I hated every day of high school.

I hated every day of high school
It’s funny, I guess you did too. -Patty Griffin

When we were at the Patty Griffin concert last year, she played “Tony,” and after the above line, there were so many cheers that I was taken aback (although, looking at the crowd, it’s not such a stretch to think that they’d feel that way). And when I saw 13 Going on 30, it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that, of all the people watching it, I was the least popular of any of us in high school. I feel like the cool thing is to say, “Yeah, man, I did hate every day of high school. My life was so full of angst and pain. No one understood me, man.” And as much as I (still) want to sit at that cool table, it’s just not true. I wasn’t popular in high school, but I wasn’t that miserable person who got crapped on all the time, either. I remember those guys every time I hear “Tony,” but my high school years weren’t that hard. I just didn’t have a place, or friends that I hung out with outside of school. There were things I enjoyed, like the Nerd Club and Quiz Bowl. It definitely wasn’t the best time of my life, and I was lonely a lot, but it would be a lie to say that I hated every single day. I had people to eat lunch with, and if I didn’t spend my Friday and Saturday nights cruising the town like everyone else did, well, it honestly doesn’t matter anymore.

I’ve been thinking about high school recently for two reasons. The first is that a local high school recently burned down. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the school was completely destroyed and the kids had to be divided up for this school year. The kids seemed to bond together, saying things like, “We just want to be together,” and, “The school is my home away from home,” and, “We’re like one big family.” Some people seemed to find this inspiring. I, on the other hand, could not stop rolling my eyes. “You all hate each other,” I said when I would see that in the paper or on television. “Admit it.” And while it’s probably true that all the kids did probably hate each other, I wondered at the time why my response has been one of skepticism and scorn. Why does it matter if the kids want to remember everything with rose-colored glasses?

I think I feel a little bit like it matters to the people who were like me, the ones who were lonely and didn’t have friends. If my school had burned down, I would have rolled my eyes at the popular kids who said things like, “We’re all one big family,” when there’s no way they would have let me hang out with them at lunch or after school. I would have been glad for the break, thankful for a few days not to navigate the social scene, not to be so unsure of myself. I would have used the time to write a kick-butt college application essay about the experience (starting sentence: “It was a day like any other day”) and read books and helped my parents and mowed the grass . . . I wouldn’t have been meeting up with people to cry about losing a building that didn’t have all that many positive associations for me. I offer as proof: It’s not like I’ve been back.

I think things like, “We’re all one big family,” contribute to an overly romanticized version of high school that’s just not attainable. And I hate to see kids who were more like me feeling like they are doing something wrong because they aren’t experiencing that. “No,” I want to tell them, “the big family thing isn’t normal. And if you don’t have friends now, don’t worry about it. You’ll get out of there and find places where there are people who think and act more like you. You just have to put in your time like the rest of us did before you can find that.” At the same time, I think, “I hated every day of high school,” is a bit romanticized as well. Most of us actually fell somewhere in between, feeling lost and unsure of ourselves, but not deathly miserable.

The other thing that’s got me thinking about high school is the book I read yesterday: A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros. It’s about the high school that I attended and the challenges some of the Hispanic members of the community faced as they tried to start a soccer team there, in more of a high school football kind of town. The Hispanic population in the town was just starting to grow when I graduated, and it’s grown exponentially since then. Obviously, that’s caused all kinds of problems – logistical problems (the schools weren’t really prepared for so many non-English speaking students), legal problems (since many are illegal), and social problems (when a town changes so suddenly, it causes resentment). When I was at the school, they didn’t even have a soccer team, but now, not only do they have a team, but they won the state championship in 2004. As I read the book, it was interesting to see my hometown from an outsider’s perspective. I read things and I think, “Oh, it’s true, but did you have to tell them that?” The struggles that the influx of Hispanics has caused, the racism that’s evident there, the people who were fighting for the town to do the right thing. I recognize many of the people in the book, including my (passive) former principal who never stood up for anything, many of the teachers both good and bad who are mentioned, the white families who are pulling their kids out of the schools in order to “protect” them . . . it’s all true. I could picture the halls of the school and the streets of the town as I read it, which made it that much harder to read, and even though my life has been much much easier than the Hispanic youth who were featured in the book, I related a bit to their “outsider” status, which made the book even more personal. I should say that there are a lot of good, decent people in my hometown who worked hard to do the right thing, and I think that comes through in the book. It’s just that there are always adjustments to make when change comes so quickly. The book does end on a hopeful note, and I, too, have hope that things are going to improve there and at the school.

There were some small factual errors that I noticed, but nothing major. (Do you know how disconcerting it is to be close enough to a story to be able to recognize small factual errors in a book? I didn’t. Until yesterday.) If you are interested in knowing a little more about the town I grew up in, or how the unforeseen growth of the Hispanic population has changed one small town in the South, this is a great book to check out. As I told my coworkers, it’s not balanced . . . but it’s accurate.

It’s easy to take potshots at my high school and my hometown, but then I remember the way that people in the community responded to my family when my dad was sick and after his death: an outpouring of food and love and concern. It was a little bit refining to see that, to be pulled out of my tendency to see everything in black or white. To be reminded of the kindness of the people who live there, despite the problems the community has faced and despite the fact that I never felt quite at home there. I have to admit that, even though it wasn’t easy for me, it wasn’t a bad place to grow up.

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