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Quasi-Stoics Lounge

My Junior High Yearbook from 1983

July 9, 2012 by Somebody Else

Way back in the spring of 1983, when I was fourteen years old and finishing up the ninth grade at a mid-size junior high school in a small-town community, we were told that our yearbooks had finally arrived. I had ordered one, not so I could get a bunch of classmates to sign it, but rather so I could see if I had appeared in any pictures besides my usual standard mug shot photo. Well, there I was on the tennis team, and there I was on the school newspaper staff, but nowhere else, thank God. Relieved that none of my photos looked too bad, I promptly put the yearbook away after glancing at it only once or twice.

My sister, a year younger than I, had also ordered her own yearbook, and had filled it up with handwritten notes, comments, and signatures from dozens of her classmates and acquaintances.  Maybe that made her feel popular or something.

I didn’t ask anyone to write anything in my yearbook, and I don’t recall that anyone asked me to write anything in theirs, which is not to say that I didn’t have any friends back then. I just wasn’t into the whole signing-the-yearbook thing. It was kind of like a way for students to measure their popularity, and the whole idea of it just sounded so phony and pretentious to me.

The summer of 1983 came and went, and then it was time to start high school, which seemed like a much more impersonal and less nurturing place than the junior high school did. But I was still hopeful that I would enjoy that high school and have a positive experience there.

However, I was never to find out, because after I’d attended tenth grade at that school for about a month, my mom announced that we were moving, and off we went to another town several hundred miles away. The psychological trauma of being uprooted took its toll on me, and I didn’t do as well at my new school.

I pretty much put my memories of life in that small town behind me, and stuck that old yearbook into a bookshelf at my mother’s house, where its cover gradually began to yellow over the ensuing years. Then, a few days ago, when I was visiting Mom and casually browsing through her books, I found the old yearbook again and cracked it open for the first time since the year I bought it.

It was an odd and strangely moving activity. As I flipped through the pages, I re-experienced emotions and thoughts that had lain dormant within me for a very long time. The reactions didn’t have the same kind of immediacy and intensity that they must have had back in the day, but they were still basically the same ones.  I was surprised to discover how little the essential nature of my response to those photos had changed.

But this is not to say that nothing had changed at all. On the contrary, I found that I was reacting on two levels. In one sense, I was still seeing those images through the same ninth-grade eyes of yesteryear, while in another, I was now considering them according to the perspective of a man in his forties, of someone who has lived almost thirty additional years, and who has learned a few things about life in the interim, but maybe not all that much.

The photos of the teachers really struck me. I did a bit of quick math in my head and tried to imagine what they must be like now, almost thirty years later. If they were in their mid-forties then, they would be in their mid-seventies now, assuming that they are still alive. That by itself is a sobering enough conclusion. I am now as old as many of them were back then.

I remembered how little sympathy I felt for those teachers. To me, most of them seemed sort of tyrannical, and obsessed with controlling our every move. I assumed that, as a rule, they were mean-spirited, bitter, ultraconservative, troll-like grumps who didn’t particularly like junior high school students very much.

But as I looked at them again, I didn’t see that at all. Instead, I saw overworked and underpaid middle-aged people with their own personal demons and insecurities, adults who were no doubt trying to come to terms with any number of trying and problematic situations in their lives. I imagined how hard it must have been for them to show up for work on days when they felt tired, on days when they just wanted to be left alone, on days when the very last thing they wished to see was a very full classroom of squirming, unpredictable kids who didn’t like being there, either. I envisioned those teachers sitting nervously and humiliated in the principal’s office as the latter pointed out their instructional weaknesses and their grave shortcomings in effectively enforcing classroom discipline, or reprimanded them for some kind of infraction or another. I bet not a few of those teachers took their fair share of antacid tablets on a very regular basis.

There were also a small number of teachers who were nearing retirement age, in their late fifties or early sixties. Also, I recall a rather congenial and pleasant woman who must have been at least seventy, whom I liked very much personally, but whose rather elemental lecture-based teaching style didn’t work all that well for me. I suppose that when she began her teaching career, she very well might have been working in a one-room schoolhouse in some little backwoods town, with only ten or fifteen students, whose ages would have ranged from five to eighteen. Assuming that she is alive today, she must be pushing one hundred.

