It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It will forever be – knock on wood – as close to hell as I’ll ever come. But it was really only the white, middle-class, angst-y poetry, Fiona Apple kind of hell, which I guess proves it wasn’t that bad.
Senior Year at Algoma Christian School started with promise. There is an indescribable, largely unjustified feeling of pride and elation that comes with being a high school senior. You will never be more on top of the world, and my tiny class of 11 came as close to abusing the moment as we could. For instance:
- On the annual camping retreat for the entire high school, we hid coolers full of water balloons until we ambushed absolutely everyone during free time.
- We threw a tantrum because a particularly uppity middle-school teacher had taken our radio from the kitchen where we served lunch, and we were rewarded with a field trip to Chicago.
- There was a little unsupervised experiment that resulted in an explosion which probably would have gotten someone expelled if we’d pointed fingers. No one ever repeated the experiment, especially Tim.
- We locked people in the kitchen cooler.
- We spent an entire night in the dark gym building a full-length castle for Homecoming.
- We filled a kiddy pool with water and fish and put it in the math teacher’s classroom.
- The Night of the Spoon will forever live in infamy.
I played basketball that year, though I’d never been on a team before and wasn’t a particularly competitive person when it came to anything organized. I did try to get out of it before practices started, but everyone had been bugging me to play for so long that I finally consented and gave in to what everyone expected of me – a pattern, I’d realize later. I can’t say I ever really tried that hard, though I was proud of being the fastest person on the team – not the quickest, that honor went to Felix, but I was fastest. I did enjoy fouling. At our last game, I finally decided to ignore everything my coach had ever told me and played hard because I was so frustrated. I was left in for three straight quarters, and I remember mouthing, “Take me out!” to our coach, who just smiled and continued watching the game. I didn’t even notice the score as I took a charge and shot my free throws – it was only after I’d tied the game that I realized what was going on. We lost in overtime. I remember going into the bathroom and nearly collapsing – I SHOULD have been pulled, and self-diagnosing now I know I was dehydrated and probable hyperventilating. But, it was over, and I was relieved. I have never since been that physically exhausted since. It felt terrible, and good. I think I was starting a spiral into depression at that point, actually, and my body was trying to tell me something.
Why? The biggest aspect of my senior year that makes it so memorable was the fact that I had to change my role. I was always involved in student government through high school, but mostly I managed to sit in the background and contribute while staying out of the lead. Then came senior year. Unfortunately, the president of my class moved away and so I had to step in by default. (I must stress that this was in no way a grand accomplishment – class of 11, remember.) Teachers, staff, parents, etc. expected me to be excellent – pressure, pressure, pressure! – because I was responsible, I had a good head on my shoulders, I was smart, blah, blah, blah. So, I took charge, again largely to please everyone and because it was expected of me. Honestly, I did have natural leader-ish tendencies, so I took up the reins and enjoyed being organized, scheduled, etc. I learned to thrive on a job well done…and on stress, on having demands and deadlines.
But, being a leader is hard on the social life. I really didn’t want my classmates to hate me as their pseudo-authority figure, so I tried to be softer and let them get away with more. And more. And more. This, I think, led them to treating me like a mom, or a doormat. They didn’t do their work because they knew I would pick up the slack. (I shouldn’t really blame them – I mean, you’re supposed to be somewhat irresponsible in high school, so I hear. And I have to give credit to about four other people from my class who actually did give a hoot.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice – the job had to get done or it would reflect poorly on me. No! I had expectations to meet! I couldn’t fail! I couldn’t make a mistake! …Anyway… Because I shouldered all the labor, I became more resentful and took it out on my classmates. Self-righteousness is a bitch. Josh #1 even went so far as to dub me with the nickname “Mother Superior.” And I completely deserved it the time Tim actually handed me a broom and said, “Go home.”
It was around this time that I seriously considered tossing away the idea that my classmates were my friends, and I began to feel very grateful that I lived fifty miles away.
