I enter the doors of my old high school. There’s a security guard sitting at a desk in the front hallway. I sign my name in a log book along with the time and date. It’s November 22nd, the day before Thanksgiving. Under “Reason for visiting” I write “Academy Alumni Event”. After confirming that my name is on a list, the guard hands me a name tag, with a drawing of a knight, the school’s mascot, on it. I put it on my chest, where I can feel my excitement building.
I’m not the kind of person you’d think would get excited about high school reunions. I wasn’t popular in high school and I’m not popular now. I tend to be reserved and socially awkward, to avoid social events whenever possible. I don’t have the kind of life that’s likely to impress anyone from my past and I often dread having to talk about my life with new or old acquaintances. This is a different kind of high school reunion though.
I ascend the staircase and look at the numbers beside the classroom doors. 211…216.. 219.. 222. I’m there. The location of the classroom that housed the class I knew so well and loved so much when I was in high school has changed but the atmosphere is the same. I rush in and envelop Ms. Madigan in a bear hug.
“Now that’s a good hug. This kid over here comes in and hugs me with one arm and I’m like ‘What kind of of a hug is that?’ She gestures towards one of the other alumni. I don’t recognize him. I don’t know any of the alumni in the room. They were after my time.
I glance around at the decorations in the room. There’s a bulletin board that says “Lettuce Taco Bout the Elements of a Story.”
“Is Mr. Giarelli responsible for that one?” I ask Ms. Madigan.
“No, I came up with it myself.”
“Where is Mr. Giarelli?”
“He’s teaching another class. He’ll be here soon.”
“She’s coming at 11”
I call my mother and tell her not to pick me up until 11:30.
Two familiar faces enter the room.
“Hey, Phoenix!” I say to the adorable toddler in my friend’s arms.
“And hi, Zara” I say to my friend, remembering my manners.
Ms. Madigan takes Phoenix in to her arms. I snap a picture of them. Then I search through my Facebook albums on my phone and compare it to the picture I took of them at this time last year, when Phoenix was an infant.
An alumni enters the room with a puppy in her arms. Phoenix reaches for him.
Zara turns to me. “Phoenix loves him as much as she loved your cat. We’ll have to get together at your house again soon so they can play together.”
“Sorry I couldn’t join Zara and Delilah for lunch at your house that day” Ms. Madigan says.
“That’s okay. I knew you were busy at the school.”
“But you live near the school now so you could walk over and eat lunch with us sometime.”
“Yeah, I’d like that. Hey, did I tell you I ran in to James a few months ago?”
“Yeah, I was walking by my therapist’s house while I was waiting for my appointment and he said ‘Kira? It’s James, Ms. Madigan’s son.’ I said ‘Yeah, I thought it was you but I wasn’t sure and I was too afraid to say anything. I’m glad you’re braver than I am.” We both laugh.
I walk over to the refreshments table to grab some pumpkin pie. In the center of the table is a ‘Gratitude tree’ with each paper leaf representing what each person is grateful for. I look at the words written on some of the leaves. Among the gratitude expressed for things like health, friends and family, there is gratitude expressed for the Academy.
“How did the Thanksgiving feast go yesterday?” I ask Ms. Madigan.
“It went well. We had a lot of people come. Did we do Thanksgiving feasts when you were here?’
“Yes, I was around for the beginning of every Academy tradition. I started most of them.”
“This is true.”
I remember we were allowed to invite a guest within the school to our feast. At first my brother was reluctant to come eat with ‘the crazy class’ but in the end I convinced him. I remember when asked to name something I was grateful for I said The Academy.
A new staff member I don’t know walks into the room and introduces himself as Mr. Willis. He announces that a video tape is being made in which alumni will be asked questions about The Academy.
“In answer to the question ‘What was the best part of the Academy?’ you all better say me” Ms. Madigan interjects.
“Should we have the oldest alumni go first?” Mr. Willis asks.
“No, because I’m the oldest alumni and I’m not ready” I reply.
As I buy myself some more time, I glance around the room some more. The journal question on the board is “How would you show other people that you are grateful for them?” The quote of the day is “Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles. It empties today of its strength.”
I pace over to the classroom supply closet. On one of its glass doors is another quote. It reads “There are no endings, only new beginnings.” Underneath it is the year I graduated.
In the closet is the stuffed rat my classmate Ariel gave to Ms. Madigan back in the day. Many years later, another classmate, Vanessa gave her another stuffed rat. In May I completed the trifecta and gave her a third stuffed rat. As the other teachers show off the flowers and chocolates they get from their students, Ms. Madigan can show off the rats she got from hers.
I pace to the sliding wall that divides the classroom in two. On the wall is a blue paper silhouette of a person. Around the person’s head are black and white images of smaller people with their heads drooped in to their arms, dark clouds hovering above them. They are surrounded by quotes such as “Wasted Talent”, “I was doing better,why am I like this again?”, “Lonely is not being alone, it’s the feeling that no one cares”,” I’m not smart enough and I don’t know enough about what’s going on”, “Life” and “Family.”
Beside the blue person is a list of student goals. One of them says “To go to a good college and get a good job.” In the background I can hear the alumni telling the teachers about their colleges, their jobs, their significant others and their children. The familiar waves of shame, jealousy, regret and longing wash over me.
On the blue person’s chest it says “It’s okay not to be okay.”
Mr. Giarelli enters the room. His mustache is gone but otherwise he looks the same as he did when he was my teacher. “Hey, Kira!” he says as he hugs me.
