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Posts Tagged ‘high school’

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Every November, when the leaves turn yellow and the nights begin to draw in, there’s a particular sort of grey, windy, serious afternoon that takes me right back to high school.

Along with a dozen of my fellow students, I spent the fall of my senior year preparing for the annual conference of MOAS, a mock diplomatic organization in which teams of student delegates represent the nations of the Western Hemisphere. I interviewed for the team on a whim, looking for something to fill up my schedule, never dreaming what it would come to mean to me.

Our team was assigned to represent the U.S. that fall of 2001. Mr. Walker’s English classroom was our headquarters, and we spent hours hunched over particleboard desks, heads bent over thick black binders filled with forests of paper, learning terms like rapporteur and communiqué and secretariat.

We drafted formal proposals and learned the rules of table discussion, dragging our desks into a wonky circle and holding mock debates: “Point of order, question to the speaker directed through the chair.” Along the way, we worked physics problems and held economics study sessions and piled into each other’s cars at lunchtime, grabbing burgers or tacos or sandwiches in our 55-minute escapes from campus.

The old-timers, like my best friend Jon, told stories of past conferences and explained to us newbies what to expect. We learned salient facts about various Latin American countries, most of which I have now forgotten. Walker warned that as delegates representing our own nation, we would be seen by other teams as the heavyweight, worth taking seriously but not always popular. (It was my first indication of how the U.S. is often perceived by the rest of the world.)

September 11, it need hardly be said, would have changed all our lives, irrevocably, forever. But it had a particular effect on this group of serious high school students in a mid-size West Texas town. We watched the news and read the headlines obsessively, worrying over what this meant for our country and our futures as adults, but also for our immediate futures: our trip to D.C. and the revisions now required (if we went) to accurately represent our country, in deep shock and mourning.

After days of holding our breath, we learned that the conference was still on, and by a tremendous diplomatic feat of his own, Walker persuaded most of our parents to let us go.

As the trip approached, we received detailed briefings: conference schedules, travel itineraries, handwritten packing lists, most of them headed by Walker’s no-nonsense black capitals. The packing list was divided into casual, semi-formal and formal “occations” – my friend Sarah’s handwriting joyfully misspelling the same word over and over again. After Walker advised us girls to “pack a little black dress” for the conference Gala, we met in the hotel lobby to discover that nearly every female in the group had bought or borrowed a little black dress. Somewhere there’s a photo of us, glittering and unsteady in our high heels, teetering on the edge of an exciting evening and also of something infinitely more huge and terrifying: adulthood.

gala photo

Jon and me at the Gala, and yes, I’m wearing a little black dress.

During that week of mock diplomacy, I learned a few things: one, I didn’t want a career in this field. I am not interested (part of me already knew this) in spending my days arguing with a roomful of colleagues and strangers. Walker slipped me a note during one lunch break, after catching sight of my tense expression, that read, in part: “Knowing what you don’t want is as important as knowing what you do.” I have carried those words, and many of his others, through thirteen years and two countries and half a dozen jobs.

That week, I also learned how to cook in a tiny hotel kitchen, how to wear a suit with heels, and how to dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe with gleeful abandon under a roomful of bemused non-Texan eyes. I did not learn how to tie a necktie (not for lack of trying), but I learned to knock on the door of the senior boys’ suite when I needed a can opener, help with last-minute proposal revisions, assistance in tying said necktie, or simply an encouraging word. (Jon, well-spoken MOAS conference president and endlessly patient best friend, came through every single time.)

I also learned how to navigate a big city on my own for the first time, tramping around the tangle of streets that connected the OAS building to the edge of Georgetown, where we were staying. I waited for Jon after the sessions ended every night, shifting in the high heels borrowed from my mother, feeling the city’s pulse under my feet as we walked through the dark streets to our hotel. Under the city sky, crisscrossed with floodlights, we discussed committee politics and personal dramas, but we also caught glimpses of our future selves: the adults we would become long after we had left high school and MOAS behind.

These days, I hurry along sidewalks in a different city, my mind full of to-dos and writing projects and social obligations. I don’t often pause to wonder at my grown-up life; most of the time it is simply the life I’m living.

But every November, the grey skies and brisk winds bring me back to that week long ago: hovering on the edge of adulthood, nervous, exhilarated, plunging into unfamiliar, exciting territory. The world opened up for us during those days in D.C., shifting to allow us a peek into our own futures while we played at being adults. We headed back to the safety of parents and school and home, but nothing was quite the same. And every autumn, I walk under the grey skies, and remember.

(Top image from oas.org)

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I debated endlessly about whether to attend my high school reunion.

It’s a long way to West Texas these days – and much more complicated than my college and post-college routine of hopping in the car after work or classes, driving straight down I-20, into the sunset, for 150 miles. My parents and sister live in my hometown, but most of my friends have scattered, and I wasn’t sure any of my dearest ones would make it to the reunion. But I wanted to see who would come, and I could hardly pass up a chance to see my nephew and hang out with my family. So I flew down to Texas just after Labor Day.

