The American experience of high school is an artificial construct of sorts, one where less than five percent of the class -- the captain of the football team, the homecoming queen, their circle of friends, you know the drill -- can say it was the best years of their lives, while the other ninety-five-plus percent settle in for mediocrity and awkward growth spurts, hoping to eek out a meaningful existence in joining the chess club or the debate team, until graduation finally puts them out of their misery. As
When I was in high school, the students fell into many different groups: preps, jocks, cheerleaders, punks, deadheads, druggies, geeks, and all the rest. Just about everyone received an unofficial but virtually unchangeable assignment to a particular group. When I work in high schools today, I discover little difference ...
And on that promising note, I rolled into Cincinnati a few days ago, for one reason only, and I've been waiting ten years for it.
Last night, I attended my 40-year high school reunion. I've gone to the 10-year, the 20-year, and the 30-year, with each one better than the last. It only stood to reason that the next one would be the best time I'd had in a long time. This is more than I could have said about the four years themselves way back when. But first ...
McNicholas High School is a co-educational Catholic institution in Mount Washington, a comfortable middle-class neighborhood on the east side of Cincinnati, about ten minutes from downtown. Originally a convent school operated by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, the former Saint Joseph's Academy was transformed in 1951, into a daring new concept -- a Catholic high school where boys and girls would be learning in classrooms together, heedless of all manner of wickedness that would invariably follow. (Hey, we won the Big War, didn't we? Anything was possible.)
"McNick" is also what is known as an "interparochial" school, as nineteen parishes within its vicinity send students there for less than the full tuition, in return for providing subsidies thereto. All other things being equal, one's parish of origin was generally a factor in one's place on the social food chain. To those who went to the parish school across the street, Guardian Angels, it was merely an extension of the previous eight years. To those farther east on or near the main drag that was Beechmont Avenue (State Route 125), it was a more or less painless transition. To those farther out into the next county, or to areas to the northeast and southeast, "Rocket High" was another world.
Milford was ten miles to the northeast. It may as well have been ten thousand. Even as it was larger than some of the towns farther out, Milford was the proverbial "hick town" of choice. Even my nickname among some of the guys was "Milford" (although most of you good straight-up guys always called me "Alex"). Some who were bussed in from the hinterlands fit in very nicely, but only to the extent that they dissociated themselves from their origins, and built a new social realm around the more urbane, sophisticated among the huddled masses. I never realized that life itself could have endless possibilities, unrestrained by whether you were pretty enough or popular enough, until I got the hell out of there.
So why would I go to my high school reunion? Why celebrate someone else's Glory Days? What was it that changed?
For pity's sake, we were all just kids forty years ago. None of us had any idea who we really were, the only difference being that nature had been kinder to some earlier on than to others, and so had the means at their disposal to hide their uncertainty so well. Those whom I know now, and have the privilege of calling my friends, are who they really were all along, but who no more realized it at the time than I did. This was not realized all at once. At the 10-year reunion, most of us stuck to our predestined territories. In other words, the Milford kids had our own table for most of the evening. These divisions became less pronounced by the 20-year reunion, and were non-existent by the 30-year.
I didn't live along the main axis of that universe that was Beechmont Avenue. Mine was a world of Scout campouts on weekends, garage bands in the summer, and breaking out of a strict home where one was kept away from danger, and any of the fun that went with it. (In retrospect, I was also probably suffering from severe clinical depression.) I lived between the two worlds; the hopelessly middle-class adventure where the world was at your feet and Daddy bought you a new car the minute you turned sixteen, and the insulated life of small town America. I crossed that line to go to school, and was ushered back to the other side before anything could happen that I would certainly regret later. But every ten years, I learn about that side of my world that I only thought I knew ...
• I met the husband of the Mardi Gras pageant queen (or whatever they called it), a man who wanted to meet me for years, after learning of how their little boy reminded her of me.
• I listened to a former basketball star, as he shared with me the tragedy of losing his son in a terrible accident as that son's wife was with child, only to experience the joy of seeing his son alive again in the eyes of the newborn babe.
• I met the guitar player for a rock-and-roll band at school dances, who never knew that I played as well, as we compared notes on our experiences, how easily responsibilities take us away from our inner muse, and to look for the chance to discover it again.
• I was astonished to learn that the genius behind the “Sore-Loserman” bumper sticker campaign, in the wake of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, was one of my own, a successful entrepreneur who refused to sit back while the country he loved went into chaos, without speaking Truth to Power (not to mention CNN). To this day he maintains that he influenced history. He's probably right, which only proves what one man can do.
• I learned the truth behind the jokes about Milford, that the city kids envied us every time enough snow fell to keep us away from class, even as they were still in session. (Uh-huh. Sure.)
• Finally, at least two people have told me that I was "the smartest kid in the class." Obviously not smart enough to win a scholarship, though, probably because Ritalin wasn't invented yet, but that's another story.
When we left that twisted fairytale land that was high school, the thin veneer of adolescence was lifted, and we saw the world as it was all along. We shed our labels, we shed our baggage, and with that, any illusions that the fleeting and superficial could dictate our places in life. We went on to make our own places in life. We have seen ourselves through our children; for some of us, even our grandchildren.
We finally "get it." We have discovered an ultimate truth: high school is not real life.
So then, what can I say to those for whom high school was the worst years of their lives?
One word: Go.
That's right, go to that damn reunion! If you were the one who got beat up in the locker room and thrown in the shower with your clothes on, or taunted by the other girls for wearing last year's fashions bought at J C Penney's, and you got the hell out of Dodge City the day after you graduated and never looked back, walk into that rented hotel convention room with your head held high. You'll see the captain of that football team, and the rest of the once-totally-buffed varsity-lettered prodigies, looking twenty pounds heavier. You will see the perfect little princesses who married their teenage heartthrobs (if only the ones that didn't turn out to be jerks and dump them) talking about shuffling kids to soccer practice and complaining about their husbands.
They'll greet you like you were their long-lost buddy, and why shouldn't they? They'll have the same tales to tell as you, the same trials and tribulations. All the face time they got in the yearbooks, all the accolades from fawning faculty and athletic boosters, did not spare them from the pitfalls of the human condition. You all may have come from different directions, but you all arrived at the same place.
That's when you know that everything you learned in high school, everything portrayed in those bad after-school television specials, and those obnoxious Annette Funicello movies, was wrong. Those with whom you shared a locker, and most of your adolescence (if only despite themselves), were the best friends you never thought you had.
And so, here's a Tip of the Black Hat to mine. (Somebody cue the piano.)
“Cheer, cheer, for old Rocket High!
Banded together, that is our cry.
Never leave it just for one.
Banded together, we get things done.
“Green and white are our colors true.
We have no time to be sad or blue.
For our days at M-H-S are numbered among the best.
RAH! RAH! RAH!”