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By the Book

It started in seventh grade, right after I read The Giver.

A literary retrospective. Ah, the early years.

Like spirit energy driving a planchette, my love of history guided my hands over the names inside my textbook covers. Not the carefully printed, typed names of politicos and social figureheads: the clumsily curious scrawling of past students.

I’d wonder how they’d made it through lunch every single day. What locker they’d had. Who they’d called friends.

While I languished somewhere between 2x + y — they had the real answers; they knew what was past the “=” sign. After all, some of them were already in high school. And more were in that nebulous ether of “after high school.”

I’d ponder if they were big timers — the types of people I knew I’d never be, but had long equated with my narrow definition of success.

I’d wonder if they were ever like me.

***

It’s bizarre how we seem to hang our personal histories on some of the most unstable years of our lives — like soaked trench coats on a rotted hall tree. The days and weeks and years locked away in the towns and cities where we were born.

Where some settle. Where others vow never to return.

The night of high school graduation, a friend of mine said one of the most depressing things I’d ever heard.

“These are the best years of our lives. And now, they’re over.”

Behind me in the school’s football stadium, the din of recent graduates rose and fell, like a breathing wild thing.

And I thought, is this it?

***

Andy and I sit rapt in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, nursing our sweating vodka tonics — and rolling our eyes at the absurdly large Venice Beach apartment they’re able to afford on one hourly paycheck. But what’s even more annoying is how far Romy and Michele go to shoehorn themselves into some personification of success.

It’s shudder worthy. Mostly because it reminds me of high school. And all the characters wrapped up in that angsty narrative — preps, jocks, band geeks, artists, nerds, holy-rollers, and grungy goths. And somewhere in that welter of teen angst was me — an offbeat with little sense of self, trying to please everyone.

So why is it that we focus our collective lens on that part of our past — on some of the most inconsequential people in our lives? I mean, sure. Plenty of people remain friends with high school pals. But more often than not, most of us sever ties the minute we toss our caps into the air.

Still, like Romy and Michele, so many of us fantasize about waltzing into a high school reunion. Just to show’em.

Who? The people you haven’t spoken to in over a decade. The people who knew you as a prepubescent blob with little to no self-esteem.

Does it matter who they’ve become? Who you’ve become?

Do you really think that, should you return, anything — much less in such a charged context — will be different? That everyone will be the people they’ve really become rather than their high school persona?

I think the only reason I’d ever go to a reunion is to see who’s still around. Because the fact that you’re here — on this side of the grass, as a friend once said — means that you have a story. That, somehow, you’ve made life work.

And I love hearing stories. Especially from people who’ve made complete 180’s — who, like baby sea turtles, hatched, took a chance, and skittered through the relentless gulls to discover new currents.

Because it makes you think about your own journey.

***

The movie ends, and I go to take a shower. Steam starts fogging up the mirror, but I have enough time to assess the stubble, weigh the pros and cons of shaving. But then I step back and just look, thinking about the me of today, and the me-as-Romy or Michele — noticing how different I am.

How I’ve made the years work together to form this reflection — a man who’s grown into his nose; embraces his facial scar; smiles crookedly with straight teeth; constantly battles his curly hair; and always remembers the meanings of his tattoos. Whose journey has taken him through two states, five cities, and a shotgun spray of jobs — through an intervention and reincarnation. Through thick and thin; oil and water.

Toweling off, I hear Andy call from the next room.

“Do you think we’d have ever been friends in high school?”

“Probably not.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. I mean, who really knows who they are in high school? We were all just trying to survive.”

My mind drifts back to a view of the ocean, from the vantage point of fragmented turtle shells — bits and pieces of which are lodged in tiny paddle prints leading to the open water. I think about how grand it’s been to be tossed and turned by the seas, pulled out far and away from where I hatched.

Out of the surf.

Riding the waves of success and failure. Emerging from the surf refreshed and renewed. And beaching myself on a new shore. Where I can make a new, lasting home. And acknowledge that I’ve made it all happen.

And then another image comes to mind — a current student in the same English class, maybe with the same teacher, running their hands over my name and wondering who I am, where I’ve been. And if I’ve succeeded.

And what exactly that may mean.

4 thoughts on “By the Book

  1. Don’t go to the reunion – it’s a waste of a good evening that you could be doing something interesting. I went to a couple of mine and nothing had changed except that some of us had gotten fatter, some of the guys were now bald, and they were telling the same lies they told in high school, Still trying to impress each other. And I realized there’s really no one that you need to prove yourself to but yourself. Be your best self. Let them worry about what they’re doing with their lives.

    1. Hahaha…Linda, you make me laugh out loud! It’s so true, though. Everyone has their own life — with their own drama, etc. But it’s so fascinating the way some people never grow out of their high school persona! Ha!

  2. Such a great post. I LOVE that movie! I didn’t go to my high school reunion, but would have liked to just to see people and what they’re up to and if they’ve changed. I was fortunate to have a pretty close-knit high school class that were all friends for the most part, although of course we still had our small cliques within the larger groups of buddies. I regret not getting to know better some of the folks who didn’t run around in my circles. I also regret not taking ag or horticulture classes because I was on the so-called college “academic” track with all the AP classes that we were pressured into by peers and teachers. It really makes me sad thinking that in the future kids may not have textbooks to doodle or write their names in (because they’ll probably be replaced with ipads or little mini computers, ugh!). They won’t be able to daydream about those names of kids before them without the books–and I can’t imagine not having the sensory, tactile experience of handling, smelling, and thumbing through a grade school textbook.

    1. I know! There’re so many people/classes I should’ve given more time. But we were always running around, and everyone keeping their eyes forward, heads down. The curiosity component is definitely alluring, but I think I’d probably just drink the whole time and wonder what in the hell I was thinking!

      And I totally agree about the tactile experience–so well put! 😉

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