I had a generally terrific high school experience. I was never quite one of the “popular” crowd, but I didn’t mind, since I spent all my time with several small, tightly knit groups of friends. I was a well-known bookworm and brainiac, a band geek (I played the flute), a “groupie” for the debate team and drama club (most of my best friends were in one or both), and an avid high school football fan. This was West Texas, after all, and I marched at every halftime and followed the action from my place in the stands. I can sing both my alma mater and fight song, and I still bleed purple and gold.

Even so, I worried about the reunion for weeks. Would it be awkward and uncomfortable to see people I hadn’t seen for ten years? Would the social structure of high school reassert itself? Would I find anyone I knew to hang with, since neither my husband nor my best friend could make it? What would I think of my friends and acquaintances, now grown up and living real adult lives? And what would they think of me?

I drove to the reunion in my dad’s car, down familiar streets, past the school itself and the tall cluster of downtown buildings visible for miles on the flat West Texas landscape. I sat in the parking lot for two or three minutes before gathering my courage and going inside. I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I hate walking into social situations alone.

But when I arrived at the registration table, my friend Kelly (class vice-president and event planner extraordinaire) jumped up to give me a hug. I found a place at a table right away, chatting with my friend Jessica and her husband, until I began jumping up in my turn to greet friends I hadn’t seen since college summers or even since graduation day, ten years ago.

The Three Musketeers: Brittany, Lina and me

I hugged girlfriends and shook their spouses’ hands, laughing as we all tried to remember each other’s married names. I swapped how-are-yous and where-do-you-live-nows with dozens of people. I nearly got swallowed in huge bear hugs from my guy friends. And I talked to a guy my sister used to date, who asked after my family – because in my close-knit hometown, old bonds matter more than old resentments. (The latter have faded with time, anyway.)

We have all traveled far and wide in ten years, going to college and starting careers and meeting our spouses, trying out new personalities before settling into our own skins. The guys, mostly, have gained a little weight and lost a little hair; many of them, in blazers and jeans and cowboy boots, look like younger versions of the Midland oil men I know. The girls were a flock of perfumed butterflies in brightly colored dresses, with shining, coiffed hair. Many of us wear wedding rings; a few had left their children with parents or friends for the evening. (One friend admitted to missing her baby, just two weeks old that night. I didn’t ask, but I wondered if it was the first time she had been away from him.) Mostly, despite new haircuts or a few extra pounds, we look even more like ourselves than we did at eighteen.

I didn’t talk to every person; as ever, many of us gravitated toward the people we knew and liked. But the crowd remained fluid as the night went on, never hardening into cliques the way it used to. I had conversations with people I barely knew back then, many of whom had identical reactions to where I live now: “Boston! Really?” I laughed off (but secretly enjoyed) a heap of flattery from a friend who has always been ready with a compliment for me. I chatted with a girl from Austin who married my friend Luke, and because she’s now one of my sister’s best friends, we felt like we’d known each other for years.

We parted with many hugs at the end of the night, and I must have told a dozen people to look me up if they ever come to Boston. I drove home through familiar dark streets, past the stores and schools and traffic lights that made up the landscape of my teenage years. I parked in the driveway and tiptoed into the dark house, tingling with the fun and the deep satisfaction of a true, if brief, reunion with old friends.

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‘Tis the season for graduations, for flapping robes and square mortarboards, for colorfully archaic hoods and regalia. I’m a bit removed, personally, from all the beginnings and endings this year. But I work on a college campus (in Boston, that most densely packed of college towns), so the sights, sounds and attendant nervous excitement of graduation are in the air.

I’ve been thinking about another graduation, though. A slightly smaller one, held in the echoing gym of a junior college on the plains of West Texas, filled with graduates in purple robes, shuffling feet squeaking against the varnished wood floor. At the back of the room, another group of teenagers huddled behind spindly music stands, looking a bit lost without their graduating friends and section leaders. They played “Pomp and Circumstance,” but the piece that made me well up, sitting in the front row wearing my gold Salutatorian stole embroidered with trailing green vines, was “Amazing Grace.”

midland high school graduation speech 2002

Giving my speech

From where I sit now, a married woman with a grown-up office job and two literature degrees, it’s hard to believe that day was ten years ago.

My high school began releasing class rankings in the ninth grade, so for several years I knew I occupied the number-two spot in our class. The order of the top few places never shifted, though my friend Kate, in third place, constantly threatened to overtake me or even nab the valedictorian spot from our friend Cody. She never did, though, and in May of our senior year, Cody and I began thinking about – and procrastinating on – writing our speeches.

Several times during those last few weeks of school, we’d pass each other in the hallway, and one of us would ask, “Started your speech yet?” “Nope. You?” “Nope, not yet!” We’d grin nervously and part ways, both of us still wondering what on earth we were going to say.

When a student photographer called us out of class to snap our photo for the yearbook, we sat in the school courtyard for half an hour, talking about graduation and the upcoming summer and what would happen after. I knew, though I never said it aloud, that one reason I put off writing the speech was because it made graduation – and the wide, intimidating world beyond it – seem suddenly real.

A yearbook moment

My mom, as I kept procrastinating, kept slipping me sheets of yellow legal paper with lists of speech ideas. Nothing struck me, though, until she handed me a sheet covered with the lyrics to Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.”

