‘It was the best of times, it was the end of times’
I was only in Heritage High School for about an hour, but it all came rushing back.
Twenty-five years ago, I entered the halls of Powell High School for my senior year, taking my place in the inexorable final march toward adulthood. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck on that Sage Francis song I mentioned in last week’s column — “Best of Times,” from his acclaimed “Li(f)e” album — or maybe it’s because high school is a time machine, regardless of your age, but I found myself thinking of my senior year and all of the people with whom I shared it.
Like it is for a lot of kids, high school was an unremarkable time for me. Back then, social castes were much more prominent than they seem to be today, and if you didn’t fit into one of them, you found yourself on the fringes of high school society. I clearly wasn’t a jock, like the boys on the football and basketball teams, the guys who wore their letterman jackets like decorated war veterans. It was a big deal for a girlfriend to get to wear her boyfriend’s letterman jacket, and those girls seemed to float through the halls like royalty, as if under some sort of protective spell.
The jocks were at the top of that social strata, and while they didn’t exactly run the school — Powell athletics weren’t exactly as legendary as those at Alcoa and Maryville — but they walked with a certain swagger, free from the fear that those beneath them lived with every day. They set the tone, defined the trends, decided who was worthy and who was not. They weren’t bullies, per se; most of them were good dudes and friends of mine, at least in the sense that they weren’t mortified to be seen talking to me in the halls or in class.
On the other end of the spectrum were the guys (and the occasional girl) we called “hoods.” Today they’d be considered punk or goth, but back then they listened to metal and drove muscle cars and smoked cigarettes at a hamburger stand next to campus. They didn’t care for rules, social or otherwise, and their rebellious attitudes were the envy of guys like me, who couldn’t stand out athletically but had too much respect for authority to truly rebel.
The rest of us fell somewhere in the middle. The band kids stuck together and were respected for the spirit they brought to games and pep rallies, as well as the fact they seemed to have more fun than anybody with post-game parties at Pizza Hut and trips to competitions on the weekends. The nerds — and, truth be told, I probably belonged more to that clique than any other — did things like Mock Trial or Academic Decathalon; we worked on the yearbook and took honors classes; we had the respect of teachers and a grudging amount of it from our classmates, as long as it suited their academic needs.
In hindsight, high school was a pit stop on the road of my life, which juxtaposes weirdly with how it felt back then. While in the thick of it, it was the end-all, be-all of my young existence. My family could never afford the right clothes or shoes, and while it seems like no big deal now, I remember clearly being ashamed that the Polo shirt I wore was a knock-off instead of the real thing. If they weren’t Nikes, I thought at the time, I might as well have been wearing Coke bottles tied to my feet with strips of a shirt like some hapless orphan in Africa, and when I got old enough to get a job and buy the things that weren’t necessary for anything save my own ego, I rejoiced.
I still remember graduation day, and how the classmate sitting next to me — Vikki Wilkins, because we sat in alphabetical order — wept because high school was over, and being a cheerleader and one of the popular girls, she was distraught. For those at the top of the pecking order, life would probably never again put them in a position of ease and comfort.
Me, I rejoiced. Walking out of that place felt like freedom, and attending college that fall felt like the true beginning of my life.
In the years since, I’ve managed to put high school in perspective. It was four years that seemed like an eternity, not nearly as big of a deal in the grand scheme of things as it felt at the time ... yet it still has its hooks in my memory and in some part of my psyche.
I went back to my 10-year reunion, but I was drunk a lot back then, so I don’t remember much of it, other than being around those old classmates pretty much felt the same. The fake niceties were on full display, and we all pretended like we were much more happy to see one another than we actually were, which is why I skipped my 20-year reunion and have no real plans to ever go back.
I didn’t hate high school, but neither did I love it. And I wonder how it’ll shape and mold my own son when he gets there. Has it changed that much? Probably not, judging from the feeling I got this week at Heritage. And so I’ll probably play him that Sage Francis song, and hope that he gets the message today more so than I did back then:
“Don’t listen when they tell you that these are your best years, don’t let anybody protect your ears / it’s best that you hear what they don’t want you to hear; it’s better to have pressure from peers than not have peers / beer won’t give you chest hair, spicy food won’t make it curl / when you think you’ve got it all figured out and then everything collapse — trust me, kid, it’s not the end of the world.”
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at 981-1144.