Here’s where the angst-y poetry comes in:
“What am I to you
What are we
I wish to thank you for this misery
and these raspberry seeds
I once feared our circle’s break
Now I fear its stay
So I thank you for this misery
And these raspberry seeds
I will remember your sweetness
But hope to pick you from my teeth”
– My Raspberry Friends
During this time, there were several situations where it was clear God was trying to get my attention. Many times, I worked myself into such a ball of stress that I ended up getting sick. I mean sick. I’d had a crappy immune system since I could remember (Ethiopian poster child, remember), and I didn’t even get over colds for two weeks. I often saw being sick as a blessing because it meant that I got a break. Also, being sick has always been a time when I hear God more clearly. While I lay in bed miserable, God usually checked in and reminded me of the whole little “be still and know that I am God” promise – I say promise because it was comforting to know that I could refrain from holding the universe together. Once I would realize this, I would then snap out of my control-freak tendencies so that – a week or so later – I would be healthy again. Sadly, the lesson usually didn’t last long.
Things got worse when one of my guy friends showed signs of liking me. (Here lies the reason I hate getting flowers, btw.) I could have been flattered and left it at that as friends, but unfortunately he decided that I now was just the same as every other
vagina girl he had ever chased after. It was as if our friendship of eighteen years meant nothing. I cannot begin to explain how much this hurt and how it would affect so many friendships to come. At the end of a very long drama, let’s just say that we stopped being friends because it was the only thing I could do. But, unfortunately, rumors spread like wildfire in a small Christian school, and I had to deal with a lot of crap from people who didn’t understand what was really going on. There were a few who really did know, and it was really here that I learned who my true friends were – even if I was barely capable of trusting anyone anymore.
I think that, by the end of senior year, I was broken. I felt as if every last one of my emotional straws had been snapped. I was beyond ready to leave it all behind, and yet I was scared of the New at the same time. I had had so much externally going on that I honestly hadn’t done the usual high school “finding myself” stuff. I didn’t know who I really was when not performing for everyone else’s benefit. I didn’t know what I wanted from the life to come. Most certainly I knew I was a mess, but it was all so jumbled that I didn’t yet know how I was a mess. I was numb, disconnected, and broken while trying to put on a show of being perfectly happy, hopeful of the future, and loving. All I had left was my relationship with God, which had grown immensely during this time because I’d been forced to lean on solely him – maybe this was the good that came out of all of the bad.
High School Graduation – So, at last. My valedictorian speech was prepared, my ridiculous hat was pinned to my hair, and I had my tall boots on so that I felt I had something different about me – I don’t know why this was necessary, but it helped.
We had to stand in the side wing while the gathered mob of family and friends assembled and seated themselves in the gymnasium. I remember inspecting my classmates with something like love and something like loathing – but, somehow, mostly like love. Hope was the first in line. She was oddly the nearest to tears, although she was only a member of our class by force. Adam was nearly as alien – although he fit in, he had only joined our class that year from a lower grade. I was next. Appearing completely calm, Tim stood quietly. Cat was jittery, but she talked to everyone. Tiffany was giggling. Easily the most distractible, Rusty was joking around and had to be shoved back into the line. Good Josh was grinning from ear to ear. Holding the folds of her gown so as not to reveal her mini-skort, the Hawaiian goddess Felix fumed inwardly because she should have been salutatorian. Bad Josh stood laughing. Alicia was in the rear, trying to appear calm, but she was worried about the slide show she had spent all year putting together for this event.
“Let me take a few pictures quick,” my mom said as she entered the narrow hall.
I admit I rolled my eyes as she fumbled to work the camera.
“Smile, Sunny,” I heard Bad Josh say as the flash went off.
I silently scowled at him and reached up to adjust my sliding cap. I exchanged an annoyed glance with my jittery friend as the Hawaiian goddess’s soon-to-be ex-boyfriend (and much, much later husband) brought us the flowers we had to carry down the aisle. We took them and nervously argued over the best way to carry them. Deciding that I no longer cared about the whole event, I realized that my four Tylenol had just kicked in for my headache.
