Receiving correspondence from high school can be an effective catalyst for memories you haven’t dredged up in a while, and with good reason. An e-mail showed up the other day from my high school English teacher, Mr. Palizzi. It was completely unexpected, and the credit goes to the wondering glory of the Internet. I had Mr. Palizzi for American Literature my sophomore year, and a semester of World Literature my senior year.
Apparently Mr. Palizzi was bored one night and started searching for himself on the Internet. He stumbled across one of my odd ponderings from many months ago and decided to drop me a line (little did he know he’d once again be the subject of these thoughts). It was a simple e-mail, mainly replying to a few things he discovered about me. On one hand it presents me with a dilemma; he signed off as Steve Palizzi, and now I have to decide if I’m going to address him as the formal yet familiar “Mr. Palizzi,” or the friendlier yet odd-sounding “Steve.” I hate coping with what to call people. It was bad enough in college when it varied from Dr. So-and-so to Joey. Now as a burgeoning adult all the former names that were solidified in formalhood somehow slip into informal mode without telling me. It usually makes for a correspondence of full names (Hi Steve Palizzi, …), and avoiding actually using someone’s name when you meet them.
But on a more serious note, Mr. Palizzi’s e-mail did prompt a lot of reflection. He didn’t mentioned much news from high school, but did note at the end of his e-mail that one of my classmates had died in the last year or two. It took me a while to figure out who it was, but then (again thanks to the Internet) I discovered it was Neelam Mistry. We weren’t close friends, but then again I didn’t have a lot of close friends in high school. She was one of the many friends I hung out with in class and at the high school radio station and such. If I ever bumped into her outside of school (which I don’t think I ever did), I definitely would have talked to her. I’ll use that as an example because there’s a lot of people from high school who if I saw outside of school I probably would have avoided.
It’s probably more accurate to say that Neelam would have talked to me. She would have bounded over as soon as she spotted me, and bubbled with excitement and laughter. She wasn’t the giggly type of high school girl, but rather happy. She was one of the few people in the halls that actually looked happy most of the time. She’s also one of the many people I completely lost touch with after high school. I’m sorry to hear that she died.
After I heard the news I turned to my high school yearbook, the bastion of poor design, embarrassing photos, and spur of the moment messages in distinctive hand writing that will be so cryptically odd when we’re older. I found Neelam’s note and signature in a sloppy cursive on the inside back cover:
Oh God of Yo-yos!
Good luck next year in all you do (as if you need it!). Never forget the back table groupie! From the time I’ve know you I’ve learned a great many things. Just to name a few: Your sensitivity; though you don’t show it, you express it beautifully in your writing; your amazing talents; four letters–yo-yo, need I say more? And your compassion and love of who you are, I really admire that about you. Your a great person! Good luck next year.
PS – If I don’t see you next year, I’ll see you in he– (Dante)!
So many things in that could use some explanation, but I’m not going to try.
Now the flood of high school memories comes in. I read through the other signatures and odd messages, and it’s funny to compare what people wrote to what I remember of them. So many of these people I hardly knew, and they hardly knew me. It’s as if “Sign my yearbook!” is a request you can’t turn down, and it requires a writing of dishonest drivel, despite the four years of minimal contact.
Of course some of the writings are more telling than others. So many people commented on my yo-yoing ability, which is to be expected. To many people that’s all I was. Others commented on religious convictions, as they might describe it. They remembered me as being extreme, but honest and sincere. I guess that’s all I can ask for. Others commented that they wished they’d seen more of me senior year, and to keep in touch. Unfortunately neither happened.
Oddly, the year book doesn’t express some of the sentiments that truly stuck with me in high school, and even beyond high school. School and growing up in general was not a party for me. I didn’t experience what you see on TV or the movies. I’m not one of those damn Dawson’s River kids, and I never experienced the central element to every teen movie: the giant kegger party where half the school shows up. In my experience half the school would never hang out together. High school had sharper social divisions than that, and I’m surprised they still make movies ignoring the fact.
