On Sunday, I returned to Colorado.
On Monday, I returned to college.
On Wednesday, I returned to high school.
It was like returning to 2006.
Where, at fourteen, I only found warmth by embracing my peanut-butter-cookie-baking oven.
Sorry. That was a lame comparison. And I don’t know why that photo was ever taken.
As a teen, like many teens, I hated high school. At the end of each day, when I was home, I cried when I realized I’d have to go back in less than 24 hours. On campus, I ducked my head, kept my ear buds in, don’t look at me don’t look at me please look at me don’t look at me, squeezing past riots of not-friends and kinda-friends and let’s-only-nod-friends. Freshmen year, boys from middle school called me Death Girl because I’d disappeared fall semester of the eighth grade because of health issues and the rumor was that I had died. Now, in hindsight, I think those freshmen boys were kind of flirting. Death Girl. They said it smiling, or, at least, laughing in a way that could have been interpreted as friendly laughter. Eventually I fought back. I slapped one, two, three, four, I don’t know many boys straight across the face. Boys who were friends. Boys who were kinda-friends. Boys who were not-friends. They stayed clear after that.
I was no longer Death Girl. I was a sigh from the few acquaintances I had left. Where did blond-tan-pink-wearing Heather go? Why are you now emo? Emo? I’m not emo. You wear black and sleeves and pants and dark eyes and dark hair and it’s triple digits, um, hi, what are you then? Goth? I wanted to tell them: I’m sad. That’s all. I’m sad. But how do you say I’m sad when you’re fourteen and your friends who were you once your friends but are really no longer your friends and are now just tolerating your presence are cheering at the pep rally and dancing in the valley of football field and you’re running away, up the mountain of a parking lot, running up the street lights of Antonio, running because you don’t know how to say I’m sad?
Others, I’m sure, would have stuck up for themselves. Would have had thicker bones. I didn’t. And that’s okay. It’s how I was. It’s all made me who I am now. And then, back then, I didn’t know how to navigate what I was feeling. I didn’t know how to fix it. How to cope. I waded through the slick riverbed and slipped and allowed myself to be pushed. And that’s okay. That’s just how it went.
I pinched my hips in the school bathroom. Numb. Exhausted. I wasn’t sleeping. At fourteen, it was common for me to take sleeping pills and cold syrup and still not fall asleep until five am. My alarm went off at six. My older sister and I fought as she sped across the Toll Road to the five-year-old campus that had limited parking because of an endangered beetle. My senior sister had a parking pass thanks to a lottery. She also had a new boyfriend who she’d met on a cruise. Small world, right? I was a fruit fly. Go away. Go away. I skipped a class and hid beneath a picnic table, my ass in old spat out gum, arms around my knees. I was positive a hall guard would catch me. No one did. I finally crawled out during the next passing period because I needed to pee. Another day. I roamed back behind the main campus, around the blacktop where portables were set up, in between the gym and the football field. I don’t know why I wasn’t in Spanish class. I don’t remember what I was doing. I think I was headed to the nurse but I didn’t have a pass. Two ladies in a golf cart abducted me (the photo above isn’t my high school–my high school was an outdoor campus, spread out, in a ditch akin to the ditch that local dump is situation in–the photo is of a Colorado Springs high school). The bell rang. Students spilled out and we wheezed by, me on the back of the golf cart, black tears on my cheeks because I wore sooty eye make up at the time and I’ve always cried easily. And it wasn’t that I thought people were looking at me. It wasn’t that I thought people weren’t looking at me. I was sad. I was fourteen. I thought it was high school that made me sick. And maybe it was. Or maybe it was me. Or, more likely, it was a combination. I’ve always been kind of sick in one way or another, and that’s okay. It’s how I found writing. It’s how I found Colorado (I first flew to Colorado in April 2006 to meet a friend I met through Harry Potter fanfiction while I was couch bound in the eighth grade, and now here I am).
That was all one semester. Spring semester of freshmen year, I switched to an independent study program and only took two courses on campus (Spanish and Drama). Sophomore year, I didn’t take any classes on campus. Junior year didn’t happen. I left and made myself sicker. I left and found myself in treatment some eight months later. I am sad, I said. I finally learned how to say it. I am sad.
I could write a tomb on the factors that went into my problematic high school experience, or, really, my teenager years and why the trajectory was so weird. A variety of factors–physical health, mental health, family turmoil, writing addiction (all I wanted to do was stay in bed and type stories), straight up feeling that I wasn’t smart enough for the core curriculum, undiagnosed learning disabilities, my eventual obsession with Colorado, with getting to Colorado ASAP, with having the flexibility to work more so I could fly to Colorado monthly–were at play. Point is, like so many teenagers, I hurt-hurt. And maybe that’s why I now have such an urgency to work with teens, why I feel such warmth when spending my days with them. The eager. The sad. The angry. The apathetic. The prep. The stressed. The abandoned. I cherish them. The pressure we put on youth today–it’s infuriating and stifling and another rant for another day.
For my winter half-block course, I’m TAing at a Colorado Springs high school (thus the non-CA school photos). Started on Wednesday, end this Thursday. Such a quick flash, but somehow–after only three days–so full, so heavy, so impacting. I park when the sun rises. I leave after last bell. I shadow and “aide” a junior standard-track English class, Student Council, a freshmen honors English, three periods of IB Language and Literature, and end the day with Journalism. I’m usually merely a fly on the wall and yet am so moved by the perseverance and kick of these kids. It’s lame of me, I’m sure, but I want to know all of them–all the while recognizing that some may just want to disappear, want to be unseen untouched unnoticed like I did; all the while recognizing that, maybe simultaneously or maybe not, some may be aching to be heard, to be seen, to be touched. At school, with these teens, I feel helpless and honored and I don’t know what. I’m just an aide from the fritzy private college up the street. But I care. I care too much. No. I care.
For me and others, the high school years are an uphill sprint gone bad, an unexpected marathon through sleet. The mountain ridge cloud-covered, so we can’t see the end. (Sorry, I’m going a bit overboard with the analogies.) And I have such crazy respect for these students. For being there before sunrise, snow on the ground. For sitting up. For trying. For flicking that lighter and then enduring the consequences. For smiling even when the wind chill makes the the shoebox courtyard feel like a walk in freezer. For listening and speaking. I can’t construct their backgrounds. I don’t know where they go when they leave, where they sleep, what they eat, how they are spoken to outside the school’s walls. But I’m pretty sure it’s rare that any human makes it through that time without some–or many–rather gnarly scars.
I don’t know where I’m going with this.
On Wednesday, I returned to a high school for the first time since 2007. I was on a campus for all 7 periods for the first time since 2005. And it was exhausting and sad and hysterical and heavy and fun. The day ended and I was drained, but exhilarated. I wasn’t expecting that. And I return on Monday for the start of my last four days–my completion of 30 hours in a classroom–and, while I still have stupid nerves (I always have stupid nerves about everything), I’m eager to wake at 5:57 am and go and witness and experience whatever this is that I’m experiencing.
I guess my point is that, rather simply, I like it.
And I think it’s helping me better understand the plot points of my own high school times.