Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Here’s what I learned in high school:
Looks count — a lot — but if you drink enough, you will feel less self-conscious about your looks.
Boys are really, really interested in touching all parts of your body and will sometimes even talk awkwardly to you in hopes of getting to touch you.
Many adults are intimidated by teens, and you can use this to your advantage. If intimidation doesn’t work, you can argue passionately for a long time, wearing them down until you get your way.
You can pass your classes and still learn very little, except how to pass classes. Most teachers cannot tell you why it’s important to learn what they are teaching, other than the need to pass their class and get a diploma so you can get a job in the “real world.” This mildly depresses you.
You can reject your family in favor of the easy camaraderie of friends. Your younger siblings will seem to fear and despise you. Act like you don’t care, even though you do.
School spirit is important, and church is boring. The old rituals and liturgies can’t compete with the new gods of popularity, parties, trendy clothes, flawless makeup, quick wit, and jocks (male ones only, of course).
Don’t think about the future. Hide your fear under false bravado. Focus on being an available girlfriend and attaining a perfect figure instead of on choosing a college and thinking about a major.
You can hide who you really are without anyone knowing.
You’ll spend the rest of your life unlearning this.
Carrie A. Thiel
I saw Dora for the first time in seventh-grade art class: so confident, so cheerful, holding her brush and smiling at her work. Maybe it was the creative energy in the room or the recent release of hormones in my body, but I was smitten. No matter which girl I dated after that, Dora was never far from my thoughts.
The guy who occupied Dora’s thoughts was Ward — a squeaky-clean, straight-A student who excelled at sports and probably walked on water. They were rarely apart.
In our senior year Dora and I grew closer, working together on class projects and talking on the phone. As graduation approached, I developed a plan to win her away from Ward: A good Mormon, he was leaving right after graduation for college in Utah, a thousand miles away, while Dora and I would be attending the university in our hometown. With the prospect of a Ward-free summer ahead, I was ready to reveal my true feelings.
Yearbooks were issued during the final week of school, and everyone passed them around to be filled with corny love notes and promises to keep in touch. One sunny day in the senior quad Dora left a circle of girls and approached me to exchange yearbooks. She took mine to a bench to compose her message. I wrote my prepared sentiment in hers and signed it. Then we traded back, and she was gone.
Heart beating fast, I found a quiet place, located the page with her note to me, and read, “Dear Jess . . .”
She’d called me “Dear”! As in “sweetheart” or “darling.” Encouraged, I read on:
You have always reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe.
You have always reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe.
I can’t recall whether I saw Dora that summer or even if she and Ward stayed together. She wasn’t at our first high-school reunion.
I hardly think about her at all anymore.
Port Angeles, Washington
I didn’t normally skip classes, but my earth-science teacher spent the entire period at the board, and my assigned seat was in the back near the doorway. A few other students who sat in back regularly slid down in their chairs until they were low enough to crawl out of the room. The teacher never noticed. So when a friend asked me to skip class with her one day, I went.
We left the freshman annex and roamed the building that housed the upper grades, dodging hall monitors and searching for a bathroom where we could smoke cigarettes. When the bell rang for last period, I returned to the annex to take my algebra midterm, but the heavy outside door wouldn’t budge. Panicked, I peered through the glass, looking for someone who might unlock it. My algebra teacher let me in and allowed me to take the test, but I had to stay after class.
Once everyone had left, she told me a letter would be sent to my parents. Thus far I had managed not to get caught in any wrongdoing, but I had witnessed the beatings my older brother had received when he’d gotten in trouble, and I was terrified. My teacher went on about how cigarettes were a gateway to drug use. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this warning was too late.) But not once did she shame me or say she was “disgusted” with me, as other adults had done in the past.
That teacher went on to help me with geometry and trigonometry and college applications. She tutored me by phone for my college logic course. She wrote to me regularly throughout my twenties. She is the person my mother called when I was depressed and needed help. She talked me through a career change and grad school. We still meet for lunch once a year.
When I decided to skip class that day, I had no idea how much it would change my life.
During my freshman year in high school, I woke every weekday morning filled with dread. A shy, fat, awkward stutterer, I got teased endlessly by my classmates. I was safe in classes, but once the bell rang, I was on my own. Someone might put dog shit on the handle of my locker or pour baby powder through the locker’s vent. Guys would walk by and knock my books from my hands. I ended up holding them to my chest like a girl.
