“Then, I said, “I found speech and debate.”
My daughter laughed. Snorted. “Oh and that was the solution.”
She had come into my room a bit melancholy. Other people on Instagram were posting things about what they were doing. The whole world was having fun and here she was at home. She hadn’t asked what high school was like for me, but I said I’d had a lonely junior high and I understood. She brightened: do tell.
Yes, it was the solution, I said, and I explained. We woke early Saturday morning. Went to school at Oh Dark Fifteen, boarded a chuffing bus spewing diesel perfume - a proper bus, mind you, a retired Streamliner, split-level - and we went to a distant city in Minnesota or South Dakota, engaged in battle -
“With words,” she said.
“With words. Yes. And we swept the floor with our enemies, because we were good and we were prepared. And then we went to the Holiday Inn and had steak and swam in the pool and stayed up in the rooms talking, and then in the morning we got up and had French Toast and went back to the tournament and won, and took the bus back with trophies.”
Pause. “That sounds like fun.”
“Yes. It was. Because of this.” I tap my head. “Talking and thinking. Skills you can use later. It’s not enough but it’ll help any other useful skill you get. Listen: the minute high school is over and you go to college nothing that happened before matters. You are casting off into a sea of complete irrelevance but it will seem so incredibly important. I get that. It will hurt. It will be miserable because you will think everyone is having fun and you’re not. It doesn’t matter. And I know it doesn’t matter that I say it doesn’t matter.
I’m paraphrasing, but that was the pith of the gist. And like all parental reassurances,
not entirely true. High school social life isn’t completely irrelevant to the rest of your life; you can learn the wrong lessons. You can have such a marvelous time everything else feels wan and dry and unnervingly . . . adult, as you learn what it’s all really going to be like. And you do make friends.
About every five years I hear from a high school buddy: Kent. PIcture a 70s guy with 70s glasses and 70s hair smoking a Merit. Add crazy keyboard skills; picture him teasing jazz out of a Rhodes in the Lamplighter Bar in Fargo; figure out some way he gets to Texas and becomes a college prof. Last time I saw him he sat at the kitchen table at Jasperwood, and we laughed and caught up, and not one of the intervening years mattered at all. Raised a cup of coffee in memory of Michael, the other speech-and-debate musician who chucked talking and music, went into pediatrics, became a beloved children’s doctor, called me up one summer out of the blue to ask if I wanted to go see this movie “Alien,” then afterwards over a beer at Gluek’s came out of the closet - I was on the list of old friends to tell - and related a hilarious series of demi-monde anecdotes, and then, consequently, died of AIDS. Every five years we c link the coffee cups: damn.
These were the people who swam into my life at the end of high school, the ones who really mattered most. The childhood friends of grade school - I remember Kathy Pinkerton, who threw up in her desk; fifth-grade crush Siri, who still swims up in my head when I press a button on my phone and ask a question; bully John who beat me up while he was wearing crutches, and showed up one year at Bible Camp and made everyone follow him to the bathroom to behold the length of the gut-snake he had birthed. But they all faded away. As they are meant to do. This is not the time to worry about these things - a fact made all the more painful by the uselessness of the advice.
“Silent Running” may strike modern viewers as a brilliant cautionary tale, and perhaps it had an impact on Peter: The last time I checked, he was a minister specializing in ecological advocacy. He joined speech and debate, but quit. Not to his tastes. Cory, the other nerd, joined speech and debate, but quit, too. The friendship faded and it was one of those nod-in-the-hall things, the occasional conversation at lunch. To this day I wonder what I missed. To this day I wonder if I was really, for a brief time, his only friend. I envied him, because they had a split-level house and he had a room in the basement which was so cool. That was where he shot himself in the head.
What do you tell your daughter, knowing this?
It hurts. It won’t matter. I know it hurts. I know saying this doesn’t matter. This too will pass. It gets better. It gets worse. But if it doesnt matter, then why do I have any tales at all? It does matter, the highs and the lows. It's bad to feel left out, but hey, here we are. I do believe there's some ice cream downstairs and a spoon or two, let's go.
You hate to hear when your children tell you they're sad, but it's worse when they don't. It's so good when they did, and tell you later that they're not any more.
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