One of the things I love about my job is the way it thrusts me into new situations and expects me to quickly become an expert on said circumstance.
But then there are days like today, when I’m called to go to Warren High School to take a picture of a haunted house the choir has assembled as a fundraiser, and something unexpected hits me, leaving me the rest of the day wondering how I had not seen it coming, how some little nuance leaves me with Big Questions and Universal Feelings.
How it’s only been 10 short years, and I sometimes find myself envying high school students.
The coffin was to be delivered by 3, and so was I in order to get an”action” shot of some students unloading the coffin and setting it up for the haunted house.
I didn’t think much about returning to my “old stomping grounds,” on the scenic drive out 550. I was preoccupied with the orange and the burgundy and the yellow sun-kissed burnt leaves to think ahead.
My windows were slightly open, and a cool autumn breeze slipped in through the cracks and under my sweater’s edges, refreshing me from my Monday morning funk. And also I had just been to the school campus last week for a Scary Stories workshop at Barlow-Vincent Elementary, and had played an alumni soccer game there just over a two months ago. Why would today be any different?
I parked my car in front of the cafeteria and walked into the principal’s office to sign in as a visitor. An office worker whom I recognized gave me directions on signing in and began to tell me how to get to Mrs. Nuzum’s classroom. She must not have remembered me — and why not? Had I not caused enough consternation during my days here? Had there not been weeks when my parents became so exasperated with my constant unruly behavior and detentions that they threatened to send me to a Christian school?
“You’re in building 4 now,” the office aide said and began to point down the hallway toward the auditorium and gymnasium.
“Uh, yea, I went to school here, so I should still know where everything is,” I replied, not too know-it-all-like I hoped.
I grabbed my visitor’s badge and began walking out. A woman in a corner office inside the principal’s office waved and smiled to me as I exited. I couldn’t remember her name, but I knew she at least recognized me. I felt a little better. Maybe my mark had been made, at least a little.
I walked up the slight ramp out of the cafeteria and felt a physical change in my body, in my mood. Had this been a movie, a montage harkening back to my high school days would have ensued. The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” might have swelled in the background.
I looked to my left and saw what was once Mr. Woods’ biology class, and thought about my friend Sheff’s horticulture experiments. I walked past Mr. Bedillion’s French class and heard an audiotape recitation of French verbs and nouns. I thought of the nicknames we gave each other in that class, some of which persist to this day. And I thought of our trip to France and of getting to know a girl in that class who would later become my wife and the mother of my only son and of how much things have changed since then.
I walked down through the glass hallway toward building 5 and remembered the feeling I’d get in my stomach when Inga and Nathan and I would debate skipping the last half hour of Mrs. Dye’s geometry class and how we’d crawl past her door so she wouldn’t see us walking, and then how later we’d ride in Inga’s car, going over the same hill as many times as we could in 30 minutes in order to reproduce that roller coaster feeling.
That roller coasting feeling.
Next I walked past Mr. Johnson’s class and thought of Questions of the Day and of drawing on Sasha’s leg with permanent markers and of the elation of skipping Mr. Johnson’s class to jump off of bridges.
And I remembered the practical jokes we played on Mr. Brant, that old wily man.
And I remembered idle, hallucinatory threats to certain teachers in certain buildings, and of a teacher saving a certain friend’s high school career.
And I remembered Rocky IV and Teddy Roosevelt.
And I made my way past the gym and thought about pep rallies and basketball games.
And I looked up at the pictures that adorn the hall above the trophy case and saw some of my best friends captured forever there among champions for their individual accomplishments. I noticed Austin’s long ponytail and how dated and out of fashion that seems today.
I noticed other friends, too; some I wasn’t very close to, but in hindsight whom I’d like to have known better.
I made my way to Mrs. Nuzum’s class and quickly took the pictures I needed to take and started the long walk back through the glass hallways and through the buildings back to where my car was parked.
And still the memories flooded my mind.
In between building 5 and 4 I thought of my friend Bubby finding me a blubbering mess after I had found out my dad had cheated on my mom. I remembered his concern and the warm feelings I felt toward him for that concern and how those warm feelings have never wavered, not once, and how I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for him for that, and also for Mr. Wilder, a teacher I never cared for as a teacher, but who for some reason I turned to after leaving Bubby a crying mess. I remember the way he halted his class for me and talked to me and made me feel better somehow.
And then I remembered classmates who are no longer with us.
That roller coasting feeling.
And I wondered how it was I hadn’t thought about these memories in years, and I walked on through the halls and I passed students wandering about, and I looked at my watch and it said 3:07 and I remembered, somehow, that school let out at 3:12 and I began to walk faster and faster.
I did not want to be in those halls when the flood of students spilled out from the classrooms and the chatter rose above a dim decibel into a roar. So I walked faster and I turned my visitors badge into the office and walked to my car and once outside I stopped.
I looked back into the cafeteria and thought about pizza and country-fried steak day and talks with Travis Gray about X-Files.
And then I got into my car and drove off.
And I thought, damn, this school, this ugly, sprawling, school and its hallways really made a mark on me, really affected me, really shaped me, much more deeply than I ever would have thought possible in 1995 when I started high school there as a freshman.
And over the hills on the way home I drove a little faster at the crests for that roller coasting feeling to return.