My older daughter’s high school class has about 90 kids in it, which seems remarkably small to me. Her father, who also grew up in a tiny rural town, had a graduating class of just 45 kids total (stranger still, two of those 45 would later die in separate helicopter accidents). My graduating class had over 700 kids in it, and I’d like to think that back then I would have at least recognized every one of them, but it’s very likely I didn’t.
My high school building was fairly ugly in the way of 1960s urban buildings that totally lacked character, but it did have an enormous mural that greeted you right at the front entrance (this entrance was actually only used when you were coming late to school and had to fill out a late pass, and never was associated with anything positive) (The usual entrance was through the cafeteria doors in the basement).
I find it difficult to describe my high school to most people. It was a sciencey school (though you didn’t really have to be that sciencey), and you had to take a test to get into it, which meant that at a regular high school most of us would have been total outcasts, but here we found ourselves among our own kind. This now seems truly remarkable, but everyone was pretty much used to it, so it wasn’t until we were out in the real world that many of us realized how lucky we’d been. When I saw The Breakfast Club (when I was actually in high school) I couldn’t believe what ridiculous stereotypes the characters were. I did not find out until much later that they were accurate representations of regular American high school students.
High school is, for many, a torturous experience (though not as torturous as middle school, which was once perfectly summed up for me by a Matt Groening comic, in which a crowd of wickedly smiling girls stand in a circle around a lone girl, clapping and chanting, “Cry, Debbie, cry!”), and I do think of my teenage years as extremely anxious and exhausting. But I also remember other moments, moments at school (writing a 10-page paper on asbestos while listening to the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” over and over again, building my very own banjo in our sciencey version of shop class, watching a friend sit alone at the edge of the stage at the very end of a school concert, playing his guitar and singing Neil Young’s “Hurricane”), that were a kind of salvation from the craziness and misery at home.
I would never ever want to go back to that time and place, but I do recognize how it shaped me, how all my experiences there would one day make up the person I have become.
For some reason, I keep thinking of this one particular moment in high school, on just an ordinary day. I was walking down an empty hallway, heading back to my English class, probably from the bathroom. It was smack in the middle of the day, and all the classrooms were full. But I was struck by the emptiness and the quiet of the hallway, and the way the light was pouring in from the windows onto those gleaming high school floors. Just then I heard behind me, “Hey, Reyna!” I turned and saw a guy I knew way down the hallway behind me. He pulled his shirt up to his neck, flashing his chest, then pulled it back down, grinning at me. I grinned back. Then I turned around and continued to my classroom. That was high school.