Remember When High School Was The Best Four Years Of Your Life? Me Neither.

I was talking to my Contemporary Literature students yesterday, and saw how many of them are struggling, hating the high school experience, depressed or socially awkward, with serious family issues, drug addictions, dealing with parents who have drug addictions, eating disorders, no one is cool enough, friends steal friends’ boyfriends, talk about each other behind friends’ backs, basically people suffering through the teenage experiences.  Then I thought of this:

When I was fourteen, I put a loaded shotgun in my mouth.  Fingered the trigger.  Closed my eyes.

Then I took the gun out of my mouth and unloaded it.  Put it away.  And that was obviously a good decision.  But what followed were the worst three years of my life.  For me, high school was like being force-fed a five-course meal of rotten meat.  I kept wondering why we had to do this, and why everyone was acting like it was fine, like it was normal.

And this is not the way it is for all people.  For some people, high school is football games and home-coming and Valentines and prom.  For some it’s AP classes that lead straight to the Ivy League or at least a good state school.  And some of those people have functional family and friend relationships.  Good conversations and learning experiences.  So it’s not horrible for everyone.

But for some – and I see it in their eyes – this high school thing isn’t good.  1600 teenagers put together in a cement building for eight months. Trying to study my literature homework when there are so many more important things going on.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the narcissism involved in writing and publishing a memoir.  The “look at me” factor.  And how unkind it is to the others involved.  Even though (as one of my friends and brothers said) my parents are only in one-tenth of the book, I do detail their worst years.  And was that necessary?  I look in my parents eyes and think, “Maybe not.  Maybe I shouldn’t have published.”  I love my parents.  I’m so grateful for my childhood.  And I outed their worst moments.  Publically.

But the book does give me the freedom to be completely real with other people, with friends, with my students.  Now I’m able to bring up issues I never would have considered before.  I used to worry about implicating myself.  If I talk about a certain high school expulsion, then that’ll lead to me exposing myself as a former drug user and dealer.  If I talk about another one of my expulsions, I’ll have to explain how I came to possess a stolen handgun at a high school.  But all of that is public now.  Well known.  So now I can be completely real with people.

As I get reunion emails and letters from former classmates, I think, “Why would I go to a reunion?”  Some of these letters start with the phrase, “The best four years of our lives…”  The best four years?  Really?

Which of my four high schools would I return to?

Which of them would be proud to claim me?

Which of them would I claim?

I didn’t make good decisions in high school, and I didn’t find a way to fit in.  I didn’t maximize my experience.  I skipped home-coming all but one year.  Three times I was expelled right before the end of a semester, leaving grades to plummet – with zeros on all of my finals.  Four times I started over at a new school, and countless times I was a bad friend, moving on without looking back.  I quit on people. I disrespected teachers.  I didn’t listen when my parents gave me good, experiential advice.

So why would I go back?

But now – as one of my teacher friends says, “I’m in high school for eternity and will never graduate.”  But also, I have this wonderful life.  I was eating oatmeal and telling stories with my daughters yesterday morning, then I biked in to school on a bright winter morning, and the sun slanted in from the east so sharp I could almost taste it.  The Outdoor Program had a barefoot wiffleball game in the park in the afternoon, everyone getting muddy, then walking back to school happy, with eye-black and jerseys on, chewing Big League Chew in wads.  And I went home to my wife and kids.  And our family loves to read books and camp and hike and climb and swim in rivers.  And this is my life, present and future.

So yesterday, I told my students, “This is not the only moment you’re given.  There are sixty years in front of you.  You live beyond this high school thing.”

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11 thoughts on “Remember When High School Was The Best Four Years Of Your Life? Me Neither.

  1. Miss and love ya, Pete. You always speak the truth. Applied to work at a pizza place in the evenings and one of the questions on the app was “what was the last book you read and did you like it?” and even though I’ve read a few books since summer, the only book that came to mind was yours, so that’s what I wrote. And I also told them that you were one of my fave high school teachers (I actually liked high school; at least parts of it..) and also that if I could be any animal I would be a tiger. 🙂

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    • Demi – Tigers are pretty hard. Makes sense. Thanks for thinking of me. And I’m happy when anyone loves any time period in their lives. Good for you. – Hoff

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  2. This is my favorite post you have written! For many reasons, but also because I felt the same about high school, and wonder why those four years are such a focus for the remainder of our lives! I want my kids to realize there is a BIG world outside of those high school walls. I couldn’t see it then, but I wonder how my life would’ve changed had I been able to see beyond my immediate world.

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    • Yeah, I wonder that too. I spent so much time trying to work things out, trying to make myself a part of that world in a meaningful way. And what if I had known to accept how unimportant high school was at the time?

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  3. Hey Hoff, what was that poem you wrote about seeing the students every day dealing with so much, and you wrote a line that was something about all of their problems being like gravel in their hands that “they eat because they don’t know what to do with it”? I saved some of your poems that you gave us in class but they’ve long since been lost.

