Finishing Strong

“A long time ago we used to be friends, but I, haven’t thought of you lately at all.” The Dandy Warhols
“Is it too late, tonight, to drag the past out into the light?” U2

I recently attended my 25 year high school reunion. I know. It’s hard to believe the champ here could be old enough to graduate from HIGH SCHOOL all those years ago. You might be thinking I was some kind of savant with a pituitary problem who graduated at age 9 or something like that, and you would be forgiven for thinking such a thing. But in truth I went through the 12 grades like everyone else, no different from George Clooney or Justin Trudeau.

Don’t worry, everyone. I’m not about to write two awkward blog posts in a row. I mean, not INTENTIONALLY. They all have the taint of awkwardness, I guess, whenever I dredge up the past and put it on display like a fish in Pike Place Market. But unlike Pike Place Market, I shan’t grab the past and toss it to my colleague for the amusement of tourists. No, once I’ve caught the past fish, I shall merely gut it, fry it, and serve it to you, my loyal audience of readers and commentators.

So, how did we get to this reunion?

A couple of organized former classmates tried to do something for our 20th anniversary, but I really don’t think anything happened. I mean, something MAY have happened, but I didn’t go. I think at the time I thought myself rather witty when I told people that anyone who I really cared to see from high school I still see, so what’s the point? (and then I pranced off, Oscar Wilde style, to the titters of the room).

Well, five years is a long time, and in that time I have become sentimental and even though I know nostalgia is the most toxic impulse, I also know that Big Macs aren’t good for me but guess what? Sometimes I just wanna eat one of those greasy motherfuckers, and so too did I feel like attending this high school reunion, and reader? I did.

I may have covered this ground before, but bear with.

My high school was made up of three streams. Trois Riverieres, for our francophone friends who are struggling with the google translator. The first stream was the normals. These were the neighbourhood kids who lived close to the school and for whom the school board couldn’t really justify NOT having attend. There wasn’t anything special about this group, by the way, unless you consider proximity special. The next group was the nerds. These kids were enrolled in some kind of advanced internationally recognized academic program, and were bussed in from richer neighbourhoods just because their parents thought our high school had a good reputation. The third group was the French Immersions, or “Frogs” as they came to be known by the normals. (I know: racist, but what did we know then?) They too, were mostly made up of kids “from away”. It was a real S.E. Hinton situation, everyone. (I just made an S.E. Hinton ref you guys, and I’ve never read or seen The Outsiders or Rumble Fish, although I just listened to Sophia Coppola on Marc Maron’s podcast and they spent QUITE SOME TIME talking about Rumble Fish so now I want to watch it and see if my S.E.. Hinton ref here makes any sense at all. Maybe I should stick with what I know). It was a real John Hughes situation you guys. #saveferris

These three groups really kept to themselves, with the exception of things like band, choir, and sports. You OCCASSIONALLY got some kid that was in French immersion, who was also in the smart class, and who lived nearby, but I don’t think they encouraged that kind of engagement. Just like Anita’s advice from West Side Story, we kept to our own kind.

I was in the normals group. I’m pretty sure I was smart enough for the “nerd” group, and I remember my parents having a meeting with the principal before I started high school in which the school was encouraging them to enroll me in the smart program, but they refused. They didn’t think it was normal for a high school kid to be studying all the time, and wanted me to have a more “well-rounded” experience. If by “well-rounded” they meant me reading a lot of comic books, watching movies, buying beer underage, and riding my bike around the neighbourhood a whole lot, then I guess they succeeded.

I didn’t have a bad high school experience, I don’t think. I mean, aside from my Dad dying at the end of Grade 11. That was pretty much the worst thing that could happen. But I mean, aside from that, I had a pretty good time in those three years. I had my small circle of friends, made up mostly of the same small circle of friends I had all the way through from elementary school. I wasn’t particularly popular, but I also wasn’t ever bullied or felt excluded from anything. I just did my thing and was happy to be able to do it.