Soon enough, we walked down the aisle to the traditional music, which Alicia’s sister played on a piano. The girls carried calla lilies; the guys focused a little too hard on walking at the right speed. We sat in our seats, slightly stiff and sleepy. After Cat had given her salutatorian speech, I remember thinking, “I can beat that.” Mr. C, as our administrator, basketball coach, Family Living teacher, and group therapist then introduced me by saying, “And now, speaking of our leader…” This made me cringe. I remember walking up to the podium, taking a firm grip, and looking out at the crowd. It occurred to me that half of the people had never heard me talk before, so I felt a smirk of satisfaction in knowing that they had to listen to me now. But I stuck to my script.
The rest of the ceremony was traditionally long and somewhat interesting. When we were finally released from the blinding cameras, a few of us enjoyed ourselves. We each had our own table of baby pictures and plaques. We got really good at smiling and saying, “thank you,” not to mention hugging people we didn’t know. I spent most of my time watching everyone else. Mike V. hugged me but then pushed me aside when he saw my table had candy. Bad Josh stood by my table with his glaring girlfriend, and I was stuck there awkwardly. I’m pretty sure Good Josh saw this, because he came over and hugged me, which I needed badly.
For the next couple of weeks, I went through the necessary pleasantries of open houses and greeting my friends’ families.
Then something happened. The board of ACS got their panties in a bunch because Felix had worn a short skirt and Cat and I had gone sleeveless UNDER our graduation gowns. (If that sounds ridiculous, it should. While I loved most of what that school stood for, we were there during a “growth period” and the leadership was infuriating. It made mountains out of molehills and focused on the trivial while ignoring issues that really mattered like prejudice, sexism, hypocrisy, etc. I am glad to report that ACS has grown in leaps and bounds since this time, and now boys are even allowed to have facial hair!) …Anyway, it was at this point that I felt like every good aspect of graduating from high school had been sucked out of me. I remember crying and crying and crying, not because I felt guilty or angry but because I had been so close to escaping and now was thrust back in. What ended up happening was that our class and our parents were called to a meeting to discuss whether or not we deserved to go on the senior trip we had spent all year earning. We were basically told that we were the scum of the earth and not capable of making good choices, even though ACS was supposed to have taught us now to make good choices. We weren’t trusted. We were not adults after all. We were failures. Even now, I think that meeting was the low point in my life. I have never seen my dad so livid, and I have never loved him so much as when he argued for us. Fortunately, somehow, we won our case and they decided to let us go ahead with our senior trip.
Then something else happened. It is not really my story to tell, but basically Cat and Tim confessed that they were pregnant. The thing that hurt the most was not that I was disappointed in them – it was that Cat had been afraid to tell me. I cried and cried then too. Cat and I had become very close that year, and I think we both bonded to each other because we had so little else. We’ve been over my drama, but Cat’s dad had had cancer and she’d had a host of other, real problems. Plus, we were both trying frantically to find God in our lives during this tumultuous time, and we strengthened each other’s hopes that we were not left to flounder on our own. I still think to this day that I could have done more for her or been there for her more that year, but I’d had to take care of myself at some point too.
Senior Trip – Despite the sucky situations leading into the trip, the time in West Virginia was awesome and wonderful. For some reason, I decided to be a vegetarian for the week and eat Felix’s diet. Rusty developed a strange relationship with the campsite moths. And, the whole group randomly went for a hike one day and followed a bubbling stream, not at all knowing where it would lead. We fell on the slimy rocks, Felix and I hid in an overlooking cave on the bank, we found a crashed car in the middle of the mossy stream, and then finally we arrived at a waterfall. Pounding water from forty feet overhead slammed into jagged rocks below, and sunlight fought its way through the trees on the cliffs all around, illuminating the murky pool between a gigantic boulder and the waterfall. The whole scene is definitely in my Top 10 Most Memorable Things I’ve Ever Seen. It was like a gift.