As for the students, within the last two or three years, I’ve reconnected with several of them on Facebook, and for the most part, they’ve beefed up quite a bit. I’m not so sure if that has to do with just getting older, or is owed more to the progressive fattening of America during the last few decades, but that’s a topic for some other time. In any case, I must confess that I’ve put on some pounds myself over the years.

Anyway, I haven’t had much recent dialogue with those old classmates, just mostly the usual stuff, like, “How’s life?” and “Hope you are well,” etc. Some of them seem to be doing quite alright for themselves, others are more like me.

It’s funny, back in the day, I didn’t really think much of social class and race as factors in how we kids related to one another, but looking at the yearbook now, it suddenly dawned on me just how powerful an impact they actually had. As I considered my mug shot, I could easily imagine how other students might have subconsciously grouped me, that is, as one of the middle-class, “smart” white kids. At the time, I pretty much just thought of myself as a typical rank and file nerd, as “the fool on the hill,” as a middling student, as a poor but aspiring athlete, and as a young guy who was very much interested in girls but who had absolutely no idea how to do anything about it. But looking once again at the yearbook as a middle-aged man, all I could see was social class and race, and as for the whole concept of youthful popularity, all the old ideas about who was hot and who was not, in short, my entire ninth-grade peer classification system, much of it had been rendered meaningless.

I felt some real shame for myself as I looked at the photos of the black students. I have to be brutally honest here and say that although I don’t believe I was exactly racist back then, I also must admit that I didn’t pay all that much attention to my black peers. It seemed to me that they had their own social group and I had mine, and never the twain should meet. I don’t recall that I reflected much back in those days on whether or not that was a good or bad thing -- I think I just accepted it as it was and didn’t dwell on it all that much. In my rather stereotypical view at that time, black males were “cool,” were often top-notch athletes, and sometimes took a rather casual approach to academic matters. Black females were practically invisible to me. My impression back then was that most of them were soft-spoken, rather fastidious about their personal dress and appearance, and quick to make a sharp-tongued comeback whenever a black male gave them some unwanted attention.

But when I looked at their photos again as a middle-aged man, I was surprised to see new dimensions and aspects to their faces that I had never acknowledged as a ninth-grader. A black boy who I had once dismissed as nothing more than a poor student and a wisecracking smart-aleck now emerged from the page as a dreamy, hopeful idealist and romantic. Similarly, I found myself strangely affected by the sweet and winsome smile of a black girl, who at the time I had simply regarded as prickly, peculiarly short and rather thin. There seemed to be a lot of compassion and love in that smile. Maybe she was smiling for someone she really cared about. Perhaps she was thinking of a parent or grandparent as the photo was being taken, and hoping that they would like her shot. Maybe the cameraman made a humorous, flattering comment that really tickled her.

What would those two black students have been like as close friends of mine? What if we had watched television and played Atari Space Invaders together? What if we had shared meals at each other’s homes on the weekends? What would we have talked about? What if I had asked the black girl to dance with me at the junior high prom and she had said yes? I figure that back in 1983, all of that might have happened if the three of us had wanted to make it happen, and nobody would have stepped in to prevent it. But none of us took the initiative. More precisely, I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us for even for one moment to become friends. That kind of stuff just didn’t happen back in those days in that town. I’m glad to say that it seems to be somewhat more common now in those kinds of places.

Looking at the yearbook, I uncomfortably reacquainted myself with some of the bullies. I saw the face of one guy who was seventeen years old and in the ninth grade. He was big and tall and rather plump. In the photo, he had wide, mocking eyes and a disrespectful, arrogant, goofball smile on his face. I remembered how he used to terrorize the other students by walking down the center of the hallway and violently bumping into anyone who wouldn’t get out of his way. Even the football players used to avoid him. I think that he himself was on the football team, probably as a lineman. He was in remedial classes. I think that he had a severe learning disability, and an even more severe attitude problem. I was fortunate not to have any academic classes with that guy, but unfortunate enough to always have him for gym class, and I think that we were all terrified of taking showers in the locker room, because that guy would go in and pop us on the behinds with a wet towel. Once, to my absolute horror, he pulled up behind one of the small, skinny students who was showering, grabbed him in a bear hug, and made raunchy noises and gestures. After that incident, the poor coach had to supervise us every second that we were in the shower, so that the big galoot wouldn’t molest us anymore. I think I hated that guy with every ounce and fiber of my being. He inspired me to never get caught breaking the law, because I dreaded the prospect of having to run into someone like him in prison, where he has undoubtedly been residing for many years now.

