I don’t think about high school very often. Was it the best time of my life? No. Was it terrible? No. They say that if high school sucks for you, you make up for it in university. High school didn’t suck for me, but it wasn’t exactly the highlight of my adolescence.
I have an unabashed love and reverence for the cannon of John Hughes films of the mid-to-late eighties. I confess, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, For Keeps, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, et al, were the cinematic backdrop to my teen years. I’m not ashamed. Those movies hold up. In my opinion, John Hughes was a genius.
I just watched the new release Booksmart. You guys, it was SO GOOD. I highly recommend. In addition to being just an incredible piece of art, it got me reminiscing about high school…and my experience over those 5 years (yes, I’m old and I had that fifth OAC year of high school because I was university-bound and live in Ontario).
I went to a high school in downtown Peterborough, the oldest high school in the city, founded in 1827. My grandmother, my mom, my uncle, and all my siblings went there. I loved it. It was also the smallest high school in the city. Our graduating class was less than 200 people. The high school closed in 2012, due to low enrollment, but the building itself was re-purposed as a facility for alternative and continuing education. In all these years, I haven’t been back to the school. I should go. I will probably cry. Shocker.
It goes without saying, that high school is probably the most confusing, and yet enlightening time of our lives. By no means do we learn who we are there, but that process certainly begins within those halls. And it’s where certain decisions can set a path forward for you that can be (and often are) life-changing. Think about it. I entered high school at the age of 13 and graduated when I was 18. Those are some pretty important years. And for me, that was in the mid-nineties. For context, think of what the world was like in the mid-nineties.
I remember when my family got our first microwave (we made popcorn, naturally). I remember when we got our first computer (without internet). I remember migrating from cassettes to CDs, getting actual film developed to see how my pictures from the cottage, or the party, or whatever turned out. I remember scrunchies (the original). I remember wearing those waffle shirts from Northern Reflections (I had so many of them), I remember jeans with little zippers at the ankles, friendship bracelets, Birkenstocks with socks, Tevas in the summer (which left distinct and coveted tan lines on your feet), typing class (yes, TYPING on actual typewriters). I remember assemblies, Raider Pride, garnet and grey, the Terry Fox Run, school dances, decorating my locker, and I especially remember the creaky and well-worn steps of the school. The history of the building, the beautiful (if slightly uncomfortable) auditorium, and its tiny light booth in the attic where I would seclude myself, looking down onto the empty stage are etched in my memory.
I have a lot of fond memories of my time there, obviously. But, to say that it was the best time of my life? Ummmmm…. no.
Don’t get me wrong, I had wonderful friends. And I am still friends with most of them. Some of them are actively in my life, or at least in it to the extent that we keep pretty impressive tabs on one another, so that even if we don’t chat or get together very often, the closeness is still there. They are truly gems of humans. I love them.
Were there cliques in my high school? Of course. Were they as strictly defined as is represented in most “teen movies?” No. But, there were certainly distinctions.
There were definitely “cool kids.” They were mostly athletes. I guess that’s pretty standard. I was not an athlete, clearly. There were SAC (Student Activity Counsel) members, who kind of ran the school. Not every member of SAC was one of the “cool kids,” but it was sort of their domain.
There were also those kids who were partiers who weren’t necessarily athletes, but they were part of that group. They were the kids who drank and experimented with drugs, and had sex and got up to all kinds of adventures on the weekends and seemed way older than me.
To be clear, I was not one of those people.
During the first couple of years of my high school career, I was kind of invisible. Or, I felt invisible. Which, to the people who really knew me then, and have met me since, is SHOCKING. But, it’s true. I was shy, kind of serious, very internal, in my head most of the time, always gazing out, wishing I could be different, or part of things I was too afraid to try, tucked up in a corner, reading or writing. I wore baggy clothes (well, it was the grunge era, after all), and ill- fitting bras, I had super-long, lifeless hair that I had no idea how to manage (until I had the good sense to grow out those awful bangs and cut it in grade 11). I didn’t wear make-up, and I was often the teacher’s pet (without trying, I swear!). I just disappeared into the scenery.
