Back at high school

lockersWhile I’ve heard rumors of thirty-somethings who still manage to go out and have crazy Saturday nights, I spent this past Saturday at my old high school. It was my hometown’s annual dinner and talent show event to raise money for the schools, and back in 2013, in a fit of worry that I wasn’t doing enough with my life, I joined the fundraising board. Six months later, since I apparently still had free time I wished to part with, I accepted the position of a committee chair. And so there I was, after a morning spent at obedience class for my dog, workshopping stories with some fellow writers, and working in my yard—you know, adult things—I reentered the halls of my youth.

Pulling into the parking lot alone was surreal, though the fact that I was early and got a decent parking spot dampened that feeling somewhat. And then there were the signs on the doors instructing parents and visitors, for the safety of the students, to check in with the office: a change since I went to school there. But then I was through the doors and hit with the faint yet familiar smells of chlorine from the nearby pool. It was the same, and yet not the same at all.

In many ways, I know that despite the changes to the building, to the policies and procedures endured by current students, it’s me who has truly changed. There’s a plaque on the wall near the entrance that has my name on it to commemorate my soccer successes, but the girl the school has held onto in its memory is so far gone from me that she might as well be one of the characters I write about in my stories. She was paralyzed with shyness, she let others tell her who she was. And let’s be honest—her fashion sense makes the today version of me look like a supermodel. (Of course, the then-me was also in way better shape, but that’s a completely different issue, one that I don’t find unconnected to my choice of becoming a writer and a professor.)

People started to arrive about fifteen minutes after I got there, and when we finally opened the doors to the dinner portion of the event—thirteen local restaurants who gave out samples of their food—there were enough attendees that the ticket line quickly grew to twenty, thirty, forty people. I say people, but in reality, most of them were students at that point (still people, obviously, but people of a particular type). I approached a large group of them at the back of the line—something I never would have done when I myself was a student, even had I known them—and directed them toward the second table selling tickets. Look at me, I thought. I’m helping. I’m taking charge. In that moment, I was someone the school never would have recognized, and I felt the weight of that place break. I felt it release me from its grip.

But then I realized that the students were just staring at me. Not a single person moved.

“No?” I said. “No one? There’s another table down there.” I pointed over my shoulder at the second table. It was in plain sight, maybe twenty yards away, and there wasn’t a single person in line.

“Is there?” one girl asked, skepticism heavy in her voice. She hadn’t even bothered to look.

“Yeah, there is,” I said. “I know there is. I work here.”

Still the girl hesitated. I shrugged and walked away, trying to play it cool, trying to pretend as if I weren’t embarrassed at how I had just failed at taking on the role of adult to this girl who was half my age. I exist in a strange place to these students, somewhere in between peer and adult with real authority, and when that girl looked at me with eyes that didn’t know how to place me, with eyes that dismissed, I felt my sixteen-year-old self creep back up on me, as if she’d been lurking in that building for years, just waiting for me to reappear, to remind me that I might be able to change and grow but that I will always carry a piece of her around with me.

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After enjoying my own sampling of the foods the restaurants had provided, I started getting the competing students ready for the talent show portion of the evening. My job was to escort the students, of all grades, from the waiting room to backstage. I had to find the volunteers in charge of check-in, round up the necessary performers in groups of two to four acts, take them to the hallway leading to the backstage area, keep them quiet while other students sang, played, or danced, then move them to their positions backstage in show order. It sounds like a lot, but most of my time was spent standing around with the students in the hallway, sometimes giving a whispered pep talk, sometimes just having quiet conversations while they waited.

The event is arranged so that the youngest performers go first and the high schoolers go last, and the first hour or so was easy. These kids took everything I said seriously and gave me high fives after their acts. To children that age, I am the authority. To them, I am an adult and even, likely, old. Those students could place me, and so I could place myself. I fell into a rhythm, trusting myself to solve problems as they arose (a late accompanist, two students who weren’t in the waiting room when they were supposed to be, etc.), but the whole time I was dreading what would happen when I was once again faced with the high school students.

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If this were a story, this would be the big important scene, the moment in which the character, faced with the moment of struggle and change, either takes a step forward into a new version of herself or turns away from the future and decides to stay the same. For me, nothing so monumental happened. I found the students, took them backstage, and…and nothing. Everything was fine. Some of them didn’t really listen to what I said, but they also ignored the tech director, the stage manager…pretty much everyone. I shrugged and let them go.

Then afterward, once the event was done and I’d left the high school looming in my rearview mirror but pointedly determined to not look back at it, I decided to reclaim my Saturday night. I might be a thirty-year-old who often chooses extra work over socialization, but that just meant the drink I went out for was very hard-earned.

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