Last weekend, the Class of 1989 marked 30 years since we all crossed the stage and claimed the diplomas that proclaimed us graduates of Powell High School, but I wasn’t there.
I went to my 10-year reunion, and even though I was drunk for most of it, it still stirred up all the angst that goes along with being a teenager. Funny, you’d think that 10 years would be enough time to let go of all of that, but traces of it still swirl up unbidden from some foggy room of memories in the back of my mind.
Ten years ago, I made the decision to skip our 20-year reunion. At the time, I looked back on my years in high school with more resentment than I did nostalgia, and I told myself that because I didn’t care for most of those people while I was in high school with them, two decades probably hadn’t made them any more likable.
The truth is, I’ve come to understand and accept, that I look back on the person I was … and he’s the guy I like the least. He wasn’t a bad kid, but he was a lost kid who was headed for a lot of pain and dumb decisions. High school wasn’t the greatest of times, and I look back on it with both disdain and amusement. Let’s face it: The ’80s themselves were pretty cringeworthy, but when you’re the Anthony Michael Hall character in a bad John Hughes remake who doesn’t get the girl or become cool, there’s not a lot of fondness to be found.
I’m sure there are more than a few people — the popular kids, the athletes, the attractive teens — who remember their high school years with enthusiasm and a longing to return to more carefree times. I’ve never been one of those people. I was picked on, but so were a lot of other kids. It didn’t turn me into a Columbine shooter or a kid who tortured neighborhood cats at night; it just made me anxious to do my time and get out. The way I saw at it, we were all serving a four-year sentence in a place that was at once our entire world and the thing we loathed the most.
Here’s the thing, though, as much as I felt like an outsider sometimes, as desperate as I was to not just be popular but to just fit in and be comfortable in my own skin, it was still a time of transformation and change that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced since. Not because it was better than my experiences later in life, but because it was a time of firsts — racing down Knox County backroads with a car full of friends, playing ‘80s hair metal so loud the windows rattled ... piling out of a truck bed full of friends to wrap an English teacher’s yard in toilet paper ... doing all of the things that a kid’s brain marveled over because of that newfound sense of freedom.
Is there anything more heady than doing something for the first time away from the watchful eyes of parents and authority figures that you’ve never been able to do before? Anything more exhilarating than pulling out of the family driveway, alone, behind the wheel for the first time? Anything more joyful and celebratory than discovering who you are and what you want out of life, all on your own?
Credit the hormones, the still-developing network of neurons and synapses that make up the teenage brain or just the rites of passage that go hand-in-hand with high school years — whatever it is, there’s nothing more profound than those awakenings, those moments of clarity that hit you in the gut as a teenager — those times when you realize, I’m no longer a child, when you see that adulthood and all of its responsibilities are just over the horizon, but that you still have time remaining to revel in adolescence for a while longer, blaming stupid choices on your youth, chalking up mistakes to your inexperience and relying on parents and teachers to step in and pull you back from the edge of the abyss when you get too close to losing your way.
The flip side of that is that everything you feel as a teen is multiplied by a factor of a zillion. Seriously — is there any greater heartbreak like the ones you have in high school? It’s not just depression; it feels like someone literally carved their way through your sternum and scooped out your insides with a dull spoon.
Looking back, such emotional extremes seem ridiculous to my adult mind. I’m sure I was told by adults of all ages that what I was experiencing was normal, that in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a big deal, but such rational discourse fell on deaf ears back then. To high schoolers, it’s more than just going to classes — it’s their entire universe, the place where they form attachments and relationships and opinions and tastes and likes and dislikes ... where a single comment can ruin a day, or a secret smile from a crush can cause one to hyperventilate.
It’s the end-all, be-all — at least until you get that diploma and go on with life and, before you know it, 30 years have passed. And you wonder what the big deal was, and why your younger self seems, in hindsight, so naive and, in some ways, pitiful. Me personally, I didn’t want to revisit that time of my life, to come together for a couple of hours with people — most of whom I’ve seen once over the past three decades — and compare lives. Despite what I thought back then, I don’t have to measure up to anyone’s standards or fit in to anyone’s crowd or obtain anyone’s approval.
I never thought life would turn out this way, especially not back then. I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences — then or now — or do them differently, because each frame in the parade of snapshots that is my life have led me to the person I am today.
I’m cool with that person, in a way I never could have been 30 years ago. I like who I am, and I’d rather spend a Saturday evening with my lovely wife and my three children and looking ahead instead of into the past.