I was a good student. So were all my friends. Some of them got better grades than me in certain subjects…but the thing I shamelessly take pride in is that if I was in an English class with any of them, they ALL wanted to do group projects or partner up with me. What can I say? English was my jam, and I could write a kick-ass essay in my sleep!
But, as much as I loved English class, music was my favourite subject.
If, for the first couple of years of high school I felt invisible and inconsequential, it was the music room that saved me. I found my home in that room. It was my safe space, my sanctuary. I would sometimes just go there to shoot the shit with my music teachers/directors (there were only three of them), because if it’s possible, I felt like they were my friends. Or my older, wiser, cooler cousins or something.
Music class was the best. I remember never wanting it to end. I fully immersed myself in it. And, to an extent, it was in those rooms, in those groups, where barriers were broken down. Our school was small, and well-rounded (in terms of arts and athletics, tech, etc.), that there was a lot of overlap of those stereotypical cliques in organizations. There were music nerds (like me, I would say), athletes, SAC members, Arts kids, or “Artsies,” as we called them – in a totally affectionate way, I promise! I’m referring to those enrolled in the formal Integrated Arts Program and not just those students who were artistic. There were some seriously talented future musicians, and there were those who clearly just wanted an “easy” arts credit (P.S. it wasn’t easy) and everything else in between.
That is where I lived, it was my sweet spot. But, as the years went on, I came out of my shell and in the last couple of years of school, I began to put myself out there more. I got out of the music room and did a lot of stuff around the school. Let’s just say, the faculty knew me well 😊
Anyway, because I was always performing with one choir or band or ensemble or another, people would see me a lot. In my last year of school, I was involved in every ensemble I qualified for, including the coveted Triple Trio, I did morning announcements, I wrote for the school paper, and I was the editor-in-chief of the yearbook. I remember I co-hosted a Cabaret night with one of my singing sisters, Andrea. I sang a song a capella, Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall” so it was super scary. It was the first time I had ever sung by myself in front of a crowd. Regardless of what people thought of my singing, it certainly put me on the map!
I remember Mr. Thorn (RIP), my Philosophy teacher, pulled me out of class the next day and in a very serious tone, looking down at me sternly (any of you PC alumni who had Mr. Thorn remember this tactic very well – also, the standing on his desk and turning out the lights) and earnestly congratulating me on my performance. It was one of the highlights of my high school years, to be sure.
So, I would say people knew who I was…what they thought of me, I have no idea.
Everything I’ve described firmly casts me in the light of a total goody-goody, a “browner,” a nerd, maybe even a loser. In some ways that was true: I can count on one hand the number of times I drank during my high school years (which obviously doesn’t matter now, but then it was a very distinctive fact). I never had a boyfriend (but lots of hopeless crushes), nor did I get into any trouble of any kind. I was pretty vanilla. If I was vanilla in my teen years, then I was more of a creamy, milk chocolate in my 20s and in my 30s, I was definitely more of a bitter dark chocolate. I’m not really sure what I’m talking about anymore, this metaphor is getting away from me.
I’m not really sure how our class saw us, but I know that I had wonderful, if slightly square, rule-following, honour-roll achieving friends, with whom I was lucky to roll. I was driven to accomplish things and I had a desire to be liked, or at least to not have a bad reputation. Despite the fact that I wasn’t invited to the “cool kids’” parties, or the boys I had crushes on (there were SO many boys I had crushes on), didn’t know I was alive, (or if they did, they certainly didn’t think about me), I was OK with who I was and my place in the high school hierarchy. I don’t think the students thought ill of me, I just think they didn’t think of me at all.
But maybe that’s not true. I remember being home from university for a holiday, and meeting up with my high school friends at The Arms (RIP, The Arms – you were a special place to us). I was at the bar, and this girl who was maybe two or three years behind me (still in high school, anyway), started talking to me like I was a f-ing celebrity.
She knew me as the Editor-in-Chief of the 1997/98 yearbook, and she told me she was trying to create a yearbook as good as the one we had produced in my graduating year (P.S. I have to say, I am really proud of it). I guess I did have a reputation after all!?!?
