If my preteen years left me feeling marginalized and uncomfortable in my own skin, adding the typical teenage angst didn’t help. The summer of 1985 became the fork in the road that set the tone for the next decade of my life – letting go of the past and wandering aimlessly into an uncertain future searching for something that I didn’t quite understand. It all began with a celebration and the false promise of a new beginning.
The long road to graduating from eighth grade ended with the usual hoopla assigned to such significant milestones. After eight years of being with essentially the same people every day, we were going to a larger school where we’d inevitably go our separate ways. It was both exhilarating and sad, but mostly sad because we’d no longer be together as we spun off into our different cliques and joined new ones, our identity pulled apart at the seams and reformulated into something we didn’t recognize. The change scared me.
At the end of the last day of elementary school, I took that tentative first step onto the bus for the final ride home. One of my favorite coaches, Coach Hetherington, joined us on the bus, and we all gathered at the back to reminisce and talk about the future. Coach had the physique of a football lineman that would intimidate most people, but to us, he exuded a cool demeanor that had captivated us for much of the time he was at our school. He had a big, hearty laugh, and talking to him felt more like talking to an older friend than some of our more authoritarian teachers, so having him on the bus gave us a sense of celebration rather than oversight.
The animated conversations bounced around the back of the bus as, one by one, classmates and friends said goodbye and stepped off the bus into the future. It felt like we were all being called to the slaughterhouse, otherwise known as high school. When my stop arrived, I said goodbye to Coach and the few remaining friends on the bus and rumbled down the steps with a lump in my throat.
I didn’t spend my summer in despair; although, I did over-play Simple Mind’s Don’t You Forget About Me that year. We had one last hurrah, my friends and I, when we went on a camping trip to celebrate the beginning of summer break. It was the last time we were all together in the group that defined us then. That camping trip, along the banks of the meager creek two miles from my house, remains one of my fondest memories of the guys I went to school with at Macedonia Elementary School. In my memory, it is probably greater than it actually was, but it put an exclamation point on on the waning days of boyhood.
High school began in the fall, and by the time I learned where my locker was, things had changed dramatically. Familiar faces segued into the mass of unfamiliarity. While my old school had a single hallway right down the gut of the building, my new school had many buildings with similarly dim hallways. Like Macedonia, Cherokee High School was a depressing relic from the 1950s. If the logistics were disorienting, the flood of new people was disconcerting. My homeroom felt nothing like the name implied. My first big dose of change felt overwhelming, but what was left of my small group of friends from Macedonia kept me grounded, at least for the time being.
In all of that chaos, an element of hope emerged. I could feel the charge of a new beginning, a chance to redefine who I was and expand my experience beyond the tiny world I had been trapped in for so long. There was some truth to that, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. In the end, high school was largely disappointing, a forced experience that left me bursting at the seams to escape four years later.
The sad part is that high school didn’t leave me feeling optimistic. If anything, it only magnified the dissonance that had grown ever-present in my mind. It laid bare the ugliness that hid in plain sight around me. By the time I stood on the football field four years later and tossed my mortarboard high into the air, it felt more like the end of a prison sentence than the end of a rewarding, academic slog. My dad had told me that my high school years would be the best of my life because that’s all he had known. He hadn’t seen much beyond ninth grade. If that had been true, I would have been sorely disappointed. Thankfully, my life was just beginning, and the best, although more than a decade into the future, was yet to come.