    I forgot to pick up your book when I was home but my sister is coming in 10 days to be a teacher in South Korea as well and I’m going to make her pick it up. Is it available at Smith Family?

    Are your poems in the book or is the book just a memoir? I’d love to read all of your poems in one place. Have you read Sherman Alexie?

    I know I keep telling you this but you were my favorite teacher in high school and university. I know it’s a combination of your real passion and honesty. I still remember pieces of the stories you told us; and sometimes I’ll tell people about the time you saw us all speed-reading for the daily quiz so you spent the first six minutes of class telling us a hilarious story about your little brother breaking his finger or leg or something in the tree house, just so we’d lose all of the information we’d crammed into our short-term memory. That might seem mean or meaningless to some people, but I thought it was one of the funniest things a teacher had ever done to an entire class.

    When I teach my classes, I tell the students real stories about my life and my past to try and bring the material to a more personal level for them. Some people might think that there should be a formality between teacher and student (especially in SKorea), and yes of course you’re never going to go out for beers with a 16 year old, but your charismatic story-telling, approachability and the absolute honesty I saw every day in your eyes when you stood in front of us is something I try to bring to my classes as well.

    I don’t know if I hated high school or middle school more, but if there’s one thing I’d want to go back for, I’d want to sit in another year (or four) of your classes and just listen to all of your stories and read your poems and hear your take on books.

    Here’s some things I always wanted to tell you:
    1. I actually read the entire Scarlet Letter.
    2. I don’t remember the title of the book that the woman committed suicide at the end of, but when you asked me in the hall what I thought of it and I said that her choice of suicide made me dislike the entire book and you mentioned a specific famous singer and made the point that his suicide doesn’t make his music any less meaningful, I had no idea who that person was but I mumbled an answer and ran off because I didn’t want you to know.
    3. You said that Huck Finn moved his legs together to catch the spindle (or whatever it was) because he had something there worth protecting if-you-know-what-I-mean, but I wanted to raise my hand and point out that in those times, men wore pants and women wore dresses and skirts and it’d be completely instinctual for a man to clasp his knees together to catch something in his lap; whereas a woman might automatically spread hers to catch it in her skirt.
    4. I remember that you could never cross the middle of the board when you were writing, the way you always had to pause at the end of a sentence when reading a poem, even if I was sure that the reader was supposed to keep going in one breath (do you remember me telling you that in class? I think you invited me to read it the way I thought it ought to be read, and I did.), and the fact that you told us that you have to check the alarm clock a certain number of times each night (was it 11?) before you go to bed. I enjoyed doing a parody of you that time you made us all tell jokes in front of the class. I hope you enjoyed it, too.

    This may sort of read like I was either in love with you then or pretty much want your dick now, but that’s not actually the case. I’m just trying to tell you that you were an extremely memorable teacher and I appreciate it.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever want to teach after I finish here in SKorea (right now I’m thinking I don’t ever want to go to grad school), but the passion, humor and heart that teachers have are sometimes the only thing to look forward to in a day. Thanks for making that choice in your life.

    P.S. – I just discovered Taylor Mali. You probably already know about him, but if not, he seems like he’s totally your style. I’ve only watched a few of his poems, but I liked all of them. Oh and also I really like http://verbatimpoetry.blogspot.com/.

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    • Rachel –
      So much good stuff here. I’m so glad your teaching in Korea (what an incredible experience). And it’s good that you understand now that we do our best – or hopefully do our best as teachers – but sometimes we might be wrong (Huck Finn or reading poems). And yes, I was an OCD mess, still am in ways. Tapping the alarm clock thirteen. Third button on my shirt 33 times.
      Stories have power. They always have. Keep telling them.
      – Hoff

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  4. Peter, many true things you have acknowledged. I also had that awareness when I was a sophomore (I went to a 3 year high school), and put myself into after school drama/play support & talked a cousin into joining as well. She actually went on to take acting classes, but I was never that brave, I just did after school stuff. Those experiences kept me in school, or I would have been able to say ditto, ditto, ditto, to all your experiences. Those are the enrichment activities I support with my charity dollars. With so many budget cuts, the perfoming arts seem so undervalued.
    Just so you know, Peter, I am Rachel & Katherine Collins mother, Judy.
    Thanks!

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  5. It wasn’t just high school that sucked for me. The horror I felt began in junior high as I slowly became aware that, aside from the academics, every single thing that was cool about school was either gone or perverted. Recess, that joyous time of abandoning ourselves to playing games and laughing our asses off all together with adults staying out of the way unless there was blood or fire, was suddenly (and with no warning as far as I knew!) gone. On the first day of 7th grade, girls were supposed to magically want to sit demurely watching guys shoot hoops, and the old whole-school camaraderie devolved into who-do-you-like/who-is-richer/smarter/cuter/more popular? bullshit. No wonder those of us who wouldn’t/couldn’t get with that program were miserable! At least some of us had parents and adult friends who helped us laugh it off with the promise that we’d NEVER appear at our 40th high-school reunion declaring that those were the best years of our lives. Now I feel nothing but compassion and concern for anyone who does.

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