Mostly, the thing I really hated about High School was that it didn’t really prepare anyone for anything. The twelve years of public school in general was little more than day care and cliques. The kids had a really good idea whose parents could afford new clothes and whose couldn’t, as well as those who could afford cars, trucks, and toys. There wasn’t any sort of culmination of learning at the end, some ceremony that sought to spotlight or highlight what we achieved as a group. Yes, there was a graduation ceremony but what was that but a signaling of the end of nothing? Few, a very few, of the now young men and women might go on to four years of stress and boredom in a college, but at the end of their lives they would have the same size plot in a local cemetery as the town drunk they had spent their high school days with, fifty years ago, if they’re lucky.
It’s been forty years for me now. Over fifty years since that first day of the first grade where I had a vague sense of impending doom. It’s hard to reconcile the idea that twelve years of my life was spent in what amounts to prison and the ideal that there’s a way to herd very young humans, en masse, into square rooms where bored and frustrated older humans can conjure a future through rote memorization and physical punishment. There’s really no way to ever undo the damage that time in the public school system did, but alcohol seems to help sometimes. After all, that is where most of us learned to drink.
One of the really odd things that came out of that system, other than poor coping skills and substance abuse issues, was the use of a word, “tardy”, which otherwise might have allowed that term to slip wholly and quietly, and thankfully, into oblivion. It began in the first grade, because one of the few things they knew how to teach was punctuality. It was important, vital, life-threateningly so, for students, such as they were, not do anything with their time, limited as it really is, to do anything but get from one class to another. Being late was a terrible thing. A student would need to get his or her parents to write a short letter, “a note from your parents” excusing the tardy. Tardy. The word seems alien, archaic, and even foreign now. Tardy has given entire American generations the vague sense or false urgency they should be somewhere at a very certain time, and there should be some display of anger when this doesn’t happen. Quite possibly, this essay in the first time I’ve seen that word used in forty years. After everything they did to me, the fact that I was tardy sometimes meant nothing at all. Most of what they did meant less.
I hope to never return to the scene of the crimes. Thanks to Google Earth, I can sit here and look at the building I spent four years in forty years ago, and wonder if it’s the same building. I truly cannot remember. It’s in the same place, but there’s nothing there that signals to me this is the same structure. It might be. It might not be. But other than being referenced here, it doesn’t really matter, does it? It was where I was from the middle to the tardy seventies, and unlike some of the people who were there with me, I never went back for any reason. There was no reason. There could be none. High School was just a different building in a different place than the other two schools. The bricks were different in they were simply laid somewhere else than other bricks, and the very same thing might have been said about the people who worked there and those forced to attend.
There was a period of time in our lives where the question, “When did you graduate?” was de rigueur when meeting someone new. But then it became less and less relevant, or maybe we all just realized it never was. There was the first job, and then another after that event, and then another, and suddenly someone was calling and talking about a ten year reunion and then there was another job, and another, and failed marriage or three, and then there was talk about thirty-five years having slipped away and finally forty. It’s hard to imagine getting all forty classes of former inmates together at the same time, and even stranger to consider that every fourth class wouldn’t have served time with anyone from five classes up or down the scale. The system that put us all in the same place, at the same time, gave us unlimited access to the same people for twelve years of our lives, but at the same time, limited us in who we would know afterwards. Not that it matters, one way or another, mind you, I just thought it strange.
I used to walk to school, mostly, and I’d short cut through the cemetery to school, and smoke pot there. The cemetery was closed at that time of day and there was no one else, alive, but me. I knew people buried there, and my grandmother is buried there right now. There’s very likely people I went to high school with, buried under a granite slab, having never reached escape velocity in life, they won’t achieve freedom in death. The odds, remarkably, were exactly the same living or dead, but they never realized it, or cared.
Many a morning, early, I would stand at the fence in the back of the cemetery and wonder why. I wondered if it would really ever end, and I knew from reading the tombstones that it end, everything ended, always, for everyone, everywhere, and no one ever got out alive. The seething and the simple, the angry and the dull, the hopeful and the lost, all were packed into the same building, and one day, most would wind up on the other side of that fence. The trip would be short, unremarkable, and mostly forgotten, by those lining up to get in next.
There’s a sense of reverence, a feeling of quiet respect for the dead, a feeling I lost a long time ago, many years since I last took a short cut through the graveyard, and made my way to another form of the same idea of putting all the dying in the same building. Some people still have it, some demand it of others, and as a culture we still want there to be some dignity or meaning after the body ceases to function. And some still have some sort of feelings of happy nostalgia when they think of their High School years, too.
This is all I have left for that time, those years, and it’s all there will ever be. I’ll never go back, never want to, and I’ll never be buried in the cemetery on the other side of that fence. Fifty years will have passed, in a decade, and by that time, me, and a few survivors will bat around invitations like a cat knocking around a beer cap on the floor. For as much the same reasons, and with the same sense of purpose, I imagine.