My worst tormentor was Fast Pete, a short, skinny kid who would slap the back of my head as he rushed past. He was so small I could have sent him flying, but he scared me.
The second-worst was Big Mike, who, though he never physically touched me, teased me viciously: “Hey, Smiley, why ain’t you got a girl? ’Cause girls don’t have dicks to suck?” Mike was a football player, six inches taller than I was and all muscle. When he mocked me, I fumed but didn’t dare speak.
One day, coming out of shop class, I saw Pete and Mike arguing in the hall. (I later learned that Pete had poured salt over Mike’s lunch when he wasn’t looking.) Mike shoved Pete against the lockers, punched him in the gut, and told him to stay out of his way.
I could have relished the moment — one of my tormentors getting his comeuppance — but instead I felt only anger at Mike for bullying someone smaller than he was. Without thinking, I told him to pick on someone his own size.
Mike pointed a finger at my nose and threatened me, but I didn’t budge. Then he spit on the floor and walked away. Pete ran off in the other direction.
I was breathing heavily but feeling satisfied with myself. I had stood up to someone bigger than I was, and I hadn’t stuttered.
After that, I went whole days without anybody bothering me. Sometimes weeks.
St. Petersburg, Florida
I attended a small Catholic finishing school for girls who were expected to become submissive wives or anonymous nuns. There was far more emphasis on sitting properly, speaking in soft tones, and smiling — always smiling — than there was on academics.
The nuns who ran the school were for the most part rigid, judgmental, and punitive, and they kept us in line with a combination of guilt, fear, and public shaming. Physical punishment, too, was not unheard of.
The oldest of nine kids from an Italian-Irish family, I was a little too smart for my own good and frequently got disciplined for minor infractions. Occasionally I had to dodge the teachers’ thrown erasers and books. In my senior year I spent a week sitting in the principal’s office because I lacked “theological docility”: I had questioned why my mother couldn’t practice birth control. I remained unladylike at graduation despite the nuns’ best efforts.
Several decades later I was training hospice volunteers and met an older nun who belonged to the same order as the nuns at my high school. When I named the academy I had attended, she leaned over and said, “Oh, honey, we have to talk.”
An hour later we were drinking coffee in her office and trading stories. She told me that several of the nuns at my school had had addictions. Others had been hospitalized for psychiatric illnesses or suffered personality disorders. These problem nuns had been assigned to my academy because it was thought they could do the least damage in a small school.
Those nuns caused the young women in their charge a lot of needless pain. But they also helped make me the radical, loud-mouthed feminist I am today.
My father did not go to high school. In 1917, at the age of fourteen, he went to work to help support his immigrant family. He was later accepted into one of the finest art schools in the country, and by the time I was born, in his early forties, he mixed socially with men who had been to Ivy League colleges. Growing up, I realized that he remained secretly worried he might make an error in word usage and reveal the deficit in his education.
When I graduated from college in the early 1970s, I wanted to do something for young people who had not had many advantages. I taught in a program for high-school dropouts who were disadvantaged by racism, poverty, blighted neighborhoods, and plain bad luck. Many of the girls had been forced to leave school due to pregnancy. Some now brought their babies to class, because there was no one else to care for them. After one girl, a mother of two at seventeen, was absent for a while, we learned that she’d been hit in the head by falling plaster in her shower and had suffered a concussion. It wasn’t the first time plaster had fallen, but her landlord had refused to make repairs. She eventually returned to class, still hopeful that she would get her diploma.
A boy named Darrell told me how a bullet had flown by him one day on his way to school. (“I could hear it,” he said.) Ricky, our valedictorian — bright, articulate, curious — would have been college material in any other setting, but before I taught him, he had been charged with a crime. Shortly after graduation Ricky was sentenced to a notorious reformatory. Another teacher and I visited him there. He was glad to see us but appeared thinner and wary. He said he was afraid every night that someone would attack him in his sleep.
I gave my students everything I could, but it felt like only a fraction of what they needed.
Madison was on the yearbook staff with me. I initially found her a little overbearing — and she was best friends with a known lesbian. This was the late eighties in a small, conservative town.
