My High School, Revisited

Mercer Island in the fall, from the Mercer Island Reporter

It’s strange to walk the grounds of my old high school this fall. In the past, visits had been brief glimpses of the past moving stubbornly forward. Different faces, same faces, all housed together in a building I used to know. Did I really look that young? Is that a saxophone in my old locker?

Now that it’s a pandemic, it’s easier. There aren’t any pesky whippersnappers hogging the building and reminding me that I do not belong. The red-yellow leaves smell fresh with rainwater, yet earthy too, as if I can already smell them melting into the ground. I think I associate that smell with hope.

Fall is a time to work hard, very hard, because there is so much to do. If you spend the year failing at something, in the fall, you’ve only just begun to fail. You believe that maybe it’s a blip, just a mistake in an otherwise overwhelmingly successful year. And sometimes, you’re right — it is only a small hiccup that is easily overcome.

You haven’t become bitter by months of forced lessons in resilience. No, you’re fresh from a sunny break and ready to tackle all the shit the world has to throw at you. There is this sense that you can do it. Because of course you can! But when the snow doesn’t let up in February sometimes you think well, maybe I’d rather not.

I’ve been taking this nostalgia trip a lot lately because my parents’ house is walking distance from my high school. I used to walk to school every day, rain or shine, holding my trumpet case in one hand and my angst in the other. Instead of an obligation, it’s become a destination. A place to break up the monotony of existence in a pandemic.

I forgot that the colors change in Seattle in the fall. Not as much as Ohio, of course, but in between the evergreens, there are pops of crimson and orange and gold. It’s getting colder, too. And man, it is getting darker. By 6pm the mountains have hidden the sun and the world has gone to sleep.

The Halloween decorations have come out. That’s a word I haven’t typed in a while — Halloween. College made it so easy to ignore all the holidays. It was sort of fun to ignore them if a bit lonely. Halloween decorations are so fun — entire yards strewn with cotton cobwebs and plastic ghosts, mini-plastic pumpkins strung from trees, pop-up graveyards in the flowerbeds.

My younger brother goes to the high school, you know. He hasn’t been inside the building all year. There’s a weathered sign in the parking lot of the school, and right now it welcomes the class of 2024. It seems silly to have an ostentatious welcome that few will see, but maybe that’s the point. We do kind things for each other even if we never know if it will have an impact.

The administrators are still coming to the office, strangely. Their building is just down the hill from the high school, and their parking lot is always half full. Sometimes I see a blue-masked middle-aged woman huff out. I wonder why she works there. Surely, administrators can work from home.

But without the students, the high school building is sort of sweet. I still feel that pain, of course — the chronic chest pain of being a teenager who desperately wants to leave but not being sure what it is that she wants to leave, exactly. And of course, that sting of being continually only half-accepted by people she had daily contact with since middle school. I’m still kind of mad about it. What’s so hard about being kind to a familiar face?

I had friends, of course, but most only lasted a year or so. I wanted more. I wanted out. I wanted to be away from the jocks and the suffocating rich-white culture. It wasn’t terrible, going to Mercer Island High School. I wasn’t bullied. I got good grades. I learned things here and there. I had good friends, even if I don’t talk to most of them anymore. But the angst of being a teenager was always highly present for me while at Mercer Island High School, and it’s what wails at me from across time when I walk past the high school track.

It’s weird, going back to my old high school. But at least in a pandemic, I can linger. I can sit outside the window of my microeconomics classroom. Maybe I’ll write about boys I used to know. I can step across the commemorative bricks and find the one with my name on it. I can remember how I moshed, played trumpet, and ate lunch with friends on the oversize concrete steps. I can look through the windows and remember the stench of teenage body odor after a 5-hour marching band game. I can find the path behind the dumpster and laugh about how people used to smoke back there even though everyone could see them. I can smell the leaves.

Without the students, it’s just me and my memories. But I have to say, it’s nice.


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