For me, growing up was about a deep desire to be accepted. Up until the fourth grade I had minimal problems with having friends and being accepted. I knew I wasn’t the most athletic or the coolest kid in my class, but that was okay. I still had friends who liked me for who I was. Fourth grade was probably the last year of acceptance.
With fifth grade the powers that be (sometimes I wonder if those powers that be realize just how much power they have?) shuffled me into a split fourth and fifth grade class. In my class there were only four fifth grade boys, and none of them were close friends. It was here that I realized the importance of being accepted, of having friends. That desire magnified with my lack of close friends and I learned just how uncool I was.
All my friends from fourth grade were shuffled into the other fifth grade class that year, the one that was all fifth graders. So they weren’t far away, but as elementary schools worked you’re consigned to your class for a majority of the day. Recess and a few special classes were the only times I saw those friends, and the relationships quickly diminished.
I was left with the three other fifth grade boys for friendship. Of course it wasn’t cool to be close friends with the girls, and I already had my share of problems with them. And there were a number of fourth grade boys in the class, but inter-grade friendships were looked down upon as well. I was a victim of unwritten social rules, and I didn’t have the self-confidence or the knowledge to know that I could rebel. I was a follower.
In the group of the fifth grade boys I was the whipping boy, the most un-athletic an un-cool. Apparently those are the only things that matter as you grow up. And it started my downward spiral.
Middle school wasn’t any better, and I’d really hate to go into details. Let’s just say junior highers are ruthless. It’s a terrible pecking order system, and you always seem to lose. It doesn’t help that some are dripping with hormones and others are still catching up.
I had my first love in middle school, and it was innocent and sweet. We traded notes and did the cute little things junior high couples do. It’s interesting that this stream of conscious remembering has focuses little on faith, because that played in as well. I think growing up is tremendously complicated, and I could probably re-write this sixteen times from sixteen different angles–and I’d still never get it right.
But I bring up faith with my first love because I think it illustrates what my faith meant to me. Her name was Tiffany, and somewhere in the closet I have a stash full of carefully folded notes that chronicle each school day of our relationship (I say school day because we rarely saw each other outside of school, another mark of the junior high relationship). My wife likes to read these notes and laugh. I tell myself she’s just jealous. She laughs some more.
As most junior high relationships go, there was an inkling of secret romance within each of us, a stockpile of hidden emotion just waiting for the right spark. The spark, of course, came from the chiding of mutual friends. During a field trip to the Henry Ford Museum for our Applied Technology class several of our friends taunted us about liking each other. We both denied the accusations, yet gave knowing smiles to each other. It was nauseatingly obvious that we liked each other. Our friends pushed and prodded us together, and at the same time ridiculed us like we were chasing forbidden love. Knowing the guys I hung out with at the time, they were truthfully jealous. Although they’d never admit it.
Notes were exchanged and before the end of the day we were going out. The idea still impresses me today. Me, the uncool, unhip, un-athletic nerd had a girlfriend. At the time I don’t think I felt that way, but now it amazes me. I realize what a dork I was back then.
But before Tiffany and I could officially go out (I love that phrase, it implies everything that dating, become boyfriend and girlfriend does, yet it works for the junior highers who will never actually go out anywhere together. It’s just a phrase that carries certain implied meaning, but on the surface is ludicrous. Much like most of junior high.), I had something troubling me.
I waited until Friday night, and if I remember correctly it was the same day as the infamous field trip that started it all. On Friday nights it was tradition for my family to go to eat, usually at Pizza Hut. The waitress knew us by name. After pizza we’d go our various ways, usually my dad and brother to some hobby shop in a far-flung corner of the suburbs, and my mom to some nearby mall for an evening of full-scale shopping. I was usually stuck in the middle and had to decide who I wanted to hang out with. Going with mom usually meant wandering the mall by myself, being dragged through a few dull stores, and ending up back at home for TGIF on ABC (it is here that I must admit that I watched and somehow enjoyed “Full House” starring Bob Saget. I was a junior high dork).
