I didn’t love grade school. But you never would have known that last night if you’d seen me sitting around a table at our local Chili’s with seven other people, reminiscing about the time Ed Lavoie crawled out the window and got detention.
We go back a long way, we members of the Sacred Heart class of 1977. Most of us met as first-graders in 1969; Nixon was in the White House and Neil Armstrong had just walked on the moon, but we were more worried about penmanship. When we graduated eighth grade, “Star Wars” was released, but we were champing at the bit to see “Saturday Night Fever.”
The times changed, and we changed. But last night, we all rushed headlong back to those days, and I never could have imagined what a soft, warm place the past would be.
Grade school, which morphed into junior high for us Catholic-school kids, was not a place for square pegs, and I was decidedly a square peg. First, I was the only child in my class who didn’t have a mom; second, I was tall. Very tall. I’m not tall now, but when you reach your full height of 5’4” as a fifth-grader and everyone else comes up to your chest, your world is an odd place, and you spend all your time looking down.
I loved spelling and writing; I also loved microscopes and rock-polishers and read encyclopedias for fun. I had glasses; later on, I had braces. My hair was dark, short, and frizzy while the other girls sported silky, blond, feathered-back bangs. I wanted badly to be popular, instead, I was smart. But all the intelligence in the world didn’t matter to a girl who was different.
Last night, though, no one was different, or maybe we’re finally old enough to see those differences as good things. Or perhaps we learned a few things around the table that helped us understand that we all thought we were different in those days, and we all faced hardships that set us apart, even if we kept them to ourselves.
We learned, for example, that one of the guys, as a boy, had been picked on pretty mercilessly; we learned another had been tested for learning disabilities because our teachers were concerned about his behavior. (Nothing was amiss; he saw the world differently and was, and is, simply very entertaining.)
We learned we all were at least somewhat insecure in those days, but we also learned how our classmates had viewed us. And we were pleasantly surprised, I think, that we were remembered fondly despite all the pressure we had placed on ourselves to look and act a certain way. The junior-high years are cruel years, but we had not been cruel kids.
We had a bond, we Sacred Heart kids, even if we were unaware of that at the time. When you spend eight years with basically the same 40-odd kids, you form a pseudo-family; you may not like all your family members, but you’re connected, and you’re loyal.
Neither of the men I married shares my history; I met one at 22 and the other in my late 30s. While that's perfectly fine, that fact remains that neither of them remembers the time our seventh-grade science teacher had head lice, or the way the ceiling tiles looked in Mr. Pilgrim’s office, or the Mouse House or Minnie Pearl's or the Little Red Barn.
They don’t remember the tunnels in the church basement, and they know nothing about pin-dodgeball or Kill the Man (just a game; no real death) or the time Amy fell on something that went through her knee, or the time Polly got so sick. They didn’t know Tom Vial and his silky hair and his love of KISS, or that everyone either liked or "went with" Bobby.
They don’t remember Jeff Hoffman, our classmate who died at 14. We toasted him last night through tears, and cheered one another with a litany of “remember whens.”
A shared history isn’t critical, of course. But as we get older, it’s soothing. It validates the things that shaped us, and it reinforces that we weren’t alone, although we may have been quite sure, at the time, that we were.
All of us around that table last night are 51 now. Most of us have lost at least one parent; some have lost both. We don’t look the way we looked at 14, naturally, but as several of us pointed out, we all have the same faces, and the same eyes. And some of those eyes were a little watery last night, but they were smiling as they looked upon all the laughter.
As Faulkner said, “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.” Those of us around the table last night are all lucky enough to feel at home with families who love us, but part of “home” will also be a once-little town called West Des Moines, which ended, in those days, at Valley High School.