Tag Archives: high school

In a Past Life…

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“Sometimes someone says something really small and it just fits into this empty place in your heart.”My So-Called Life

Yesterday I saw my high school Algebra teacher.  He was accompanied by his wife, who also worked at my high school as a counselor and vice principal.  This would be unremarkable if I were in my home town, but I was at work 600 miles from home.  I second-guessed myself when I fist saw him, but his wife was unmistakable.  I wanted to find a reason to speak to them, knowing that a decade after I took his class he would have no reason to remember me, but was busy with customers. 

My mood lifted when I saw them, a piece of home where I never expected it.  Finally I approached his wife and introduced myself.  She was never my counselor, so she also had no reason to recognize me.  When I told her my name she smiled and said that she remembered it from my time at the school.  While this may have been polite courtesy, she then asked who my parents were and nodded as I named them, making connections in her head.  Finally, she asked I attended the elementary school that, in fact, I did attend.  She laughed and said that she knew me through my sixth grade teacher, her close friend and walking partner.

This whole interaction left me glowing.  A woman who had no business knowing me and, in fact, did not know me, somehow knew who I was.  She remembered my name, my history, my people.  She could have feigned recognition, but she knew me through a teacher that I loved.  There was a time in my life when I was someone people knew.  I was involved, a leader, someone who stood out.  For twenty-two years, I was noteworthy.  I’ve spent the past three years being reminded how unimportant, unremarkable, insignificant I am.  I am surrounded by people who do not know my name, even when I am wearing a name tag.  I have come to have a hard time discerning which me is the real me, which is the fraud. 

Tonight I spent time with some friends from college.  I met many of their new friends, most of whom are pursuing post-graduate degrees or are working in fulfilling “real” jobs.  I felt out of place, embarrassed whenever I was asked what I do.  At the same time, I talked with new people, asked about their lives, was engaging and enjoyed getting to know them.  In a moment of clarity, I saw the me that used to be confident, personable and social.  I saw the person I used to be, that person that relative strangers knew.  Inadequacy quickly took over and I was ready to hide in my anonymity soon enough, but for a few minutes, the old me surfaced. 

On the way home, my friend played a “sweet” song for me.  Not being a fan of country music, I was biased and not incredibly inclined to listen, but I gave it a shot.  My polite patience turned into almost immediate tears.  The song was “The House That Built Me,” about going back to your roots when you’re lost.  It’s about revisiting a childhood house, but it’s so much more.  It’s finding the place that created the person you are, the world that bore you.  Finding that origin, that point of creation, might bring back the person we’ve lost. 

While there is a powerful healing that comes from visiting my house, home is much more.  Home is seeing the friends who knew me when I worked hard, achieved high and led my peers.  Home is seeing my parents, getting notes from them in the mail.  It’s seeing someone who knew you by reputation, who remembers you a decade later, and gently reminds you that you are someone worth seeing. 

I was someone important, someone impressive.  I do not say this arrogantly or lightly.  I say this because I was reminded, by a piece of home, of who I used to be in my past life.  I say this because I hope, deep inside, I still am. 

“I thought if I could touch this place or feel it/ This brokenness inside me might start healing/ Out here it’s like I’m someone else/ I thought that maybe I could find myself…”  –Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”

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“Dump Me In The River”

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“Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up.  I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something.  Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery.  People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap.  Who wants flowers when you’re dead?  Nobody.”  —The Catcher in the Rye 

Despite, or perhaps due to, his reclusive life, J.D. Salinger is still a fascinating piece of the literary world.  His death is tragic because, though he lived a long life, he is one of the eternal “what if?” writers.  This is typically ascribed to the young who are just beginning to grow into their talent, who are rising into fame.  He, however, showed his capability.  He shared his talent.  He changed American literature.  And then he stopped.  He pulled the plug on what may have been a prolific, lengthy, lucrative career.  He took himself out of the spotlight.  In a society that craves its fifteen minutes of fame, that will go to any length to achieve “celebrity,” he literally ran and hid from it.

The more I learn of his personal life, the more I see that he probably is not someone to look up to and idolize.  However, reading The Catcher in the Rye my Junior year of high school completely changed me as a reader and writer.  There are a handful of books that have made this kind of impact on me through the years, but the book turned on a light.  The distinct, engaging and painful, awkward voice he created for Holden was unlike anything I had ever read before.  He spoke to me in a way no narrator or character ever had.  As a moody teenager, he said what I thought, articulated so much of the frustration and angst I had swirling around in my sixteen year-old mind.  His voice and style is still something that writers are compared to, a “modern-day J.D. Salinger” being one of the biggest compliments an author can have printed on their book jacket.  From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to Choke, the icon Salinger created echoes through literature that followed.  Both of the aforementioned books I love, mostly because of their narrators, strongly reminiscent of Holden.

On top of changing the way that I look at literature and, in turn, writing, The Catcher in the Rye strikes me as classic, as so loved, because of what Salinger sees in kids growing up, and grown-ups who still feel like kids.  Holden’s aching desire to protect the innocents, clearly because he has grown out of that stage, struck such a chord with me at sixteen, and does now at twenty-four.  I watch my younger brothers, both now in their twenties, and I want to protect them from everything.  I refuse to think that they struggle with anything more difficult than who to invite to their birthday party or what video game to buy.  Forget about love and girls and stress or alcohol or drugs or depression.  Even as I write that, it seems so absurd.  I doubt that I’ll ever see them as anything but little boys, ones that I was charged to protect the days that they were born.

There is so, so much more that still lives in my mind, quotes and ideas that woke me up almost a decade ago.  I have read some of his other writing, and enjoyed it, but nothing has had the impact that Catcher had.  For the ways that I grew, the ideas he inspired, and the love that he kindled, I am forever indebted to Mr. Salinger.  I’m sure this is the last thing that he would want, one to shrug off fame and adulation, but with his passing, Mr. Salinger is reminding us all what we loved about his art.  While he may have wanted to slip quietly off into the next life, it is impossible to ignore what he did in this one.  I only hope that he can forgive us for all the flowers on his grave.

“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”  –J.D. Salinger