After high school, I still saw some of my high school friends. They just became my “friends” at that point. I didn’t really make a lot of new friends at university. Sure, I met my future wife at university and that was great, but you know what I mean. I didn’t ditch the old crew for a new crew. We just kept things going. Some moved away, or had kids, or got married, all of which made it more difficult to stay close. By the time my late 20s became my early 30’s, my world had shrunk a bit, socially. I was working full-time with people I liked, but not necessarily with people I would hang out with after work. I filled my days with “grown-up stuff”, like grocery shopping and lawn cutting. Gone were the days of just calling someone up and inviting them over, or spontaneously going over to someone’s place to watch a ball game or rent a movie. I shouldn’t say, “gone” like it never happened, but it certainly happened less frequently than before. I had become an adult against my will!

Between graduation and now, our high school was sold off and torn down to make room for condos, which further removed us from our childhood experience. We would never be able to walk our old hallways, visit our band and choir room, or look for our class photos on the walls. That time of our lives faded into the background of our collective memory, and life chugged along.

It wasn’t really until our daughter was born that we made friends with a whole new group of people connected to our new neighbourhood. I was NOT expecting that to happen. To connect with a whole new group when you are already in your mid-30s was really great, and it just goes to show you never know what’s around the corner. Life moves on, and new relationships form and old ones fade and some continue but others don’t. That’s a bit long for a t-shirt, unless you used a really small font. I hadn’t really thought about high school and the people with whom I went through it in a long time.

And so it was quite a shock to be in the same room with all (or most!) of these people again. I knew that one of our classmates was currently in jail for an assault on a senior citizen, so I knew two things. First: THAT guy wasn’t going to be there, and second: I knew that as confused and mixed-up as my life may seem to me right now, at least I wasn’t in jail.

You hear stories about people attending their high school reunions, and how all of the old cliques and rivalries and grudges disappear and everyone just catches up and has fun. At least that’s what my cousin told me, who recently attended her 40th high school reunion. She was a bit worried about the whole thing, because in high school she was not “out” as a gay person, and wondered how being back with all those old friends and teachers would feel to her. It turned out to be a great experience for her, but the biggest shock for her was seeing people who looked like her old friends’ Moms and Dads, but it actually turned out to be her friends, with 40 years of life experience attached.

That wasn’t really my experience. Our three groups, mentioned at the top of this post, pretty much stuck to their corners for the whole night, which was fine with me. I mean, they didn’t talk to us during the three years of high school, so what would we really have to say to each other now? In a way, there were three mini-reunions happening in the same room that night. The biggest surprise to me was that it wasn’t just a high school reunion. Considering that most of my group went all the way through school together from kindergarten right on up, it was more of a “the first 18 years of your life” reunion, which suddenly became overwhelming to me. These were people who knew me before I really knew who I was. If I were a Broadway show, these people saw me in workshops in regional theatres years before I made it to the bright lights. They saw the worst of me and still loved me. They brought out the best in me, too. I couldn’t fool them if I tried, and I wouldn’t try. It just felt good to be around these people again, to feel that shared energy forged on the mean streets of St. James.

There were albums of old photos. Was I really ever that skinny? I had George Michael hair! Why did I have my pants off in that one pic? Who’s basement was that? There was one picture of me at grad with my then girlfriend beside me and MORE THAN ONE person came up to me to ask who that person was. THIS WAS MY GIRLFRIEND FOR MOST OF GRADE 12 AND TWO YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL and yet nobody seemed to remember her. It probably didn’t help that she was a grade younger than me, but STILL. Erased from people’s memories, just like our high school itself. Did she even exist at all? I caught up briefly with ANOTHER ex-girlfriend, my first “real” girlfriend from my jr high days. (It sounds like I was some kind of PLAYER in school, but I really wasn’t. At least I don’t think I was. Was I?) It was good to see her again, and to hear what she is up to now. She was another piece of the puzzle that I didn’t know was missing until I was reminded.