I steered clear of Madison until the day our teacher sent us on an errand together.
“That was the first time I really saw you,” Madison said later.
We became fast friends, spending lunch breaks and free periods together. She was my ride to school and back. I loved her energy, her laugh, and the way she listened to me so intently.
One day after school we drove to the park, and Madison wrestled me to the ground, rolling down a hill with me until my elbows were bruised and my knees grass-stained.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” I asked.
She told me she was in love with me.
I prided myself on being open-minded, so I said that, even though I wasn’t gay, we could still be friends. I felt quite smug for being so brave in the face of her unsolicited affection.
She drove me home and grabbed my hand as we sat in my driveway. Hers was shaking. I said I had to go and sprang from the car.
The minute I reached my front door, I burst into sobs. No boy had ever liked me, much less loved me. I was too tall, too thin, and too uncoordinated, and my breasts were too small. Being loved by Madison was pretty much the best feeling I’d ever had.
We tried to go on with our friendship, but suddenly everything was full of drama. I couldn’t bear the way she gazed at me from across the classroom: longingly, lovingly.
“You’re so regal,” she would say. “So adorably bookish.”
I both loved and hated the attention.
The other kids at school noticed. Murmurs of “dyke” and “homo” followed me through the hallways. One morning I told my mom I couldn’t face school that day, and she let me stay home. I lay in bed, grateful to be safe from Madison’s adoration.
At 3:20 PM, just after school ended, Madison pounded on my front door and called my name. Panicked, I stood inside the door but didn’t answer. Everything grew quiet. Then there was a crash in my bedroom: Madison had climbed in through my window. I told her that was it. We couldn’t be friends.
The bus rides to and from school were long. One kid sang mocking songs at me about what lesbians do to each other in bed. Still, I was relieved not to be loved so publicly anymore. If I’d broken Madison’s heart, I couldn’t feel bad about it. High school was misery enough.
Madison graduated that spring, a year ahead of me. We made up, and she eventually moved on and found a girlfriend. In the meantime I lost my virginity to a college sophomore who hadn’t quite broken up with his high-school sweetheart; when he came home on breaks, he juggled both of us. The second time we had sex, he was drunk and fell asleep both on top and inside of me.
Thirty years later Madison and I are still friends. She and her partner are married, whereas I’m still single and trying to stay optimistic.
The last time Madison visited, we went hiking in the Cascade Mountains, and her partner asked, “So, how did you two meet?”
“In high school,” Madison said. “I was head-over-heels, crazy in love with her.”
Trailing a few paces behind, I added that I’d passed her over in favor of a jerk who’d fallen asleep during sex.
Madison laughed and then stopped to hold back a cedar branch so I could safely walk by. “And to think,” she said, “you could have had me.”
I stopped in my tracks. It was the first time I’d questioned my decision.
It hasn’t been the last.
Lisa A. Cooper
I made straight A’s in high school, but between classes I would smoke in the bathroom with a group of tough girls who attended the county cosmetology program in the evenings. They all had bleached-blond hair and wore blue eye shadow. We would pass around a single Marlboro while one girl kept her eye on the door, ready to yell, “Teacher!” in time for us to toss the cigarette into the toilet.
In addition to smoking, we primped at the mirrors. One day I complained about my hair color. The night before, I had tried to dye my hair blond, and it had mysteriously ended up jet black.
Missy explained that I had to lighten it first. “The dye just went on top of your natural color and made it darker, like a second coat of polish on a fingernail.”
She opened her cosmetology textbook to show me, and I asked if I could borrow it and have a closer look.
“Knock yourself out,” Missy said.
I thumbed through the pages and saw illustrations of hairstyles, cryptic equations (formulas for mixing hair color), and an image of a single shaft of hair under a microscope. I felt as if secrets were being revealed to me. It had never occurred to me that hairstyling was like a science one could study.
At dinner that night, I told my mother I wanted to go to cosmetology school and become a hairdresser.
Long, incredulous silence. “Really?” she said.
That was all it took. The dream evaporated. I’ve tried to convince myself that we fought about it, but the truth is I acquiesced immediately. I wanted my mother’s respect, and she had an intellectual snobbishness toward that kind of profession.
