The past couple days I’ve found myself considering that saying that seems to be everywhere all of a sudden: High school is the best time of your life. I’ve heard it reiterated on tv shows, certain morning talk shows that shall not be named, in books, and of course, ironically, as people try to deal with the intricacies of adulting. It seems to recapitulate itself every graduation season as little, adorable high school valedictoriae wax poetic about these glory days just past. (Of course, the kids going through high school during COVID, I sense, possess a wariness about them that might save humans as a species…no one’s even pretending that high school in the past couple years is the panacea former generations have suggested it to be).
While I’ve always been the one to ask where in the world this idea comes from (it seems somehow universally panned as a Truth), as I sit here steeping in my own sense of failure everywhere I turn, I’m willing to give it a more thoughtful review.
Maybe high school was the best years of my life.
Yet, when I start to compare the data, matching up those years and now, it doesn’t hold up. Both times suck(ed) in their own remarkable ways. But I will say that, when not staring at the cold hard facts, the idea that those were good years prevails, even in my own cold, ironic, skeptical mind.
So what about high-school, retrospectively, makes us think (or re-think) its supposed glory?
It’s two things: 1) hindsight is 20/20 and 2) the ever-growing urgency of our own mortality. It sounds heavy but I stand by it as a theory. Here’s why.
Looking Back is Clearer than Looking Forward
Unless you’re looking in my review mirror which I haven’t washed in as long as I’ve owned the car, gazing back at any time in our lives, even if they were abjectly terribly, often includes history’s “softening” of the edges. Time in the past becomes an object we own, now living largely in our minds outside of any other context. Most importantly, unless it was traumatic to the point of PTSD, it’s hardest of all to remember the experience of living it: what did it feel like in the moment, what was in the ether at the time, what was I wearing actually? Did it make me look thin? Odds are it did not.
Certainly in my case, the further in my memory an occurrence or time period is, the broader a brush I use to remember those more ethereal things. So even if it was “bad,” all I can remember is that it was “bad,” and I can also remember that I couldn’t breathe or my heart was fluttering, I remember those things as facts and not feelings.
Case in point, I have a deep tissue scar on my right shin from a time a girl spiked me sliding into home during an intense softball game the summer of my Sophomore year in high school. Stakes were high, she’s rounding third barreling toward home; the throw comes in from left field spot on to the shortstop cutoff just at the edge of the grass and the infield; the shortstop rifles the ball in a perfectly straight rope toward me at home. Like something out of The Matrix, I can see the ball and the girl, their separate rates of travel converge on me at home; I’m going to tag her out but it’s close. I feel before I hear the snap of the ball in the pocket of my catcher’s mitt and start to drop to tag when I feel a blinding, lightning bolt of pain down inside of my knee to my ankle. I’m laying on top of her, ball in glove, glove on her….SAFE. And all hell breaks loose as my coaches and the parents in the bleachers, in a cacophony of blurred sound, protest not just the call but the fact that they saw her apply her slide not toward home-plate but toward my knee, above the shin guards, as if to injure me as the first priority (a huge sliding sport no-no).
The thing is, I can remember that moment in the finest of detail, from the color of the uniforms to what the lights of the diamond looked like in the twilight of that humid, buggy evening in Northeast Ohio. I remember what that cow-faced girl looked like with, and I’m not kidding, her flared nostrils (yeah, she had anger issues maybe). I remember the smell of the glove I wore. To the detail, I remember that moment like it was yesterday. But I don’t remember what it felt like. I can approximate the stress of that impending tag. I can remember what that most magnificent bruise felt like days after (this thing ran the length of my tibia and looked like a rainbow geode…now that was glorious…it felt “tight”), but as bad as the pain was (I remember limping for days because any movement hurt those tissues), I can’t re-feel it. I remember “it hurt”…but it’s just a concept now. It hurt. Like slamming my toe into the bed this morning hurt. It’s non-specific.
It’s this turn from experience to memory that makes those of us about 30 years way from high school want to remember it as washed in greatness. It’s far enough away that we can’t remember (or maybe have blocked out) the specific suckiness of the angst, very similar probably to whatever angst we feel now. But, in my mid 40’s, I have another key factor in making me re-think the high school years: I’ve been at life longer, and the close is much more urgently creeping on me.
I Open at the Close
…was the engraving on Harry Potter’s snitch that Dumbledore bequeaths back to him at the end of the series. It’ll serve as an aid to get through the toughest times: the test of his own mortality. And yes, this got heavy, but it shouldn’t be dark. The reality is, what we lose in context for the high school experience, we gain in perspective.
In retrospect, which is 20/20 and we have full knowledge of the entirety of it upon which to reflect, high school was minor compared to the challenges we face in aging…and I’m a modest way through. The reality is that the statement of life makes it seem like a noble, worthwhile goal that you’ll figure out on your way. We say stupid things like “live, laugh, love.” or “the key to life is contentment.” They’re not stupid because they’re bad ideas. They’re stupid in how simple they sound compared to how hard actualizing them is.
Life is hard: having children and raising and keeping them safe is hard. I don’t have kids of my own because I didn’t feel like I could give them what they seem to require; I look at my nephews and wonder what the world will be like for them my when they’re my age…it overwhelms me. Sustaining ourselves as humans, physically and emotionally, is hard. For some the struggle is that of post-industrialized humanity: anxiety, depression, ennui, a sense of valuelessness, meaninglessness in a world so complex that they get swallowed up. Meanwhile, other parts of the world live in conditions that are literally killing them. A priest from Kenya today asked us for two things: prayers and water…because their crops and animals are dying and their people are suffering from drought-borne disease because they don’t have enough water to bathe.
Were high school days better than this? Sure. I wasn’t thinking about any of this let alone the constant worry I feel that I’m not reaching my own potential every single day or wasting my life away on silly things. I always considered and looked forward to the time that would be “my time”: when I was a fully actualized version of myself that had really come into her own and was contributing to herself and the world–her family, her loved ones–as much as she could, and it was good and signficant.
I had never, ever considered that glory days would always occur in the rearview mirror because in the moment, life is hard and confusing and there are no real answers.
Or maybe it is this realization, made today in my 45th year, that makes the my glory day. The one. Maybe the glory comes in realizing that everything you’ve been told is important doesn’t have to matter to you if you don’t want it to.
If this is my glory day, I’ll take it. At least I feel like I’ve earned it.