|Learning To Love High
Christopher J. Stephens
© Copyright 2004 by Christopher J. Stephens
The ultimate love/hate chill has run through me every five years since my 1982 graduation from high school. The notice for these reunions would appear in the local paper, and they would give me an excuse to amplify the neurotic tendencies that were in their infancy while I was a teenager and are now an ingrained adult characteristic. Reunions are the true bonfires of the vanities, and I’m an unabashed pyromaniac. Give me the matches and I’ll watch the flames build up cherry red and brown orange. What will I wear? Who should I take? How is the persona I present masking the “frightened child within”?
Stop that. In the twenty-two years since graduation from high school, I find myself [for some reason] looking in awe at my contemporaries. They are married with multiple children. Their bodies are toned and shapely. They have clear-headed memories of who they were in high school and have not looked back. Many of them still live in the area. They inherited insurance businesses or publishing companies or started law practices. They were adults! What amazed me most was the marriages within our class. There must be about eight couples who met in high school, married, and have stayed together for ten, fifteen years. The cynic in me wondered if they couldn’t find anybody better, but that just covered up my own guilt for being alone all these years.
I was an outsider during my four years with them, drifting from group to group like a benign tumor. The only thing I ever did was deliver the last of two commencement addresses at graduation. They gave me a standing ovation, and it still haunts me. Why couldn’t I have done more? Relationships were rare, and the ones that blossomed after high school were always with the doomed, weepy flaxen-haired performance artists who smoked too much and never saw a future with me. I went to the fifth, tenth, fifteenth and twentieth reunion without shame that I hadn’t “settled down” or gotten a dream job but I wanted to bring a woman with me. I wanted to brag about an executive position even though I was still just a teacher, a writer, a loser meant to drift in space. Our class, and our generation as a whole, would be out of alignment if I suddenly appeared “together.” Dress me up, take me out, but don’t expect depth. I was the class philosopher, the most mysterious, and the guy with the funniest laugh. That’s a heavy burden. Isn’t it?
Nobody seems to have spoken for my generation, and I won’t pretend to fully do so here. We were the tail end of the baby boom. We came of age at the dawn of MTV, Reagan’s America, Bright Lights Big City. The eighties were good to those of us who chose to take advantage of them, and starting an adult life at their beginning still gave us time to drift for a while before we found direction. Artists could starve, and poets could wander the evening streets barking at the moon, waiting for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We spent our twenties still in the grips of the Cold War, nuclear winter, and “Just Say No.” It was a time when slogans seemed to mean something. We Are The World. Hands Across America. Go to college. Get a good job. Don’t worry, be happy.
What did I do immediately after high school? Not much. I drifted. College came in fits and starts, separated by stretches of laziness and boredom and the occasional human services job. I was an AmeriCorps
VISTA worker in Newark, New Jersey. I ended up teaching English to college students who weren’t born the year I graduated, and I know I can’t be that old. They understand the music and film references I throw at them, but only because of VH1’s “Behind The Music” and Nick At Nite and TV Land repeats. I’ve never seen a bridge that connects my generation with people in their twenties, but maybe it’s invisible. If it’s there, maybe it’s not supposed to be crossed until we all get much older.
My twentieth reunion was on November 30th, 2002. I went alone, as usual, and nothing profound happened. I desperately wanted to feel cynical and world-weary. I couldn’t be content with settling down. Nothing would make me feel complacent. It’s like what Bob Dylan sang in the last verse of “Tangled Up In Blue,” thirty years before he became a panties salesman. All the people he used to know were illusions to him now. My hair falls out and I don‘t bother with Rogaine. I put myself through a rigorous workout program at a local Gym, but I could never get rid of my flabby, root beer barrel candy-shaped body. Some things will never change. I’m forty this year. I don’t have time to be petulant.
The beautiful part
of all this is that the love/hate chill remains and will probably roll
around again by 2007. I found myself contemplating some sort of hopelessly
self-centered statement to make at this reunion, how I would follow up
my graduation speech and not get burned. I ended up saying nothing, just
watching, but imagine how it could have gone down. Quick, they’re setting
up flame-retardant tables for the reunion. The smoke detector batteries
have been removed. They’re opening the doors and passing out oxygen suits.
Put them on and make sure you don’t touch anybody. Jump into the fire.
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