Looking at classmates with whom I was friendly brought back a lot of surprisingly positive memories. It’s funny, I thought of myself as a real loner back then, but looking at all the faces of the young people who were kind to me, the students with whom I shared lots of laughs, the ones for whom I drew silly cartoons, and with whom I worked on the school newspaper staff, I realized that I was much more a part of that school community than I had realized at the time. If I was an outsider there, I was only so in my own mind. But I guess that’s just how so many adolescents see themselves regardless of the real circumstances of their social environment -- it must be endemic to that stage of life. If anything, I pulled myself away and avoided too much familiarity with so many students who would have been glad to spend time with me, so deeply did I dread rejection by my peers.

I recall that once I was deep in thought, riding my bicycle through the neighborhood, when I saw two students that I knew from class, a guy and a girl, holding hands and walking down the street. I greeted them and they said hello to me, and I kept on riding, but I heard their voices behind me, they were shouting out something, and my face blushed a deep red as pangs of anger and resentment shot through me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I assumed that it was something mean and snotty. “Screw them,” I thought hatefully to myself, “I don’t care what they think.”

The next day, I saw them walking down the hallway together, and they angrily glared at me. “What’s their problem?” I wondered. Finally, that guy walked up to me later that day, and said he’d like to have a word with me in private. He seemed rather miffed, and asked me why I had just ridden off on my bicycle after he and his girlfriend had seen me on the street, even after they had shouted for me to come back and talk with them awhile. He accused me of being a snob, and a lot of his insecurities came pouring out. Evidently, he didn’t see me as I saw myself. According to him, I was arrogant and standoffish. I apologized profusely, and explained that he had misunderstood me, and that I had also equally misunderstood him, but he didn’t seem to believe me, and I realized that I had blown an opportunity to connect with a new group of friends.

But I suppose that what I most focused on as I rediscovered the yearbook were all the pretty girls. I only found one girl that I had become briefly entangled with romantically, an eighth-grader with a full, shapely bosom that plenty of women in their thirties would be more than pleased to possess. At the junior high prom, I had noticed her standing by herself, and taking note of her considerable physical endowments, I determined that I would give it a shot. She agreed to let me dance with her several times, and the testosterone and estrogen started flowing. I think that was probably the first time in my life that I had gotten high in some sense, which is to say that I was infinitely more interested in the experience of slow dancing with the girl than in the girl herself, and as it would later become evident, she probably felt the same way about me. Efforts to follow up on this brief encounter turned out to be a total embarrassment, as I quickly realized that we had nothing to say to each other, and eventually she responded to my continued attentions with hostility and silence.

There was one short blonde who was kind of cute and appealing, and usually ended up sitting next to me in class. Looking back, I can realize now that she probably liked me, but at the time I assumed that I wasn’t her type. I suppose that she figured I wasn’t hers either, but she nevertheless always ended up picking a desk next to me and talking my ear off, so in spite of what her conscious mind might have been telling her, I must have had something that she somehow found attractive. She used to push her knees into the small of my back when she sat behind me. I could have turned around and said, “Hey, take your knees out of my back,” but I never did. I know that she would have come back with, “Oh, am I doing that, I didn’t realize it.” But of course, she realized it, and of course, I didn’t want her to stop doing it. I recall that one or two female students caught on to her constant subtle flirting with me, and said, you like him, don’t you? To which she scrunched up her face like someone was trying to offer her a plate of boiled Brussels sprouts. Maybe we were each other’s type after all, but I never got around to finding out. She seemed like a nice girl and had a wholesome, insightful sense of humor.

I saw the photo of another girl who was strikingly pretty in a unique way, with full, dark hair, and perceptive eyes. She rarely wore makeup and really didn’t need any. I remember that I had an absolutely enormous crush on her. She was very smart, made excellent grades, and had a surprisingly mature demeanor for a ninth-grader. I think that she must have been at least thirty-five years old emotionally. I would look for any opportunity to speak with her. She was always friendly, but unfailingly impersonal. There was absolutely no way in. All I could do was to admire her from afar. I haven’t managed to find her on Facebook, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she has an MBA and runs her own company.