“Glad to be back in The Academy?’ I ask.
“It’s where you belong.”
He sits on the sofa. I take a seat across from him where a circle of of alumni has gathered. “Do you know Randall?” Mr. Giarelli asks gesturing to a young man on my left.
“I didn’t go to school with him but I met him at last year’s alumni reunion.”
Randall tells Mr. Giarelli he’s heard that Delilah left the The Academy and the program isn’t what it used to be. They discuss what’s changed and what the future has in store. Then the discussion moves to the past. Mr. Giarelli talks about how he decided he wanted to work with emotionally disturbed adolescents, how he used to work at an alternative school with Ms. Madigan and how that led to them working at The Academy.
“Shakira?” Mr. Wilson calls out. I laugh at the name error and then take my seat in front of the camera. The questions appear on the screen. I stumble and hesitate over some of my words. I’m not quite as eloquent as I’d like to be but I get the gist of what I want to express across.
State your name, graduation year and what you’re doing now.
“My name is Kira. I graduated in 2003. Now I’m tutoring English and blogging.”
What staff and students do you remember and why?
“I remember everyone. I remember the main staff, the teachers, Ms. Madigan and Mr. Giarelli and the therapist, Delilah. I remember them because they’re wonderful.”
If I went in to all the reasons why they were wonderful I’d be there all day. I think of Mr. Giarelli and his corny jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh at. I think that it somehow seems fitting that Ms. Madigan needed surgery for an enlarged heart because she has the biggest heart of anyone I know. I think of the Tuesday afternoons I would spend with Delilah, of her belief that she’s not warm and fuzzy and how I beg to differ.
“As for the students, I remember Vanessa and Zara. I’m still friends with them today. I remember Ariel, who was in the same graduating class as me and Vanessa. The staff called us The Three Witches of Eastwick. I remember Laila, who I had a love-hate relationship with. I remember Peter and Annie, who I rode the bus with. I remember Evan and Toby and Jason and so many more.”
What was the best part about being in The Academy?
“The best part about being in The Academy was the sense of belonging it gave me. When I was in middle school I was fortunate enough to have teachers who took care of me and looked out for me. My freshman year of high school I didn’t have that so much. I felt lost and developed emotional problems. In The Academy I found my place. I learned so much, laughed so much and had so much fun.”
What would you have changed about The Academy?
“I would have changed the behavior modification system with the rewards and the punishments and the purple sheets. It felt juvenile and condescending and it didn’t help me. I really wouldn’t have changed much about The Academy though.”
I can think of a bunch of little things that bothered me about The Academy when I was in high school but in the grand scheme of all that it gave me they seem insignificant and not worth mentioning.
What advice would you give to Academy students?
“I would tell them to be grateful for everything everyone in The Academy is doing for them. I’d tell them to realize that even if they’re doing something they don’t like, they may have their best interests at heart. I would tell them not to think that once they graduate, they’re out of sight, out of mind. The staff say ‘Once you’re ours, you’re ours forever’ and they mean it. If you haven’t talked to them in several years you can pick up right where you left off. They’ll still care about you and they’ll still help you. It happened with me.”
I walk back to the other side of the room. I say to Mr. Giarelli “One of the questions was ‘Who from The Academy do you remember?’ I’m sure you know I remember everyone.”
“Oh yeah. I’ll never forget that day we all played the name game where we went around the circle saying each others’ names. You knew everyone’s first name, middle name, last name, birthday, probably their social security numbers too.”
“She knows my kids’ birthdays!” Ms. Madigan says.
“You know, Kira, through you and some other students, I learned not just to accept others’ differences but to appreciate them” Mr. Giarelli says.
I remember how in The Academy my pacing, my messy handwriting, my bluntness and my dark sense of humor were appreciated-things many other people just found annoying and inappropriate.
“So Kira… have you found some measure of happiness?’ Mr. Giarelli continues.
“Yes, I have.”
“What are some things that make you happy?”
“My dog,my cat, my writing, living by the pond.”
“Remember when we would take field trips to the pond?”
“Of course I remember!”
The clock strikes 11, the time when the Alumni reunion is supposed to end.
“Hey, do you want to get a picture of everyone before they leave?” I ask Ms. Madigan.
“Oh yes, thanks for reminding me. Everyone gather together for a picture.”
I squeeze in between Zara and Ms, Madigan and smile. Then I request that a picture be taken with my camera too.
At 11:15 Delilah walks in carrying art supplies in one hand and a sign with a motivational quote in the other hand. It says ‘It is what it is.’
“Hey Kira! It’s good to see you!” I kiss her on the forehead. Then I call my mother and tell her not to worry about picking me up. I’ll walk back home whenever I’m done.
When I turn around Delilah is saying something about being warm and fuzzy. Then she’s consulting an alumni who’s studying to be a psychologist about an issue she’s having in her own clinical practice.
Finally at around noon I head out of the classroom, Delilah and Ms. Madigan by my sides, struggling to hold on to all the things they have to carry.
“I can’t believe I actually thought the kids would all be gone by 11. Maybe next year you should have the event on a full day instead of a half day” Delilah says as we walk down the hallways.
“Then they’d stay all day” Ms. Madigan points out.
We walk out of the building and in to the parking lot. I say goodbye. I hug them both and tell them I love them. They tell me they love me too.
As I head towards the route by the pond that will take me home I can feel the crisp November air on my face and a mix of emotions swirling within me but there’s one emotion I feel more prominently than all the others, an emotion that permeates my whole being. Gratitude.