But my desire to do hair never left. It would linger until, more than a decade later, I began my successful career as a hairstylist.
Lisa J. Daniels
New York, New York
When I was thirteen, Peter, a forty-eight-year-old elder in my family’s Seventh-Day Adventist church, tried to abduct me. He purchased two plane tickets for us under an assumed name but was arrested on the plane before it took off. The police led him away in handcuffs and escorted me to a separate car.
Peter was in jail for only an hour before his wife bailed him out. My parents didn’t press charges because they didn’t want to make the church look bad, and, besides, they knew I would object. I was in love with him.
For high school my parents sent me to a religious boarding school forty miles away, hoping this would be far enough that Peter would leave me alone. I hated it there. At home I had ridden my horse whenever I wanted. Now I lived with forty-nine other girls in a dorm. I was too poor to dress like them.
Every day I called Peter collect. I’d sit in the phone booth with my feet up on the wall, and we’d talk for hours. He listened to me. He cared. When I told him I didn’t have money to join the ski club, he mailed me the cash. When I said I wanted better clothes, he mailed me my first bluejeans — two pairs, buried in a box of candy.
My parents seldom called, and when they did, they said they had to keep it short, because long distance was expensive. Peter never said that. When I asked him what his phone bill was for the month, he laughed and told me several hundred dollars.
Then the school found one of my letters to Peter and notified my parents. Suddenly I wasn’t allowed to use the phone, and all my mail, incoming and outgoing, was intercepted. Shortly after that, Peter and his wife moved away, and he didn’t tell me where they were going. I was distraught and felt abandoned, but I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, because they would look at me as if I had a disease.
When I was eighteen, I found Peter. He was living a few states away and said he would be visiting my hometown soon to sell some property. I picked him up at his motel, expecting a romantic reunion, but he wasn’t interested in me anymore. I was too old.
Ithaca, New York
He was my student, a freshman in high school. His private record described him as “emotionally disturbed.”
One day the other boys in class were bragging about what kinds of guns they had seen or handled when he muttered under his breath, “I’ll shoot up the whole school.” It’s possible he’d intended only to one-up his peers. He lacked the bravado to loudly voice his threat. But I was sitting close to him. I heard.
When the bell rang, I called his name. He didn’t answer and avoided eye contact. I’d thought we had established a rapport. He had opened up to me about how his father was incarcerated and the other students looked down on him because of it, how his family had little faith in him, and how he was determined not to end up poor or in jail.
But this was after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. I couldn’t just ignore his remark.
Uncertain what to do, I went to the school counselor. I assumed there was some sort of threat-assessment protocol, that my student would receive counseling. There was not. He did not. The counselor called the administrator. The administrator called the police. The police slammed my student against the wall, put him in cuffs, and took him away.
“I was only kidding,” he sobbed as he was escorted out of school in custody.
He returned to class after a few days in juvenile detention. Some of the other boys got in trouble for talking about guns in school and accused him of snitching. After that, he transferred to another school, and I lost track of him. I’ve often wondered whether I did the right thing.
The only information I had about sex growing up came from my girlfriends, and a good deal of it was wrong. Adults were not exactly forthcoming about the facts. When I asked my mother how you knew you were pregnant, she said if you missed your period, then you were.
I got my period for the first time in eighth grade but didn’t get it again the next month. Naturally I assumed I was pregnant. Since I hadn’t “done it,” I decided it must have happened while I was slow-dancing with Doug: if his things could swim, they could probably jump. I walked the halls at school feeling as if I had a scarlet letter A on my chest.
My father had once bragged to my uncle that, unlike my cousins, I would never get pregnant before marriage. Not wanting to disappoint him, I made a plan for when my pregnancy started to show: I would take a Greyhound bus to Chicago, where I’d heard girls went when they “got in trouble.” I would find a job and a place to live, have the baby in secret, and give it up for adoption.
The following month, of course, I got my period. I later learned that when a girl starts menstruating, her period can be erratic.
My husband jokes that I’m the poster child for sex education.
I was a peace-loving honor student and homecoming queen. He was a handsome would-be gangster. Some kids at school called him “Loco,” but I saw the wounded little boy inside who craved love and acceptance. I took pride in being the only one who understood him.
