When asked, I always tell people that I have wildly ambivalent feelings about high school. It’s not that I have neutral or indifferent emotions regarding my time. Quite the contrary. I tend to have super-intense memories that really run the gamut of the emotional spectrum.
That said, it was only about a year or two ago that I stopped extended my middle finger out the window every time I drove by our Coldwater Canyon campus. Which was practically every day. So it is eminently possible that I’m using the word “ambivalent” incorrectly.
Now in my alma mater’s defense, it knew what it was long before I arrived there, super shy, preternaturally sensitive, with self-esteem that you needed negative integers to measure. (Yes, yes, that is all code for slender-hipped Jewish boy with inferior sinuses.)
On the other hand, this was an almost century-old, all boys, Episcopalian school with mandatory chapel. More importantly, it had only within the last decade shifted from being a military academy and a boarding school. And it unquestionably still had the vibe of an English prep school, with its “boys will be boys” laissez-faire ethos when it came to male-on-male violence and the casual use of “fag” instead of anyone’s name. For instance, when they showed us the movie Lord of the Flies in seventh grade, half the class saw it as a how-to for future bullying tactics. And half saw it as a verite documentary of our middle school experience up to that point.
Maybe some people thrived. Maybe some people strutted in with their boat shoes and Gentile privilege. For me (and I was likely an extreme case), much of high school, certainly the early years, were about keeping your head down and assiduously avoiding doing anything to call attention to yourself, for fear of ending up in the trunk of a senior’s four-door sedan.
So, if you had told me that 33 years after graduation, that I’d not only be attending an informal deli dinner with my class of ‘84 schoolmates, but the one inviting them, I’d have thought you were mad. Mad, I say! And yet, there I was last week, going through my contacts, messaging old classmates with the ferocity and intensity of a precinct boss the night before a nail-biter election.
And had you told most of my classmates that I’d be calling, most would likely have responded with “who?” or “that slender-hipped Jewish fella with the iffy sinuses?” Because I was truly a non-entity. For instance, I think I just spoke more words in this sentence than I did at school from seventh to ninth grade.
But I did. I didn’t organize the dinner, per se. But somehow I felt compelled to spread the word. To make sure that people who weren’t invited to previous, smaller gatherings knew about this one. To ensure that no one felt left out. And mostly, and I felt this urge a lot over the holidays, to surround myself with people who meant a lot to me at a very meaningful time in my life.
Maybe it’s a function of age. Maybe it’s a function of having lost a bunch of friends this past year. But this dinner felt important to me. And not just because chopped liver was mentioned as a possible appetizer for the table.
I’ll be honest (for a change), I had a quarter Xanax while waiting at the Starbucks next door. These people all knew me at a time, especially the middle school years, that I don’t regard as me at my best.
But to cut to the chase, the dinner was awesome. And not just because I shoved down my feelings with pastrami on challah with Russian dressing. 15 guys showed up to Nate n’ Al’s with very little notice on a Wednesday night. And everyone was terrific. They were all nice kids when I knew them. And they’ve all become even better men.
There were some guys who make movies. And one guy who had a movie made about him. But everyone there has done interesting things. And everyone there struggles with the same issues of time passage and aging that I do. No one seemed immune to mortgages or college tuition anxiety or the daily crush of lower lumbar pain.
And people were shockingly candid. Especially those who I would've said loved everything about their teen years until they told me otherwise. Just hearing other people’s ambivalence has helped me make peace with my own coming of age.
Standing there at Nate n’ Al’s felt a little like being in the pool from Cocoon. As long as I stayed inside, I felt like I was 15 years old again. And then when I stepped outside I remembered “fuck, I’m still old.” That and there’s a strong chance that Wilford Brimley was sitting at the next table. Or better yet, a man I’d want to cast as a Wilford Brimley imitator.
Eventually, we all said our goodbyes and it seemed like people had a genuinely nice time. I can’t say with absolute moral certainty that anyone thought about the dinner as much as I did. It’s possible no one else had ascribed as much meaning as me. Perhaps there are those who simply enjoy old friends and potato salad and are fine heading back to their actual life. And that’s terrific.
For me, I love that high school is no longer a place of regret in my memory. I wish I had been more “myself,” but truth be told, I really started to be around tenth grade. Besides, if you are your best self in eighth grade, you might be settling yourself up for a long decline into adulthood. I’m glad I left myself a ton of wiggle room.
Furthermore, I love that I can’t wait to see “the guys” again. We already have more requests to join the next outing. And perhaps, most importantly, I”m now totally comfortable sharing, in words, that an event like last Wednesday’s has meaning for me. If there’s one hallmark of attending an all boys academy, it’s that outward signs of emotion, good or bad, were to be avoided like the plague. But I’m in my fifties. I’ve lost parents and I’ve lost friends. If someone still wants to call me a “fag” for having a voice, that’s on them, not me.
The truth is, I like where I am now. It’s only taken 33 and a half years. But I’m really starting to enjoy high school.