I tell people that my high school years were like a television show, but I know they don’t believe me. It’s true, though: there were almost 600 kids in my graduating class, which is enough people to shake out over four years into definite strata. There were the popular kids who ate lunch in the cafeteria and got voted for homeroom representative and class office. There was the art club and the Latin club and yearbook staff; there were the band geeks and the drama freaks. There were the back-porchers, a trenchcoat mafia of the likes that would not be tolerated in this day and age. There were the jocks, the vocational students, and the nerds. At the pep rallies, one could almost draw an imperceptible line between the black kids and the white kids.
A few of us bridged gaps between one group or another, but nobody touched them all. On our first day at Spring Valley High, Casey’s mom told her that she should try her best not to have a label. It was the first of many impossible dreams our parents had for us…dreams shadowed only by the delusions of grandeur we created for ourselves.
Several middle schools all funneled into Spring Valley. There were five of us: Margo and Casey and I came from E. L. Wright, Josh and Chris from Bethel Hanberry. Our paths had crossed briefly before on ALERT trips (ALERT being the special class the smart kids got to attend once a week), and we all fluttered around a bit Freshman year getting our bearings before we succumbed to the inevitable like points on a star, or fingers on a hand. Josh was the late bloomer, the hyperactive athlete. Chris was the sensitive artist and poet. Margo was the vibrant actress, the go-getter. Casey was the blonde cheerleader, the naïve optimist with the brilliant smile. I was her dark half, her shadow, her heart. I smiled too, despite being convinced that no one noticed me. I was the writer.
For four years, we shared classes, secrets, and fantasies. We copied each other’s homework outside the drama room door in the wee hours before school started. We created worlds and wrote novels together. We passed enough notes to kill a rainforest. We had so many inside jokes that we unerringly cultivated a language all our own. We sat on the grass at lunchtime, by the big rock (or sometimes on it), and we laughed until our sides hurt. We challenged each other to be the funniest, the best, the brightest. We commiserated when somebody’s mother or teacher went psycho, as mothers and teachers are wont to do. We went to the prom, we watched movies until dawn, we swam in the lake, we sang in the car, we forged notes to get out of class, and we all skipped the senior assembly.
I was a good kid. Too good. I did all my work–albeit at the last possible minute–and I didn’t get in trouble. I didn’t break rules. I was too protective of my genius brain cells to get drunk or do drugs. I wasn’t brave enough to go goth, or dye my hair pink. My single, solitary act of teenage rebellion happened the instant that my mother told me that one never kept ones friends from high school. “You make your real friends in college,” she said. And the thought of losing the people that I loved most in the world hurt so much that I refused to let it be true.
Thankfully, the early 90’s saw the advent of the internet, and social sites like AOL ushered in an age where, with a small amount of maintenance, you could keep track of the friends you didn’t want to let go. Chris got married, had a kid, and stayed in Columbia. Casey went to graduate school at UT, got married, and went on to become an English professor. Margo finally hooked up with Matt Appenzeller, my third grade partner-in-crime who had held a torch for her ever since E.L. Wright (a torch as bright as the one we’d all held for Erik Younginer in those days). Josh went to France, and I lost him when he came back to the States. It haunted me, so much so that I’d have a dream about him every six months, and every six months I’d resume my search for him. I put my name and information on all sorts of former classmate sites. I went so far as to contact his thesis advisor at Georgia Tech, but other than the name of an international corporation, the trail was cold.
The ten-year anniversary of our graduation date came and went without fanfare. There would be no reunion, no chance of reuniting there. In the eleventh year, I started keeping a blog. In the twelfth year, Josh just happened to drop by and comment on an entry. Hoping against hope, I sent a brief, excited email to the address the blog had forced him to leave behind. Like magic, he answered. And I stopped having the dreams.
In the fourteenth year, I received an email from someone I hadn’t thought of since 1993, addressed to a laundry list of people I never thought I’d see again. Brad had scooped up all the names off those classmate websites, and broke the ice by announcing our fifteen-year reunion.
Like hell I was going to go. It took a MySpace conversation between me and Mahesh and Ben Green to sway me to the other side, so I went ahead and bought my ticket before the advertised price increase. I sent out an email to Casey and Margo and Josh and Chris with my intentions. There was a lukewarm ho-hum response. And when the email finally came around with the very short list of people who had confirmed and I was the only one on it, my request turned into a demand–something along the lines of “Don’t you dare leave me alone with all these people!” And they didn’t.
Chris was overjoyed that we were all finally coming back to Columbia. Margo drove to her mother’s house with her daughter Mia, and Dr. Matt flew there straight from Cincinnati after making his rounds. Josh flew into Nashville from Houston and drove with me to Charlotte to visit Casey and Todd and the kids on the way to his grandmother’s house in Blythewood.
After all that time and all those years and all that searching, the first telephone conversation Josh and I had in about thirteen years went something like this:
“The monitor here says your plane’s arrived. Where the heck are you?”
“Walking off it,” said Josh.
As conversations go, that’s not a bad one to have.
—TO BE CONTINUED—