Like nearly every jaded, vaguely spoiled 17-year-old, I left my high school swearing I’d “never go back.” By the time I turned my tassel from right to left, I was very much “over it.” I did not have anything even resembling a bad high school experience. My school had passionate teachers who knew how to make apathetic teens care about conjugating Spanish verb. We had little to no social caste system. We had new computers. I was lucky, but I also suspected bigger things awaited me, which is why I was so “over it.” I also assumed those bigger things were better things. Oops!
Life didn’t necessarily get better in college; it just got different. Some things were better, some things were worse. They don’t tell you that when they hand you a diploma, but you also probably wouldn’t listen if they did. I did not want to go back, but there were a lot of details I missed — tiny things, like piling in my car with my best friends and going to eat lunch off campus, which was always a Major Social Event. I missed being around people who had known me since I was 12. I missed life only existing until three in the afternoon. Four, if you had some sort of extracurricular deal going on. I missed things feeling new — smoking cigarettes and coughing afterwards, never being sure if you were kissing “the right way,” alcohol burning your throat, getting your curfew extended a whole half hour. Again, it wasn’t that I wanted to go back. I just missed the newness of it all.
I returned to my high school for the first time in three years to see the one teacher I have kept in touch with. The first thing I noticed were all the features that had changed. The library was in a different location; there was some bizarre statue of children catching frogs (?) by the lake; the couches in the senior lounge had been replaced with tables. The second thing I noticed were all the features that had not changed at all. The school smelled exactly the same; all “landmark locations” for Important Personal Life Events remained untouched; the mural I reluctantly helped paint my senior year was still there. It felt native, even though I did not make sense there anymore. This was the land I grew up on.
I walked around for a while, my brain drowning in all these little memories — the route I took to my journalism class, what it felt like to sit on the cold gymnasium floor during assemblies, the false freedom of study hall. Logically, I understood how three years had flown out from under me (You know. Time. It flies.), but I did not understand how this location could remain so aesthetically unchanged, but every detail that defined it for me had changed. I began to feel as if I could just run into The Ghosts of High School Past. A 17-year-old version of my best friend; a 17-year-old version of the guy I liked; a 17-year-old version of myself. I felt like they were still there, trapped forever inside my high school’s yellow walls and blue fences. Eventually this feeling became too overwhelming and I left. I did not belong there anymore. As evidenced by the lamented pass hanging from my t-shirt, I was just a visitor now.
In high school, I was dyeing streaks of my hair blue, relating personally to Your Favorite Weapon and Invisible Monsters, developing crushes based on shared interests rather than personality traits, and sitting in the back row of my Advanced Placement courses, writing in my purple composition book with my hood up. I didn’t “totally suck” or anything; I was just young. I was very immature about a lot of Life Things (I still am! But I was a lot more immature back then!). I would never want to actually go back to that stage in my life. I mean, how awful would that be? It would be the total worst! However, after leaving my high school, I did miss the sense of newness that a blue haired version of me got to feel so often. I still do a lot of new things (Legally buying alcohol! Moving into an apartment! Getting a job!), but none of them have that same blend of fragility and excitement my high school memories did.
Perhaps the problem is not that things don’t feel new anymore. Perhaps the problem is that I need things to feel fresh in order for them to feel valuable. Like a 60-year-old man in a shiny red convertible, I’ve equated newness with importance. I read once that things can change, but only with abandonment. I do not think I’ll ever go back to my high school. I cannot imagine why I would ever need to do that again. Yes, it was the land I grew up on. But now it’s a burning field.