literature by sampling different styles. I think you might appreciate more contemporary writing. Try J.D. Salinger.” Boy, was she right!
There was the trip our French class took to Europe. Seven short days divided neatly between Paris and London led by the small but terribly energetic French teacher Mr. Shoaf. I loved Mr. Shoaf dearly. He and I shared the same sense of humor. But as much as I loved my teacher, I hated the French language just as passionately. My mom had lived in France for a summer and was qualified to teach French to high school students. When the time came to pick French or Spanish for my language, I thought it only made sense to pick French because my mom could help me study. Later my mom revealed that she had tried to speak French to me when I was a baby. Whenever she did, I would cry in my crib. My horrible grades in French made sense then. I had a natural allergy to the language.
On a continental trip meant to make us all a bit more worldly, I embraced my sophomoric side. I made sweeping cultural judgements based on little evidence. It was clear French food was meant to delight the senses, and English food was meant to dull them. (This actually turns out to be true.) I treasured my morning baguette that arrived as part of our continental breakfast in Paris. I wondered where Englishmen got the will to live after eating a dreary meal in a London pub. I juggled expensive tea pots in an English store. Ran over to look when a classmate swore he saw a woman giving a man a hand job as the couple sat in a Paris restaurant. She was. What a country! I could hardly get my head around it. Maybe I had judged the French and their language too harshly. On top of that, I met a beguiling girl from Maryland named Rochelle on our tour bus though our brief relationship was not on the same level as the aforementioned diners.
Maybe surviving what I considered a bleak cultural landscape in high school gave me a healthy appreciation for the larger world. Last night I went to the DUMBO arts festival in Brooklyn and watched Japanese drumming as a visual arts presentation meant to harmonize with that intense aural experience was projected on the brick surface of the underside of the Manhattan Bridge. Fractal images danced in 3D, plunging into rivers as drummers banged madly. A floutist who reminded me of Jethro Tull played his heart out. The experience is hard to explain, but it was cool. I am open to new things. Love exploring Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Street performers thrill me. The sun rises each morning, and I walk a shady esplanade along the Hudson River in Manhattan. I even appreciate the less dynamic skyline of New Jersey shimmering on the opposite shore in the morning light. I see myself as an urban explorer soaking in new neighborhoods whenever possible. My mind is open. My heart is light.
I appreciated my high school for a long time with the same grudging respect Golem felt for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. But those years weren’t quite that bad. Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It’s true that Dickens wrote far too much for his own good, gave lengthy world tours back in the day when it was possible to be a literary celebrity and died from sickness because he pushed himself to perform one time too many. And its hard to be more trite than quoting Dickens. Still. I know my English teacher would be proud.
Party hard, class of 83! God bless us, every one.