As I mentioned earlier, my Dad died unexpectedly at the end of grade 11 and that became the dominant narrative of high school for me (and for many of my close friends). That event over-shadowed not only the rest of high school, but also oddly enough cast a dark cloud over the years that came before. It was my personal 9/11. In the years since, what became lost to me were all the little excellent little things that happened on a daily basis that I honestly forgot about. Little anecdotes about our daily life, or other classmates, or teachers, or our friends’ parents that would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for this exercise in group remembering. We all remembered little pieces of our public school experience, and over the course of the evening began to weave a memory mosaic that was mostly warm and comforting, yet flecked with remorse and even some regret.

It all came back to the surface.

Memories of my first real love, of lazy afternoons in the summer with my friends, comic book shop runs, of adventures at house parties, of the thrill of skipping class and having a day out, of goofy pranks, like the time I was called down to the principal’s office to pick up a package and it turned out to be a container filled with bras and panties. (I finally found out that night who was the mastermind of it and it was NOT WHO I EXPECTED), of big ideas and grand failures (we talked a bit about the notorious Pippin production that never was), of broken hearts and stupid grudges and weaving through it all was the real sense that at one time this group of ours was tight-knit and showed up for each other in all the ups and downs that happen between childhood and adulthood.

The reunion started at 7 pm and I didn’t get home until after 2 am, and it felt like I was there for an hour.

We all made assurances that we wouldn’t let another 25 years go by before we gathered again, and even though I’m sure that was what you were supposed to say to be polite, I really really wanted to believe it to be true, and I hope that a group of us can try to connect again before the summer is out. These people were my people. They helped shape who I am today, so you can either credit or blame them, as you see fit.

Every year the annual marathon makes it way past our house on Father’s Day. And every year since my daughter has been around, the two of us have gone out to check it out. The first year she was just a couple of months old and I took her around in her stroller. We did it again this year and a common encouragement that marathoners seem to say to each other is “Finish Strong”. At least this was being shouted by people in the crowd, and the runners seemed to acknowledge it. I liked it. It suggested that no matter what came before, you can still end well, and that maybe the best is yet to come. I took that sentiment to heart in Grade 12, when I realized that it was my last chance to really do the “high school experience” right, so I really came out of my shell and got involved. I was on the student council at the grade 12 rep (which sounded good but really included very few responsibilities), I was on the basketball team (although I’m not sure if I ever was in a game), I was in the high school play (although not the lead as I was supposed to be the year before), I submitted a cartoon to the school yearbook (which was rejected on account of it being “too vulgar”), I was in band and choir (baritone and 2nd clarinet respectively!), which resulted in a European trip at the end of it all, and I think I even encouraged the school to adopt a recycling program as president of the environment club (but was met with red tape). I really Max Fischererd it up. I was happy to be given what felt like a last chance to get things right.

And so too with this reunion business. I was rattled after it, and am probably still processing some of the emotions that were brought to the surface, but the overarching emotion I feel is gratitude. Gratitude that I am actually here, alive, and living a pretty great life, despite all its ambiguity and messiness. Grateful for my wife and daughter who provide daily reminders that life should be fun, first and foremost, but will give me space when it clearly is not. Grateful for the hashtag #onward and for looking to the future. Grateful for that rough-housed pillar of strength that is my Mom who out of sheer will and stubbornness is living her best life and is a constant source of inspiration. Grateful for my wonderful current circle of friends who support, love and encourage me, and for whom I hope they know I do the same for them. Grateful for the memories of a childhood well lived and for those who lived it with me. And grateful that I am not in jail for assaulting a senior citizen.

I guess this is just all to say that despite what’s happened, despite where we are at, we all have the potential to finish strong. Finish Strong. And you can fit THAT on a t-shirt.


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