If you don’t know the song (which means you weren’t listening to country or pop radio in the early 2000s, because it was all over the place), it is a heartfelt, if sentimental, plea to embrace life, to resist the urge to play it safe by sitting in the shadows. As a shy bookworm who nevertheless had big plans and who did, in fact, love to dance, I thrilled to the song’s central line: “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”

I didn’t sing it up on stage. I wasn’t brave enough for that, and anyway I don’t have Womack’s vocal range. But I did stand up there in my bright purple gown and read out a few of the lyrics. And I looked down at Cody in the front row, at my best friend Jon in the second row, at my fellow band nerds clustered in the back, instruments on their laps. I searched the rows of faces for my best friends, for Mike and Adam and Lina and Brittany, and I glanced over to the left at my family in the bleachers, my parents and sister and three grandparents. And I urged that auditorium full of people, many of whom I would never see again, to dance.

Celebrating – and relieved it’s over

Sometimes I still feel like that high school senior, awkward and hopeful and unsure – though she would be amazed at all the dancing, literal and figurative, I have done in the last ten years. She would hardly believe I joined a swing dance club or lived in Europe for a year or landed a gig writing book reviews for a national publication. But she would understand – she does understand – the courage it took to get to where I am, and the reasons I wear a silver disk around my neck inscribed with the word “brave.”

I wish I still had a copy of that speech somewhere, but I doubt the paper copies have survived my many moves, and the computer on which I typed it has long been consigned to the garbage. To this day, though, those lyrics still thrum occasionally through my heart and soul, and they remind me: Dance. Always dance.

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Again with the late-to-the-TV-party thing.  (If you’ve read about my love for Friends, Gilmore Girls and The Muppet Show, you won’t be too surprised.)

Friday Night Lights aired its final episode a few weeks ago. About a week later (not actually knowing the finale had just aired), J and I decided to watch the first few episodes.

Well. We were hooked instantly. And we’ve been regularly visiting Dillon, Texas, ever since.

The biggest surprise is why it took us this long to start watching the show. Because although Dillon is fictional, in some ways it might as well be Midland, where I grew up. Long before I joined the Midland High marching band, my internal compass, and almost everyone else’s, pointed toward Midland Memorial Stadium on Friday nights.

Our football team does not have a storied history, like the Permian Panthers down the road in Odessa (subjects of the original Friday Night Lights book and film). The year I was in eighth grade, my neighbor Steven was one of the star seniors on the MHS team, and I don’t think they won a single game. Their losses were made more bitter by the stunning success of our crosstown rivals, the Lee Rebels, who won State three times when I was a teenager. (My sister – unbelievably – married a Lee grad, but I don’t think she will ever sit on the Lee side at the crosstown game.)

No matter what the scoreboard says, or what colors you wear, the culture of football in Midland runs deep. We idolized the boys who wore those jerseys on Friday nights; we shook our heads when some of them (always players from Lee, of course) got bailed out of trouble by their coaches. And when the Bulldogs made the playoffs in 2002 (for the first time in I won’t tell you how long) and went all the way to State, the whole town went wild for them. I was in college by then, but I made it to nine of that season’s sixteen games, and sang the alma mater with tears in my eyes. (And watched my sister, that year’s Student Council president, walk out onto the field at Texas Stadium to exchange goodwill gifts with the other team.)

Admittedly, the culture in a two-high-school town, or in a big city like Dallas where my husband grew up (their town had six high schools), is a bit different than somewhere like Dillon. But the show still captures the West Texas football culture, and does it so authentically that I keep thinking (and saying to J): I know these people.

I know that coach, his eyes squinting in the West Texas sun, doling out equal parts praise and tough love to his team. I know those boys, cast in a role they aren’t quite prepared for, blinded by the glare of stadium lights and bent under the weight of a whole town’s expectations for them. I know those women, with their perfectly styled hair and their manicures and their loud laughter and high-pitched “How are youuuuu’s?.” And yes, I know those people who roll their eyes at the whole football culture, but who get caught up in it anyway, whether by choice or family connection or because it’s useless to resist.

As Serenity said a few weeks ago, local sports are my favorite because of the heart, and because of the stories. I loved watching the Midland High Bulldogs because I knew them. I’d been watching some of them play football since fourth grade, when my sister was a cheerleader for the local peewee league. They came over to our house on the weekends, and some of them were in my youth group. I knew their stories, and football was a vital part of those stories. Which is why I love watching Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins and the other guys on Friday Night Lights. I know their stories. And football is a main character in all of them.

Admittedly, this is hard to understand if you’re not from Texas, or if you don’t care for sports, or if you didn’t grow up in a small town. But if you are or you do or you did, you understand the magnetic pull of a show like Friday Night Lights. And for a small-town Texas girl like me, well, this show resonates so deeply I can’t even explain it to you. From the sunset-soaked skies of the opening credits to the flashes of blue and gold on the field, to Coach Taylor’s look of steely determination and the quiet integrity of these boys who are learning what it means to be men, I love this show. And no wonder. I grew up here. These are my people.

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