On a typical date he would pick me up in his mother’s van, and we’d go out for dinner and a movie, then a heavy-petting session at a parking lot. I would get wet, and he would get hard, and we’d listen to the “For Lovers Only” show on the radio. Driving home, we often had fiery arguments.
One night he picked me up in his brother’s gray truck instead of the van. I knew his brother sold drugs and sometimes bullied him into helping. After I climbed in, my boyfriend let me know that there was a gun under the passenger seat.
As we drove home, our usual bickering escalated until we were screaming at each other, and he blasted rock music to drown me out. This was not acceptable. I came from a family of therapists who analyzed everything, and I demanded that he talk to me. He hit the steering wheel in anger and took an unfamiliar turn.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
He maintained a steely silence as the asphalt turned to gravel. We were traveling down a bumpy road beside the estuary. Finally he turned his head toward me while he drove and said he was going to shoot me and throw my body in the water.
The gun, I thought.
He parked next to one of many shipping docks, got out, and walked around to the passenger side.
I inched my elbow up to the door lock and pushed it down.
He hammered his fist on my window and said he’d only been kidding: “You bitch, I would never kill you. How stupid do you think I am?”
Later that night I lost my virginity to him on my father’s living-room floor. I remember looking at myself in the mirrored wall and thinking, Who is that girl on her hands and knees?
As I was beginning classes at a new high school, my father was beginning a four-to-six-year sentence on an embezzlement charge. I kept quiet in class, afraid of being exposed as the son of a convict.
In math I sat directly in front of Richard, a popular athlete. One morning, a few weeks into the school year, Richard said in a voice so low only I could hear, “You’ve worn the same three T-shirts since school started. Why is that?”
I felt my face flush. I’d thought no one had noticed. I blurted out that things at home had been tough, and my sisters got all the new clothes.
Richard seemed to size me up with a critical eye but left it at that. Later, in the hall, he asked me in a booming voice what I was doing for lunch. Without waiting for a reply, he invited me to join him at his house; his parents were out of town, and it was close by.
I was nervous as Richard drove me there in his dad’s Cadillac. Richard’s home had a sweeping view and a well-stocked fridge. We ate and then went down to the basement, where his older brother was packing to move to San Francisco. Richard introduced me as his “three-T-shirt” friend. Without hesitation his brother started filling a box with clothes for me. He said his mother had been buying his clothes, and he didn’t share her taste, but he also didn’t want to tell her.
Her taste suited me nicely for years.
At my twenty-year high-school reunion I saw Richard and thanked him for helping me. He seemed puzzled. It turned out he didn’t recall anything about those clothes. I told him I still wore one of his brother’s wool shirts. Richard’s expression changed. He said that his brother had never returned from San Francisco. He’d died of AIDS.
I walked to high school every weekday morning, meeting up with some other boys along the way. The route we took passed through the ball field, and sometimes we would stop off in the dugout to smoke pot.
This one kid, Ryan, was a no-show for about a week. Word was his father had died of a heart attack.
On Ryan’s first day back, the mood was somber as we passed the bowl around the dugout. I’m sure we all wanted details but thought better than to ask. It was not so much for Ryan’s sake that I kept quiet. I was worried that if I spoke, I wouldn’t be able to hide my emotion.
Finally a kid we called Weed said to Ryan, “Hey, man, sorry to hear about your dad.”
Ryan turned away, released a lungful of smoke, and started to hack. Doubled over, he pounded at his chest as if something there needed to be dislodged. Then he spit on the dusty concrete floor and said, “The way I see it, it’s one less person to catch me smoking dope.”
We all chuckled nervously and agreed this was true. Then we filed out of the dugout and continued on to school.
There were a lot of rules at my all-girls Catholic high school in the late 1960s. We were told on a regular basis to “tuck in your blouse” and “unroll your skirt.” (Girls rolled them up at the waist to raise the hem above their knees.) Other rules included no smoking in your school uniform, no cheating, and no public displays of affection.
I had no problem following the rules. I was chubby, and my wool skirt was too tight at the waist for me to roll it. I didn’t smoke and didn’t have a boyfriend with whom to display affection, public or private.