She clearly knew me, and apparently we had spoken before. But, you know what? I had no idea who she was! Maybe to her, I was a “cool kid,” someone she looked up to, wanted to be like, and felt a certain privilege to have a chat with in our local pub.
What’s interesting about growing up in a relatively small city, is that because the schools are divided by district, most kids I had gone to elementary school with, many of them from SK-8, ended up going to the same high school as me.
I was lucky to retain a good handful of them, but there were many kids with whom I had shared countless sleepovers, birthday parties, and after-school hangouts that turned into dinner with their families who seemed to dump me when we got to high school. One of my favourite memories is a party in one of my friends’ attic, where everyone conspired to secure me my would-be “boyfriend,” Kevin B, while we slow danced to “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette. We talked on the phone once, held hands in the school yard maybe a couple of times, and “broke up” 2 weeks later. So, for a grade 7 romance, it was pretty hot.
So, we all showed up on the first day of grade 9 at PCVS, which I distinctly remember was really hot and muggy. I remember exactly what I was wearing. I remember what Becky was wearing too, oddly. Actually, for those of you who know, it’s not odd at all.
Anyway, we were all in our new, perfectly curated outfits, most of which were completely weather-inappropriate, tanned and relaxed from the summer, but nervous about this next big step…we did sort of cling to each other for the first few days/weeks. But, slowly, we began to branch off and find new friends, new cliques, new identities we wanted to inhabit as “high schoolers.” It’s funny that most of the friends I had throughout my childhood, turned into people who wouldn’t acknowledge my existence in high school, let alone talk to me or appreciate the friendship we had had for the better part of our lives. I guess that’s a pretty universal experience, though. Remember the climactic scene at the end of Can’t Buy Me Love?
But, you know what’s amazing to me? Facebook. I’m not kidding!!!! When Facebook became a thing, and I finally joined (late to the party, as always), I started “friending” my high school peeps. It was such a surreal experience – I was connecting with the people I had grown up with, the people who were there when I was becoming a real person, and who I never thought I would even think about again, let alone know anything about 22 years later. If it weren’t for FB and social media in general, I wouldn’t have a sweet clue about anyone’s life now. I mean, about those who aren’t my actual friends in real life still. And even then, I don’t think I would keep such good tabs on my friends’ lives if I couldn’t follow them virtually.
And I have to say, in adulthood, the people I wasn’t necessarily close to in high school, even some of whom were “cool kids,” have not only connected with me, but have been lovely and down to earth in our interactions, and seem to have forgotten about all that high school nonsense. Maybe they didn’t think there was high school nonsense. But it doesn’t really matter now. I think some of them even read this blog (hi guys!).
As editor of the yearbook, I remember being on this kind of crusade to have our graduating class write their senior quotes in a different format and with an intention of longevity that was anathema to the established tradition – which was usually a list of their friends’ initials, teams they played on, party memories, inside jokes, shout outs to girlfriends and boyfriends, all in a sort of short handed code so as to get as much information in the allowed characters. In my opinion, it was a code that no one would remember 10, 20 years from then. I actually held a mini assembly for the graduates to give them some suggestions.
GAWD, what they must have thought of me! I officially apologize to my graduating class for being so insufferable and self-righteous. I cringe now just thinking about it.
I will say, however, that I loved my senior quote and to this day, think I chose well:
Pretty on-brand, non? Also, can we appreciate, once again, the “Rachel” hair cut I was rocking?
And it’s no coincidence that that David Bowie quote appears in one of my all-time favourite movies about the teenage experience, The Breakfast Club.
Anyway, I could go on forever about high school politics and caste systems and memories, the teachers who had a huge impact on me, and how I think those years help shape who I am today.
But, today, I just wanted to share some of my thoughts about my high school experience. And, to tell you to go see Booksmart!!! It will resonate with you, no matter who you are now or who you were in high school.
And you know what? “Cool kid” or not, I think I turned out pretty great.
I think we all did.