But this Friday night was different, and may simply serve as one of those transitional Fridays when my family spent less and less time together. On this particular Friday night I remember going home with my dad. My brother and mom were gone, mom probably shopping and brother probably out with his friends (he was after all in high school, and probably going through the same nightmare of acceptance I was). My dad retired to the basement to work on models or whatever it was he did down there, and I was left to wallow with the nagging feeling in my stomach.
I liked Tiffany. And despite the way my friends laughed, I wanted to go out with her. But there was one problem: I didn’t know if she was a Christian. For those who are unaware, there’s a well-known Christian doctrine that says you should not marry an unbeliever, and by logical extension, you should not date an unbeliever. Apparently I wasn’t making that logical extension in my mind, because the very thought of marrying the person I was going out with in eighth grade would have blown my little mid-pubescent mind. The Christian doctrine actually comes from a verse in the Bible that says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” (2 Corinthians 6:14, NIV). Apparently “yoked” is the first century term for “going out.” There’s actually a Christian dating service in the Twin Cities called Equally Yoked. They advertise on Cities 97, the local hip-rockers station, and I can’t help but wonder how they expect anyone to want to use a dating service called Equally Yoked.
Now I don’t think I understood the concept of this yoking business. I don’t think I had it in mind that I wouldn’t date a pagan. I just felt strongly about my Christian beliefs, and I figured if I was going to go out with someone it wouldn’t work very well if they didn’t understand my faith.
And so (here’s the good part) with Bible in hand I looked up her phone number and sat down at the kitchen table. Back then (this would have been the early 90s) my family didn’t have a cordless phone, so I was stuck sitting at the kitchen table, a place that usually would have afforded an embarrassing lack of privacy. But my dad was busily working in the basement and my mom and brother were gone. So I found her phone number and sat there with my Bible and the phone and got ready to call her. I figured I’d ask Tiffany if she was a Christian, and if she wasn’t, I’d make her one.
So with junior high butterflies in my stomach, I called her number. I don’t remember a word she said, but I vividly remember the overwhelming sense of relief when she said she was a Christian.
“Oh,” I answered, with a hint of disappointment. “That’s good.” It took me a moment to realize this was good news. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but it did include the phrase, “Will you go out with me?” and an affirmative response. As was the custom, the phone call didn’t last much longer. Tiffany and I had an acute dysfunction at talking on the phone, something that would haunt me in later relationships, and cause my wife to laugh all the more.
You may think my eighth grade relationship set me up as a bona fide player in high school, but that wasn’t the case. While eighth grade ended on an very high note with Kevin and Tiffany attending the eighth grade dance together (I’ve got a cute picture somewhere–you should see my spikey hair), and actually exchanging what would have been my first kiss. I think at that moment the cool social life and customs of being a teenager knocked on my door. We kissed, the dance ended, and mom came to pick me up. A bunch of our friends were heading to the Village Place and for some reason I opted not to go. I ended up in my room at home, before 9:00, wishing I could kiss Tiffany again. My social life had passed me by.
Tragically, Tiffany and I never developed our over the phone conversation skills, and the summer passed with minimal contact and a few letters exchanged. As if the first days of high school weren’t traumatic enough, our relationship was on eggshells, and it came splintering apart those first few days. I can’t explain what happened, other than to say I was morbidly afraid of high school and retreated within myself for protection. It took an entire semester before I ventured out of my shell, and by then Tiffany was long gone.
Thus my introduction to high school, and forever struggling with friendship, acceptance, and being cool. This story could go on forever, and I’ll probably continue it later. But to give it some semblance of closure, let’s just say the yo-yo brought me out of my shell, and the rest is history. I earned acceptance by accepting my dorkiness, manifested in the yo-yo. By the time I entered college I finally learned to stop worrying about being cool, I stopped being self conscious, and I stopped trying so hard to be accepted. Unfortunately, the result may have swung me a bit too far in the other direction, evidenced by my wife’s sighs at my choice of attire. I think this is the beginning of the road fathers take to becoming so unbelievably unhip. Perhaps I am doomed.