The one place I showed any sign of rebellion was in Christian Womanhood class. The curriculum included discussions about purity, chastity, married love, family planning, and dating etiquette, which emphasized the girl’s responsibility to keep the boy from misbehaving.
“You set the tone for any date,” the sister told us. We were responsible for our dates’ virtue as well as our own.
In class the other girls and I discussed how unfair it was that boys weren’t held to the same standard of conduct. Outside of class we continued to grumble about having to shoulder all the blame for compromised virtue. We wondered aloud how a smart woman like our teacher could defend this nonsense. She couldn’t possibly have expected us to live our lives that way, could she?
To test this theory I answered an exam question about appropriate dating behavior with a defiant “It takes two to tango.” When I got my test back, the sister hadn’t marked the answer wrong, but she had written next to it in big red letters, “Careful!” and drawn a frowny face.
During my college years I was careful, but I did tango on occasion, and I always walked away not with a frown but with a smile.
Christine A. Holliday
The day my dad announced that we were leaving comfortable suburban Scottsdale, Arizona, and moving to “the country,” I believed my fifteen-year-old life was over.
My new school was overcrowded. I studied Beowulf in a Quonset hut rather than an air-conditioned classroom. And I was a member of the non-Latino minority.
I dreaded recess — fifteen minutes of standing around a barren schoolyard surrounded by a chain-link fence. Nearly everyone spoke Spanish, despite the rule against it. In my first week I was approached by two girls who put their faces inches from mine and said things my three semesters of middle-school Spanish couldn’t help me translate. The encounter ended with a punch to my face. I had to go to the bathroom and put toilet paper in one nostril to stop the bleeding.
My high-school experience got better from there. I made new friends and was exposed to a Mexican American culture that didn’t include shopping malls and suburban kids who drove expensive cars. One boy, Jorge, was especially kind to me and invited me to family functions, quinceañeras, and movies. He was a talented artist and taught me Spanish well enough that I can still speak it today.
After graduation Jorge and I lost touch, but I decided to go to my thirtieth high-school reunion in hopes of seeing him. I was thrilled when he showed up, all the way from Montana. He gave me a big hug, and we sat across from one another in a back-corner booth and traded highlights from our adulthoods.
At one point Jorge began to cry and shared with me a guilt he had been carrying for thirty years: He had come to the reunion to apologize, he said. When I’d been punched at recess that first week of school, the fight had been over him. His family had been pushing him toward a relationship with one of my assailants, but he’d had no interest in her, because he was gay. Unable to brave coming out to his family, he’d seen my arrival at the school as the perfect opportunity to get everyone off his back. He would pretend to be in love with a girl of whom his parents would never approve.
He was sorry, he said, and he hoped I could forgive him.
I did, easily.
In my first year of teaching, I worked at a small, private high school known for its strong academics and strict discipline. My students bristled against the rules, as well as the scratchy school-uniform sweaters.
Though not a rule breaker by nature, I bristled, too. Finally I decided to break the ban on holding class outside. I told myself that, as John Keating — the inspirational teacher portrayed in Dead Poets Society — said, quoting Thoreau, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” you must read poetry outdoors.
I planned it like a prison break: My eleventh-grade British-literature class met in a corner room with easy access to the back door. We could sneak out quietly without being seen.
One sunny day the boys in their blue dress shirts and ties and the girls in their plaid skirts slipped out the door with me and made for the grassy hill overlooking the athletic field. My plan was to read Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” and A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees.”
We had just made ourselves comfortable when a student named Meg piped up: “Mrs. Ayotte, may I roll down the hill?”
Meg wore a diamond nose stud, a dress-code violation that she hid under a band-aid to avoid being suspended. “No, Meg,” I said, “you may not roll down the hill.” What a ridiculous question.
But Meg continued to plead until I relented. With adolescent logic she determined that she couldn’t roll down the hill alone. So her best friend, Peggy, joined her. The two joyously flopped on the grass and began to tumble toward the athletic field. Then I heard “Ow!”
Peggy had put her hair up with a pencil that day, and the pencil point had stabbed her in the neck and broken off, leaving the tip lodged beneath her skin.
A few girls immediately swarmed around her, and at my direction they led the wounded Peggy to the school nurse. The rest of us sheepishly returned to Room 101, where Peggy reappeared a bit later, holding a plastic sandwich bag with the offending pencil nib in it.
