Sunday, December 20, 2009

High School

Nostalgia is a colorless, ordorless, narcosis-inducing gas which, once inhaled, goes straight from the nostrils to the frontal lobe of the brain and takes control. I think this may be why I visited my old high school last week. Or, more probably, it was the fact that a rock slide had closed I-40, forcing me to take the alternate route of I-81 to Tennessee to visit my mother, who still languishes in a Knoxville nursing home. Alzheimer’s takes away a little more of her each time I see her. Her thickening mental haze has now rendered her unable to complete whole sentences. It’s like she runs out of “thought”, like people run out of breath, and then a puzzled look comes over her white face as if to say, “What was I talking about?”

So I’m driving back home, thinking about all that depressing stuff, and the mellow voice of James Taylor comes through the stereo speakers opining that “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time”. I am contemplating that when I catch sight of the green highway sign overhead that reads: “Tri-Cities Airport 1 Mile”. I am only four miles away from Holston High School where I spent four years of my adolescence between 1961 and 1965. On impulse, I take the exit, concluding that while enjoying the passing of time is not necessarily the secret of life, it is nonetheless a good thing to do if you can do it. Of course when he wrote that song, ol’ JT”s enjoyment of the passing of time was probably chemically induced, if you catch my drift.

The roads had changed a bit over the decades but I found the old building with no trouble. From the outside it looked almost frozen in time. But a closer look told me that it was no longer a functioning school. I peered through a dirty window into what used to be Mrs. Reynolds music classroom, now stacked with boxes gathering dust. A chain had been looped around the push bars of the main building’s double doors. But I could see inside. The hallway, which I had remembered as a colorful place 45 years ago, with the din of colliding conversations and slamming locker doors, was now an achromatic, silent tomb. I thought of a scene from the movie Titanic and imagined a fade-in of boys and girls walking the old wooden floors. But the place remained empty and dark.

I would learn later that the building had been condemned as a fire hazard sometime in the 70’s and was now some kind of warehouse for the Sullivan County School System. The main building of what was then called Holston Institute, had been built of stone around 1911. Over the years it had been cobbled onto to become a hodgepodge of wings and additions with mismatched bricks and windows. In 1960 the anachronistic “Institute” was dropped and it simply became known as “Holston High School”.

I got back into my car to drive away and I passed the old gym, which I think had been built sometime in the 1940’s. There were signs of neglect and disuse here as well. The gym steps, which had been a favorite posing area for class photographs, were now covered with vines. Plywood covered the windows. I drove onto the two-lane road that took me back to the interstate. As I merged with the northbound traffic, the sun was a fading orange ball in my rearview mirror and headlights of oncoming cars began began to wink on in the advancing gloom. As the miles rolled by, I thought of the life lessons learned in high school:

People can be cruel - One day in gym class Crandall Crane and Johnny Gobble got into a fist fight. Crandall was bigger, stronger and a clever boxer. His punches were smacking hard into Johnny’s face. I looked around for Coach Maddux. Surely he would stop it. I saw him nonchalantly watching the beating from a doorway, his arms akimbo, a slight smile on his face. Crandall’s next punch landed hard. Johnny went down, blood spurting from his mouth where he had lost a tooth. Only then did Coach Maddux put his whistle to his mouth and amble over to break it up.

People can be kind - I was a lumpy kid in the ninth grade and did not outgrow it until senior year. I remember Dorothy Rose, a ninth grade English teacher, who praised my work in her class and made me feel worthwhile. She inspired me to read and love books. As an adult, I meant to find her and thank her but I never did.

E.B. Sanders, who taught math, and knew I struggled with the subject, gave me passing grades even though I did not deserve them. I remember him winking at me when he passed back a final exam paper that I desperately needed to do well on in order to pass his class. I had missed 40 of 60 Algebra problems, guessing at many of them. But, to my sweet relief, he had scrawled a “B” in red grease marker in the upper right-hand corner of the paper! I never forgot his kindness but never thanked him either.

Life isn’t fair - Some of the boys who graduated back there in 1965 went on to colleges or they had low draft numbers and dodged the Viet Nam war. Others weren’t so lucky. I’m not sure, but I think one was badly wounded and I think one was killed. In those days, boys our age were prime fodder.

Some of the girls were blessed with beauty and charm; some weren’t. Like I said…life isn’t fair. Not all the pretty girls were coquettes, but it was clear that they enjoyed their position in the caste system. I remember senior year, seeing one girl in particular sweep the table of awards and nominations and elections. She was truly a queen, and to top it all, she actually seemed genuinely gracious about all of it, like the good queen in a Disney Movie fairy tale, which served to even enhance her regalness. Everybody eventually comes to earth in the real world. I wonder if she did.