However. When we were leaving, Mr. C pulled over the van and asked us if we wanted to go north to home or south to the next destination. We were confused. He then said that the camp owner had seen us sneaking away in pairs, apparently making out when some of us had significant others at home. We vigorously denied this, and finally he pulled his head out of his…seat and kept driving. Later at our next stop, he pulled me aside and asked what I thought, and I came very close to telling him that what he had done was unacceptable and insulting, especially after everything that had happened with the ACS board meeting. Fortunately, I remembered just in time that he did not respect my opinions as my father would have, so I kept quiet. But this was the last thing I needed at the time, and much of the recouped joy I’d felt drained away again.
Then came Myrtle Beach. Up until Wednesday was great. The condo was gorgeous, as were the beach and ocean. It was worth all the year’s financial work to see them laughing in the surf – for many of them, it was their first experience with an ocean, and maybe I did feel a bit like their happy mother as they enjoyed themselves. I still think it’s funny that we girls played on the beach while the guys went shopping at the mall.
Our 3:00 am beach walk was another Top 10 thing. Good Josh, Adam, Felix and I picked our way across the street in our bare feet, and we arrived on the sand to join the few other vacationers who were out so late. The wind was so strong that I remember jumping up and being blown backward in my “Shrimp Happens” T-shirt. The lapping of the waves was soothing, even though you could only see the very edge of the water in the dim light from the condos. We found a beached puffer fish. The storm out at sea was cool, too – and rather symbolic now that I think of it. I honestly don’t remember much of our conversations, but it wasn’t important. Just walking was good.
Then, Wednesday night. Ever had a dream three months in advance where you see the scene of when a friend is going to hurt you? Ever forget about that dream until its reality is suddenly upon you? I did. In both my dream and reality, I was sitting on the balcony of our condo, my feet on the railing. I was looking at a bright light across the street and slightly to my right. Then, a friend (this turned out to be Good Josh) came onto the balcony. I remember recognizing the scene then and thinking, “No, it’s okay. He’s on my right. In my dream, he was on my left. There’s a table in the way so that he can’t get to my left, so maybe the dream was wrong.” Sure enough, however, Good Josh stepped over the table to lean against the wall on my left. He did this for no explainable reason. That was when I knew something was coming. I’m not even really sure what happened. All I know is that he lied to me. We didn’t have a fight or anything, but I just knew something changed right then. The next morning, we didn’t speak to each other. We only made eye contact once for the entire rest of the trip. (I did figure out why, but it involves petty teen girl crap and doesn’t really matter.) But, because of that weird dream/premonition, I in some way felt okay with it, like I’d been prepared for this final, awful thing. And I wasn’t ever mad at Good Josh – which is saying something, if you know me. Maybe I was just numb, but I really didn’t hold anything against him, and I think it’s because he had been such a support up until then.
Riding back to Michigan in the van, I found myself in a strange state of peace. I was still hurt, I was still scarred, but it was time to leave ACS behind. I resigned myself to just let go, make a clean break, and move on. This was maybe not the healthiest approach, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. I needed time away. (I got that time away in college, but more on that later.)
Five Years Later – One post-college night as I lay in bed thinking, it dawned on me that I was all right. Adjusted. I felt closure from my worst ACS issues, and nothing but time had triggered this feeling.
It was only then that I remembered something. Back during the ACS dark times, while I was praying one night, God told me, “Five years.” I’d had no idea what this meant at the time, but I’d felt immediate peace that it involved something good. Skip back to me lying in bed five years later and I suddenly got it – God had been telling me that, in five years, I would finally be okay and would recover from everything that had happened at ACS. I know five years seems like a long time to get over traumas from high school, and it was. But God knows how I work and how much it all hurt me, and I think he was meeting me on my ground. He brought me through five years of healing, like an extended version of the scene in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” where Aslan peels the dragon skin off Eustace.
So now, 10+ years later, what does ACS and The Era of Mother Superior mean to me? I’ve rekindled some old friendships that have changed with time; other friendships I’ve let go. But I try at least to check in. Maybe it’s masochistic, but I don’t want to forget perhaps the most shaping era of my life. Whatever its faults, I did spend over a decade of my life at ACS, and that means the school is an important part of my past. A home. ACS will forever be my own private “Winesburg, Ohio” where I grew up and where I had to grow out of. And I think it’s good to remind myself that even when I was at my worst, I wasn’t alone.