When I was 15 years old I enrolled in an elite boarding school just north of Boston. My parents were (and still are) teachers there, which helps explain both how I got in and how I afforded to go there.
I do not resent the school I attended. It made me, “molded” me as they say, into a more well-read, more tolerant, harder working person. The teachers and facilities were top notch. We didn’t have to wear uniforms or anything, which was a plus. And the admissions standards were so ridiculously high — you have to be one freaking smart 14-year-old kid to even get a sniff of the place — that we managed to avoid, for the most part, the rich kids vs. poor kids/cocaine+sex/Gossip Girl drama that I think many of you suspect boarding school is like.
Basically, I went to high school with a lot of extremely Type-A nerds. There were some athletes tossed in the mix (I was considered one for being the captain of the soccer team), and some artistes, and, yes, some of the good old Greenwich-born kids named like Trip or whatever; they were there too. For the most part, though, just a whole lot of nerds. In my graduating class, we had far more National Merit Scholars than we did athletic All-Americans.
When my friends and I talk about our days back at the boarding school, we tend to do so wistfully. High school was simpler. We want to remember it as some sort of utopia where diverse, brilliant kids were brought together upon a gorgeous campus on a hill, a place where we all challenged each other, learned from each other, and had so much fun in the process. Life back then was Good, and life now is Not So Good.
What’s funny about remembering our high school like this is that during our high school years many of us were completely and totally miserable. Like, capital “M” Miserable. I know for a good portion of it I was.
This had to do with a lot of things. One was hormones, I suppose, and just the fact that 17-year-olds everywhere tend to be unhappy. I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith and read a great deal of Sylvia Plath, but I think I would have done that anywhere.
There was also the homework. We took five courses at a time for most of my time in high school, and each teacher was expected to give between 45 minutes and an hour of homework a night. This was S.O.P. What this meant was that with classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then sports until 5, then shower, change clothes, and dinner until 6, we had (I repeat: every night) to complete between three and a half and five hours of homework. We were expected in bed at 11. This meant that if every teacher pushed their allotted homework time (and many, many did) you would not have enough minutes in the day to complete all of the work you were assigned.
What this created was a culture of very stressed 14-18 year olds. Many of us were behind in our work before the end of the first day of a semester. When you are perpetually behind, you either do one of three things. One, you become an academic machine, cutting off from the world entirely, spending every waking minute of your day. Two, you learn to adapt, pick the work that’s most important, learn to bullshit your way through the rest, and get by on the skin of your teeth. Three, you have a psychotic breakdown.
(Most of us, I’m happy to say, went with option two, and I will tell you now it is an enormous life skill we picked up. You know those meetings at work now where you walk in and have no idea what anyone is talking about, so you nod along and say “I agree with Jeffrey on that point” and speak in vague, bullshit generalities until they end the meeting and you can go back to your desk and play Angry Birds or whatever? I had that mastered before I hit puberty.)
There were other reasons we were unhappy. The rules were strict and the competition was fierce (try taking an AP chem class when two of your classmates were spending their summers in college labs inventing new compounds or what the fuck ever), and in New England winters it gets dark at like 4:15 p.m., and the sky is perpetually gray, and your parents are gone, and you’re staying in a tiny cinder block dorm room, sharing a shower with 10 other people… it can get depressing. There were long periods of sadness at the academy, for many of us.
Which is why it’s absolutely bizarre to me that so many of my friends look back on our high school years so full of wist, joy, fondness, etc. Did the school prepare us, beyond any and all reasonable doubt, for college? Yes. (College academics were a breezy joyride for me until I started my senior level lit courses.) Did we meet amazing, brilliant, hyper-successful people? Yes. Did we form tight friendships that lasted for years? Absolutely. (When you go through the shit together, as the crazies who spent some time in ‘Nam are always eager to tell you, you form brotherhoods for life.)
But we weren’t happy. And when my friends tell me “Man, I wish we could just go back there. Life was so much better back in high school, you know?” it pisses me off. Because they are falling for the oldest trick in the American book. The trick that gets more people tangled mentally, hung up for life, stuck. The belief that Things Were Better Back Then.
We see this trick utilized in politics by both sides. The Republicans with their “Let’s get America back to the way things were” and their harkening back to the years of Reagan and beyond, the simplicity of the 1950s where kids respected their elders and everyone went to Church and Things Made Sense. You see it with the Democrats and their calls to the glory days of pre-Lewinski Clinton as well as the free love and tolerance of the 1960s, back when young people stood for something and Revolution was in the Air.
And people believe this shit. If you were to ask a straight, white person who is 60+, be it your grandma or dad or whatever, I honestly think many would earnestly tell you that life was better back in the 1950s and 60s before we had all this newfangled technology and kids on cell phones and school shootings and pornography on the internet. They’d believe that.
Ask any older gay or black person, however, and I think you’d have a different answer. Life was not better back then. For many people, it was worse. And even for the white, straight person of the 1950s and 60s, life wasn’t better back then. Loveless marriages happened back then. Alcoholism happened back then. People got cancer and died early. Daughters still got pregnant at 15.
But we tend to remember the good stuff. And we tend to want people to bring us back to the way things were. So we elect people who promise to do that. To bring us back to a simpler time. When small business owners had Mom and Pop shops, and kids didn’t have to lock up their bicycles, and gas cost 60 cents a gallon. We want to go back. To what we used to know.
But, as a writer much greater than I once wrote, you can’t go home again. The past is gone, and it wasn’t any better back then. It was pretty much the same. Some people were good and some people were bad. There were recessions and there were booms. There was love and there was death.
So, I ask you, stop trying to wish for the way things used to be and start focusing on making the next day better. You can do this with your vote, or you can do this by forgiving someone in your life who has changed. And it’s hard. I know it’s hard.
But anytime I am unhappy now, and thinking about how life used to be simpler, and better back then, I force myself to remember. One moment.
It’s cold in January 2003. I’m leaving basketball practice, and it’s 6:30 p.m. but it’s already dark, and the dining hall just closed so I go home, hungry, and hope there’s some leftovers in the fridge. My hands are jammed in my pockets, pockets of a too-thin jacket that’s doing absolutely nothing against this cold, and wet hair from the gym shower is already frozen atop my head. I am in danger of failing two of my classes, and my parents don’t know about that yet, but they will soon enough. They’ll find out and I’ll get in trouble, and this eats at me. And let me just repeat again that MAN it is cold outside. Like, mind numbingly cold. I trudge along in the dark, and I am alone, and stressed, and tired… really tired. Tired like I will never know again. And as I walk up to my house, where my five hours of homework are waiting for me, and my parents, who may already have gotten the call from my teachers and are getting ready to unleash their anger on me, their disappointment, they’re waiting too, and I pause and think, just for a second, about continuing my walk. Just not stopping. Keep walking into the woods near my house, out and beyond, until I am far enough away where the school can’t get me, and the stress goes away, and I can finally rest for a minute.
My high school gave me many things. It gave me a group of friends I will never lose. It gave me books that I memorized large passages of. It gave me the teacher who convinced me I could write. It gave me my first love and happy memories and the joy of winning the big game. It’s tempting to only think back to that. To only remember the good times. But, as in all things in life, I can’t. I can’t just remember the winning goals. The A+ on the paper. The girl I kissed in the snowy field. I have to also remember the darkness. The bad. The moment where I stood in the dark, on the edge of the woods in a New England January, and wanted to walk away forever.