Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

Chasing Pan’s Shadow

Chasing Pan’s Shadow

 

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country. ~ Kurt Vonnegut

 

Every five years, we are summoned by our past:  We receive phone calls and formal invitations to high school and college reunions.  Like mythological sirens these gatherings call to us, beckoning us to return to a gilded past that no longer exists.  Yet nostalgia is a potent opiate.  It deceives, ameliorates and intoxicates.  It is Peter Pan chasing his shadow but never quite being able to catch it.  It is initials carved deep into the ancient bark of a century-old magnolia.  It is a 60 watt light bulb and a Long Island Ice Tea.  It is an airbrushed view of life accentuated by the strong scent of jasmine and raw emotion – it is youth. 
 
Reunions spin through our lives like tornados – pulling us toward a vortex filled with the promise of lost horizons.  Some boycott these nostalgia festivals because they dreaded every minute of their painful adolescence.  Others agonize over whether attending the gathering of ghosts is worth the energy spent to get there and stay awake through dinner.  There are those whose high school or college days were life’s high-water mark; they long to regain their lost alpha status.  It’s all so emotionally charged. 

 

Thankfully, mathematicians and psychologists have recently teamed at Cal Tech to develop a complex algorithm that can objectively assist any person uncertain about attending a reunion.  The psycho-social formula requires adding one’s age, waist size and years of marriage, then dividing the sum by the number of times you’ve googled an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend or corresponded innocently with an ex on Classmates.com.  If your score is over 20, have fun.  However, if your score is 19 or less, you may be unprepared for this journey through the looking glass.  Consider the following scenarios and proceed with your eyes wide open…

You still carry a torch for that certain person and hope you can cross paths and innocently bask in the warmth of your old flame.  You joined Reunion.com ostensibly to see what others are “up to.”  Is this an innocent titillation with the past or a walk down a dark dangerous alley?  Answer:  Dark dangerous alley. It starts with an email exchange and ends up with an invitation to “have coffee” at some place called the Honeymoon Motel in Newark, NJ.  The reality is you will not find your old squeeze but instead someone who has inflated to 3000 psi and appears to have eaten your ex.  You must disguise your initial shock when hugging him/her, as you are now clutching a back that has wider landmass than Asia Minor.  Run away.

You want to once again see if you can drink keg beer, wear wrinkled shorts and flip flops, play Frisbee, climb over fences and stay up past 4 a.m. doing whatever it is one does after midnight.  Do you have what it takes?  Answer: You do not.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  Fat, drunk and stupid still remains no way to go through life.  You have infinitely more to lose now than when you were 20 years old, including what little dignity you have left.  Instead, just get hair plugs and buy some golf clubs.

You want to experience just for 48 hours that feeling of invincible abandon that was a trademark of your college experience.  You were young, cocky, bounced more checks than a security guard at a Prague nightclub and ate cafeteria food that even your carp-like Springer Spaniel would not ingest.  Will you find your mojo?  Answer:  No.  You had your “mo” snipped during an elective medical procedure in 1997.  All you have left is your “jo” (your wife’s code name for your belly).  Take the money you will otherwise need to pay for marital counseling and go to a New York Mets dream camp for 50 somethings.  You may take a hard line drive off the teeth or pull a quad muscle but hey, it’s better than having a divorce attorney hitting fungoes at you for six months straight.

You yearn to be autonomous again – independent in your thoughts and actions, candid in your points of view and idealistic in your pursuit of truth.  You listen to David Byrne of the Talking Heads lament your affluent conundrum: “And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, and you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?”  You reflect on this song over and over again.  You come to believe your reunion is a portal to perhaps a more innocent time.  Answer:  This sounds like a mid-life crisis to me.  The reunion is merely cover for you to begin indulging your self-pity, hubris and diminished self-importance.  Autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be.  It means going home alone 99.9% of the time, eating Lean Cuisine dinners and sorting your own socks.  

 

You want to reassemble your old posse – you know, the group you called “the knuckleheads.”  You were madcap, outrageous pranksters – pulling stunts, throwing parties, occasionally missing a class or a urinal.  You now lead lives of quiet desperation and own the DVD Old School, which you can quote verbatim.  Each of you thinks you are the Luke Wilson character, but you are really Will Ferrell.  Can you gather one last time to recreate that old black magic?  Answer:  No dice, Wyatt Earp.  Your posse is now too heavy to ride horses or even sit on a wooden bar stool without breaking it.  Most of your caballeros want to strap on their guns and join your lost cause, but in the end, they can’t get a hall pass from la seňora.  The others are unwilling to sleep in a dorm room bed made for dwarves.

You miss “working with kids” and are interested in getting back involved with your school and alumni.  You crave deep intellectual conversation and feel you missed your calling as a teacher – perhaps you could guest lecture on macro economics, corporate finance or how to conduct an analyst call for over two hours without really saying anything of substance.  You want to connect with students and establish a strong bridge to this so-called Generation Z.  You see yourself as a critical facilitator in their journey.  After all, you’re an alumnus and share a common bond with these students.  Answer: Face it; you could not get into your alma mater today unless you could run a 4.4 40-yard dash.  Most of these kids believe the only thing you have in common with them is that you both breathe – although you do it more heavily.  Your university alumni office is delighted to meet with you to discuss a major financial contribution.  They’re intrigued by your ideas around guest lecturing and will be “certain to get back to you”…just about as quickly as you get back to those people who call at dinner time asking for donations to help save the endangered Connecticut Spotted Skink.

Tom Stoppard once said that “age is a high price to pay for maturity.”  Yet for all its traps and trepidations, a reunion’s lure is deep and compelling.  It allows us the chance to recapture old feelings, to make amends or exorcise old demons.  For most of us, it’s a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride down a reassuring and familiar street.  Here’s my only advice as you cruise down Memory Lane: keep your hands and feet inside the car, don’t drink and drive and never, ever pick up hitchhikers.  Do not forget nostalgia is driving the car and, as a wise man once remarked, “she is a seductive liar.”