I RECENTLY WENT to parents' night at our local high school in Princeton, New Jersey. The way these evenings work is that parents walk through their children's schedule, going from classroom to classroom. There we sit in remarkably uncomfortable chairs for a 15-minute introduction to the teacher and the course he or she teaches.
It's been a very long time since I've been in a high school, and memories flooded over me.
As I shuffled down the halls looking at the posters advertising the next dance, a homecoming pep rally and tryouts for the spring musical, I was transported back 40 years to when I walked through high school halls in a blue-collar neighborhood on Long Island. I realize that youth culture has changed dramatically over these years. But the beige linoleum floors, the tiled state-hospital-like walls, the wide stairwells that beg for someone to slap down an armful of books--they are all the same. I walked past one locker that was dented--and prayed for the nerd whose head had been pushed into it. And don't even get me started on the bathrooms. Have the graffiti artists developed no creativity after so many years?
No one ever gets over high school. I am sure my stepsons' teachers were saying important things that night as I sat in their classes, but I couldn't stay focused. The familiar halls beckoned old memories that overtook my mind and soul.
I remembered that everyone in high school had to find his or her group. There were the cool kids, who formed the most rigorous union imaginable. They were a power bloc of football stars, cheerleaders and a few girls who knew guys in college--they determined their own elite membership. Then there were the rest of us: the student government do-gooders, the audiovisual geeks who pushed projectors down the halls, the druggies, actors, chess club types, fat kids, loners, brainiacs, musicians and those strange students who for some reason enjoyed sitting in the hall checking for passes. I was among the weirdest of all--one of those religious nuts who had a fiery Baptist preacher for a father.
You didn't necessarily, or typically, enjoy being in your group. It felt mostly like an assignment. We wouldn't have used these words in high school, but we were living out what we assumed was our calling. And it was very hard, next to impossible, to transition out of your group into another one. Wherever your young life fell in the freshman year was where you were destined to remain. …