It so happened she was on the cheerleading squad. One day we had a pep rally which involved the cheerleaders premiering their latest routines. I was sitting on the bleachers with my rather screwball and ultra-nerdy best friend, who was quite adept at whipping me up into a frenzy talking about anything absurd, ridiculous or sexist. The cheerleaders, who wore rather short skirts, started doing their moves, and as they performed cartwheels, we were frequently treated to gloriously complete inverted views of their healthy and enticing backsides. I marveled at the shiny, red-hot rayon panties. My nerd buddy and I were speechless for a moment, and then we roared with approval. We screamed until we were absolutely hoarse, yelling out thinly-veiled comments like, “More cartwheels! More cartwheels!” To the uninformed observer, we must have seemed like the ultimate champions of school spirit. When my dream girl finally did her routine, she must have performed more cartwheels than anyone else, and the repeated sightings of her ample glutei caused me to become completely unhinged. For a few uninhibited moments, I let loose with a torrent of crude remarks that nobody could hear but me, owing to the deafening roar of everyone else’s shouting. It was the lewd outpouring of all my thoroughly frustrated attraction and interest that had no chance of going anywhere.

However, I was just as capable of disappointing the opposite sex as it was of doing the same to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had become the object of the affections of a rather slender, petite girl with dark, stringy hair, sharp, angular facial features, and a very full set of braces. I didn’t give her much thought at the time. She came across to me as rather mousy and timid. I didn’t think that she had much personality. I’m now quite sure she had truckloads of personality, but since I knew her only on the most superficial level, I had no way of understanding that back then. I noticed her staring at me a few times, but didn’t think much of it. One day, one of her friends asked me if I liked her, and without thinking, I offhandedly remarked that I thought she looked like a rat. Within fifteen seconds the poor girl was informed of my rather lousy and insensitive comment, and had burst into tears.

I immediately felt awful for having done this, partly because I didn’t want to cause any grief for someone who had never done anything to me, and also because it suddenly dawned on me that I had forever blown my chances with a girl who, in spite of not having all that much going on in the mammary glands department -- a ridiculous obsession of mine back then -- was nonetheless quite attractive, if I could just allow myself to be completely honest and admit it. Years later, as I looked at her picture, I imagined what might have happened if I had said, yes, I like her, she’s really cute. I could have had my first real date with a girl. We could have gone to the next prom together. We could have been talking to each other on the phone every day. We could have gone walking down the street, hand in hand, like the couple I had unwittingly dissed around that same time. We might have brought some much-needed happiness and self-confidence to each other’s lives. In short, we quite possibly could have been in a relationship. It might have been a fulfilling and meaningful experience. But I’ll never know, because like so many other opportunities, I ruined that one as well.

I’m ashamed to admit that I blew another similar opportunity, possibly even more promising than that one. This girl sat next to me in history class. Like the girl I had danced with at the prom, she was also gifted with an exemplary, prominent set of breasts. But unlike the prom girl, history girl was much friendlier, although rather quiet and shy. I liked her immediately, and wondered if there was something there, but felt rather nervous and unsure about the prospect of us being more than acquaintances. One day, I was told by one of her friends that she liked me, and when I was asked if I liked her too, I avoided the question by saying that I would tell her myself if I did. “Ah,” responded her friend slyly, “she isn’t going to wait around forever for you to tell her.”

I felt immense satisfaction knowing that this attractive and personable girl was interested in me. But for some reason, hard as I might try, I couldn’t work up the nerve to tell her that I liked her as well. Days stretched into weeks, and weeks into months, and I once again realized that I had thrown away another opportunity with the fairer sex. I just couldn’t bring myself to hop on to the roller coaster of love.

I reconnected with history girl on Facebook a few months ago. She had married some guy who was absolutely crazy about her even back in those junior high days, who was very bold and persistent in courting her and winning her over, and who has given her lots of kids. Well, what can I say? I suppose some things are meant to be, and others aren’t. Those kids can be very glad that she married their father instead of me.

I finally closed the yearbook and placed it back on the bookshelf. What if I returned to those bygone days in a time machine, and attempted to take advantage of all the opportunities that were placed before me, opportunities which I had so clumsily and unthinkingly discarded? What could have happened? Of course, I’ll never know.

Certainly, there’s nothing I can do about water under the bridge. All I can do is to hope that twenty years hence I don’t look back on my life now and regret all the chances that I shouldn’t have passed up, whatever they might be.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...