Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
It's the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45 a.m. with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the "bush" of high school. It is a time of great anticipation and angst. We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school. I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid's experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.
The term "homeroom" still sends chills down my spine. I was wedged for 12 years between Tammy T. and Brad W. Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me. Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men's imaginations. Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance. He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California. We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.
The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change -- new and old faces, strange text books the size of "War and Peace," anxiety that an upper classman, like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner. Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the '60s and '70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year. A lifetime is a day.
I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence. Miss S. was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existence. To Miss S., each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life's seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.
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There was the Vietnam medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe's doughnuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year. He later married one of his students, which seemed for some to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight. Secretly, he still garners my write-in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.
There was Mr. R., the charismatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue. For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I. -- the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the high school Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the '70s, folks). And one of my favs, Coach K., a hyper sensitive guy who produced championship swim teams and taught calculus. He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and would routinely remand his class with pop quizzes and punitive homework assignments for things he saw within the student body that "disappointed" him. We theorized when he was young, he was jammed into his high school locker, receiving a nuclear wedgie and went missing for several hours before being found. The experience transformed him into a sort of musketeer -- D'Artagnon of the disenfranchised and marginalized.
School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living. Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones. This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart. Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole. "Everyone has this except me." "No one will be there except me." "No one wears those anymore." Oh, that's right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in "Taxi Driver." "The teacher said we did not have to do that section." "I forgot my backpack at Teddy's house."
On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage -- the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick. I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the "House of Pain" on a weeknight. Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.
Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes. Some do it quite spectacularly. Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being "young and invincible." It means cars are driven at break-neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights -- you, with that big "L" on your forehead.
In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate. The lot was situated behind the wood shop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids. I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different. Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.
Invariably, they were always labeled as "bad kids." However, my mom used to say, "There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences." Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation. Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth. We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man's land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers. High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.
Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were, in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope. I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.
I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound. Beautiful women that no one recognized at first -- ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor. Others who had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume. There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world. Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, 17 -- vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.
Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning. It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again. To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval. Now imagine it all that again for the first time. Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences. It's a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently. It's about learning to fly and bumping your butt. It's back to school time parents, buckle up.
Visit Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.