Twelve years later I am teaching in a public high school where there are no uniforms, no restrictions against nose piercings, and no ban on teaching outside. I remain the sort of teacher who speaks Middle English with her students and once sprained her ankle while reenacting Beowulf’s epic battle with the monster Grendel. I think Professor Keating would approve.
Lori A. Ayotte
Cumberland, Rhode Island
My daughter, Sara, was assigned to a high school one hour and two bus transfers away. She knew no one there and grew sullen and withdrawn. I began to find clumps of her hair in the shower drain.
I was relieved when, a few months into the school year, she asked permission to have two new friends over. When I got home from work that evening, the girls were in the bathroom bleaching their hair. (Thankfully they ran out of bleach before they got to Sara.) My daughter’s friends had piercings and tattoos and wore revealing clothes.
After that, Sara began smoking pot, drinking, and not coming home on time. She associated with kids who had dropped out or been expelled for drug use. One Friday night she called from a football game and said to her father, “Remember how you wanted to meet my principal? Well, she wants to talk to you!” He went to the school and saw Sara being restrained by two security guards. She had thrown up on the principal. “I ate some bad sushi,” she said, slurring her words.
When I was in high school in the late sixties and early seventies, I’d engaged in all manner of hedonistic and hormone-driven behavior, but this felt different. We sent Sara to therapists, where she sat silently until the sessions were over. She refused to take medications. She stopped eating. She threatened to run away. I began looking into residential homes for troubled youths.
Somehow Sara made it through high school and got into college. As she was preparing for her freshman year, I attended my fortieth high-school reunion and was reminded anew of my many escapades back then. I had smoked pot, drunk to excess, driven drunk, skipped school, hitchhiked, taken drugs of unknown origin, hung out with drug dealers, and lied to my concerned parents in order to continue doing all of it. In short, I’d probably caused my parents as much pain as my daughter had caused me.
When I was sixteen, my brother graduated from a two-year community college and was accepted to North Carolina State University. Then he received his draft notice. The highlight of the summer of 1967 for me was his boot-camp graduation.
Over fall break in my junior year I visited my brother at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I saw troops on the shooting range. In my physics class we were studying trajectory, and I imagined the soldiers aiming their rifles and measuring wind velocity. By springtime my brother was completing his training in the swamps of Louisiana, to simulate the humid jungles of Vietnam. Meanwhile I helped decorate the gym in a tropical-island theme for the prom, but I didn’t attend.
School ended, and my brother got his deployment orders. On his last Sunday at home, he taught me how to shift gears on his 1965 Mustang fastback 289. It was my job to keep it in good running order, he said. I should have been excited, but a sadness had settled over me.
My mother and I wrote my brother about the mundane details of life at home. Daddy started going out behind the garage to smoke. I returned to school in the fall and made good grades, not wanting to cause my parents any more worries. In church I bargained with God, promising I would become a missionary if he let my brother come home safe.
I studied maps to find the foreign place names on my brother’s letters. From Da Nang he wrote about little kids in rags who begged for cigarettes and candy bars. From Anh Khe he sent rolls of film that we developed to see him and his fellow soldiers eating a Christmas meal that had been dropped by helicopter into a jungle thicket and warmed in metal helmets.
At school I lost interest in football games, dances, and dates with jocks. My English term paper was titled “Death and Dying in the Works of Herman Melville.” The only part of the day I looked forward to was my shift as a library assistant. I loved the woody smell of bound books and the sound of turning pages.
One afternoon, as I was checking out a book for someone, the library phone rang. The librarian answered quietly, had a mumbled conversation, then placed her hand on my shoulder and told me to pack my books and go to the office. I tried to question her, but she placed a finger over her lips. I took my books and left.
At the office I gave the secretary my name, and she asked, “Do you have a brother?”
I hadn’t considered that this might be why I’d been called.
“Yes, I have a brother,” I said. I told her he was in Vietnam. He would be home in about a month.
She handed me the phone receiver. I took it and said, “Hello?”
“Hey, sport, whatcha doing?” There was no mistaking my brother’s voice.
“I’m in school,” I said.
“Well, why don’t you come on home? I haven’t seen you in a while.”
Lancaster, South Carolina