Photo: June of 1998. The end of 8th grade. The evening of the spring formal. The beginning of something, the end of another.
On Tuesday afternoon, I got my boys dressed, put a pretty summer dress on and drove on down to Roxbury. My former students–three graduating classes worth of former students–were gathering for a reunion at the charter school where I used to teach. They are rising juniors, rising sophomores and starting freshmen in college this year. The last time I saw most of these guys, they were knee-high to a tadpole, wide-eyed and hopeful, on their way to college-preparatory high schools and on the path to college. I gave them each a “last lecture” full of the best advice I could give them for their journey, and then I gave them an easy homework assignment: “Go in peace, serve the world,” and “Get out of Massachusetts!!“
It would seem that the majority of them didn’t do their assignment. All but two of the students I saw on Tuesday will be attending a Massachusetts college. I feigned my anger and disappointment, but really, I’m thrilled beyond belief. Here are my beautiful babies (my “first” babies, before my “real” babies), grown up as confident, competent, wonderful adults. Who drive, who work, who lead… and all of the boys who were, seriously, maybe to my shoulders (with the exception of a couple) are now huge. Literal heads and shoulders above me! And they all work out! What? I spent my whole evening shouting, “Oh my God! Did you eat a dude!? How did you get so tall!?”
I feel so full and happy, even a few days later, because of that experience. It feels so good to know that I was even a teeny tiny part of their journey toward their dreams and goals. It was hard work, and sometimes impossible work. But the payoff is astounding. There are few things in the world that can make me feel this proud and satisfied.
I also confirmed for myself that every decision I’ve made so far has been the right one: I left the classroom at the right time. Not going back was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I will never work with children in that capacity ever again.
But my Quiet Thoughts aren’t on my (non-existent) career. My Quiet Thoughts are about that amazing last moment of childhood. 8th grade is magic. Too young to be old, too old to be young. Especially those final months of middle school and the summer right before high school.
Because when my Mom dropped off all of that stuff on Sunday, she also dropped off a photo album. All but a handful of pictures were taken by me, and they very much reflect who and what I thought was important during those last months of childhood: There are of the people who were my friends (some of whom I’m still connected with on Facebook, even if we don’t speak all the time), there are people who I was absolutely in love with (the guy who would take me to the spring formal, the guy who I had the biggest crush on in 7th grade, and even the guy who would profoundly hurt me). Most of my favorite teachers are in here, too. And there are photos of special places in Maryland and DC that I still love and think about.
Most of the names to go with the faces have long faded from my memories. It’s so funny to think about these people, some of whom were seemingly royalty among us, and how utterly unimportant they eventually become. But some things haven’t faded–what I loved, what I valued, and what I dreamed about.
In the summer of ’98, I wanted to be a lawyer. Matter of fact, my dream was to be Attorney General of the United States. I was going to study my ass off in high school, take nothing but AP classes my junior and senior years, then go to UCLA for undergrad and UCLA law for law school. Back to back, obviously. This was my destiny. I knew that I was going to get the hell out of Maryland (even though I was proud to be from the DC area), I knew that I was going to be the best damned lawyer that ever lived, and I knew that when I returned to my home state, I’d be somebody. I loved fishing, I loved swimming, I read fiction (fantasy and science fiction, almost exclusively) ferociously, I loved to listen to Mom’s old-school music on WHUR while getting my hair done in the kitchen. I was already a bit of a news junky. I was realizing that I’m not just good at cooking, I like to do it. I noticed inequality in the the world that I lived in, and I knew I wanted to do something about it, I just didn’t quite know how.
This is me, dressed up for the 8th grade spring formal. I’m about to get on The Spirit of Washington for a sunset cruise with the guy who I’d been fawning over for most of the school year. What I love about this picture is that I see those hopes and dreams. This is me feeling the most adult that I’d ever felt in my life. All of the confidence, none of the experience or wisdom. When you see it pictured like this, it’s kind of beautiful. You, sweetie, know nothing. But you’ll learn. You’ll be ok.
If I had a time machine and could go back to this moment, I’d tell her to dance more on the boat. And not to date that one asshole who has no good intentions for her. But otherwise, I’d let the mystery play itself out for her.
I wonder what my 8th grade teachers would say if they saw me today. Unlike my students, I don’t think I’d be brave enough to go to a reunion if one was organized. I didn’t go to my high school reunion for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being that I absolutely hated all four years of that experience. But if I could have a one-on-one with some of the teachers in my little photo album, I wonder what they’d say. I already know that my English teacher would tell me I’m not reading enough… so that’s something. 🙂
Do you have a picture like this in an attic somewhere? A photo that captures that perfect moment right before childhood ended and adulthood began? When you look back, what and who do you see? How much changed and how much solidified into who you are, right at this moment? I hope that if you have the opportunity to look back like this, you see something beautiful.
On this beautiful late-summer Friday, I wish you blueberries. Seriously. I wish you a fresh-baked blueberry muffin or a loaf of bread speckled with beautiful fresh blueberries. Or maybe fresh lemonade with a few blueberries dropped in. Or maybe some blueberry ice cream. I also wish you a good walk outside, in a park or nature reserve, or even in your own neighborhood. I wish you the chance to enjoy children’s laughter in the middle of the day for a little while (they’ll be back to school before you know it!). I wish you a cold beer and a well prepared meal, grilled to perfection by a master’s hands. I wish you people-watching on a bench, taking in the human story around you. I wish you sleep with the windows open, and cricket song as the soundtrack for your dreams. I wish you joy and warmth, because it’s Friday and you deserve it.
Until Monday, take care.