On a rainy Sunday in May in Ocean City, Md., I sat alone in my in-laws’ beach condo and cried. I had stayed back to clean while my family ventured out to watch the new Star Wars movie “Solo.” Since cleaning is not my favorite activity, I took a break to check Facebook. And when I did, I saw that a friend of mine from high school was in her last stages of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. She was 43. I called my mom and my tears bubbled over.
My classmate’s death got me thinking a lot about high school. Mitchell will be a freshman in August. When my dad asked him if he was looking forward to it, he said no. He doesn’t want to be the youngest in the school again. Also, he dreads his summer reading assignment of To Kill a Mockingbird and the test that follows the first week of school.
I lack sympathy. Compared to my transition to high school, his seems benign.
After moving from Ohio to Minnesota between sixth- and seventh-grade, my dad promised I would graduate from high school there. Two years later, he broke that promise and we headed to Muncie, Ind. To say my mom and I loved Minnesota would be an understatement. It is a beautiful, progressive, clean, albeit cold, state. Indiana seemed like a step back into time.
Goodbye Party, North Mankato, Minn., 1989
Due to my dad’s late decision to change jobs, we didn’t leave Minnesota until the beginning of August. Our house wasn’t ready and hotel space in Muncie was limited because of a tennis tournament in town. We got stuck in a run-down motel on the east end near the Muncie Mall.
For two weeks.
The Muncie Mall has improved greatly over the years, but in 1989, cigarette smoke permeated through the building, and the mall had no decent lighting. I loathed our evenings wandering the mall’s dim hallways, loitering in J.C. Penney while my parents picked out curtains.
Time passed, though, and we finally moved into our house. School started at the large, diverse, public city school I picked. When I say I picked it, I mean it. My parents let me choose what part of Muncie we would live in based on the school I wanted to attend. There were several rural county schools, a laboratory school affiliated with the university (with a wait list), and two city schools. I chose a city school because I thought there would be fewer cliques and because the school offered German.
Muncie Central High School
Although there is nothing more anxiety-inducing than entering a cafeteria full of teenagers and not knowing a single one, my first day went okay. My mom planned to pick me up after school, but since the school was so big, we didn’t discuss where she would pick me up. As I exited the front doors with hundreds of other students, I saw her frantically running across the lawn, waving her arms, yelling, “Annie!”
Apparently, she thought she would never find me.
Despite the depressing first weeks in Muncie and the embarrassing incident on the first day at Central, my four years in Muncie turned out to be much better than I expected. There have been few times in my life when I have met friendlier people than those in Indiana. Midwesterners are known for their hospitality, and of the places I’ve lived, Muncie topped the charts.
Muncie Central wasn’t a top academic school. In fact, my college admissions counselor told me later that in addition to GPA, SAT scores, class ranking, and class choices, students also received a rating for their high school. My school rated at the bottom. There were some less-than-stellar teachers and unfortunately I didn’t retain much from biology, physics or economics. But there were also some outstanding and caring teachers, advisers, and coaches. And even though I live miles away from my high school friends, when we get together, it feels like nothing has changed.
At the time of course, it did not feel like these were the best years of my life. The years were filled with awkwardness, uncertainly around boys, and a few fights with friends. Some kids rebelled with drinking and drugs. My rebellion involved evangelical Christianity and wearing a wooden cross around my neck. I longed to move on to the wealthy, academically-stimulating, private liberal arts college I’d chosen.
But this place and its people seeped into me.
Muncie Central Girls Tennis 1992
In the early years, my friend’s dad drove us all over the state to watch our school’s semi-famous basketball team (winning their 8th state championship in ’88). Our German Club took annual trips to Chicago, skiing trips to Michigan and eventually a trip to Europe. My high school tennis experience is one that I still value and use today.
As Mitchell enters ninth-grade, I can only hope he has as good of an experience as I. He will attend a better academic high school than I did, with several AP and dual enrollment (college course) offerings. The proximity of our town to the East Coast is a plus. He is more athletic than I was. He has good friends, some of whom he has known since he was an infant.
But what I want to say to him is this:
Cherish these four years. There will be stress, no doubt, over school, sports, friends, and girls. But there will also be opportunities. Take advantage of all of them and enjoy them to the fullest. Don’t worry too much about where you go to college. You can be successful no matter what if you work hard, be persistent, be kind, and have a positive attitude. Most importantly, these are your people, and they will always be your people. So enjoy them while you have them with you.