The early day routine started in the most typical way. The morning sun breaking over the neighbor’s rooftop and through the rear kitchen sliding doors illuminated a carafe catching coffee ground stained water and a table strewn with papers waiting to be assembled into a briefcase. Scrolling through my phone to catch up with overnight “pings” while guiding the kids to their breakfast before heading out the door to school was part of the sometimes, annoying drill. My better half, Liz, enjoyed her morning meal as she caught up with the news headlines on television while fending off our two-year-old spaniel looking for food besides the kibble in her bowl. Other than listening to updated sports scores, I became adept at ignoring the news broadcasts permeating through our house. I had already heard enough about America’s Trump, the usual shootings, break-ins, and other stories involving human tragedy. I was more concerned about my role as the conductor of our daily morning symphony involving the usual operatic lyrics, “Hurry up and get ready,” “Stop hitting your brother,” and the famous, “Where are my car keys?” Amidst all of this chaos, I was able to count on our very angelic fifteen-year-old to make her occasional contributions to my daily sense of urgency, “Hey Dad, can you sign this permission form?” In my regular state of controlled morning panic, I replied, “What’s it for?” Marie answered, “School field trip.” In a dismissive tone, I offered, “Just throw it on the table, I’ll get to it later when I’m home from work.” Without missing a beat, Marie matter-of-factly stated, “School trip is today.” Even though I wasn’t very surprised, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat astonished at this typical teenager demeanor. I rhetorically, and regretfully, asked “And you thought now would be the best time to give me this form?” Giggling as she scrolled through the most recent Instagram postings on her iPhone, Marie casually replied, “Uh, yeah, I’ve been busy.” For no other reason than to humor myself, I offered, “Can’t you just sign it? I’m sure you’ve figured out how to forge my signature by now.”
In a rare instance of focused attention, and applying a talented sarcastic style, Marie quipped, “I have, but I only use it when I want to get my hands on alcohol and weed.”
Wisely choosing this as a battle to be fought another time, I scribbled an illegible signature on this school form, poured coffee into my travel mug, and began my hasty exit from our humble abode. It was at this point that a breaking news story emanating from the television’s speakers about a 6-alarm blaze and heavy damage to Ottawa Centennial Secondary School caused me to divert from my original exit over to the living room. Mesmerized by this image, Liz said, “John, wasn’t that your high school?” It most definitely was. With growing concern, Liz added, “My God, what do you think might have happened?” I replied in a softened tone, “I’m not sure....uhm....it’s a....pretty old building.” I stood in front of our wall-mounted flatscreen, and in high definition, watched the raging plumes of smoke and flames billowing from the school’s rooftop. I felt like a witness to my childhood home being destroyed in real time. I had seen plenty of fires on the news and in person before, but this one was very personal. I didn’t think much of anything at the time, as I just stood and watched. I recalled that I had closed a major chapter in my life when I graduated from Centennial some thirty years previous to the day of that fire.
Opening its doors in the late 1950s as a dedication to the 100th anniversary of the naming of the city as the nation’s capital, Centennial quickly established itself as one of the more popular high schools in the region. Reaching its heyday through the 1980s one-hit music wonders, cringe-worthy big hair styles, and a timely revival of George Orwell’s prophetic and apocalyptic 1984, our public school’s academic notoriety and sports performances separated itself from others. But so much had changed over the years. Who could have predicted that wallet-sized phones would be considered by many to be essential personal items well into the 21st century. Grade 13, which had been such an important year for me and a hallmark of Ontario’s education plan, had been eliminated. Our country had seen eight Prime Ministers and the internet-developed electronic communication, 24 hours a day, without people ever having to speak to each other as regular human beings. I became proficient at wasting much time on Facebook when I felt committed to ignoring certain life responsibilities. In the days following the breaking news of the fire, I began to explore the possibility of re-emerging into the circle of Centennial alumni. I had mixed feelings, though. After completing my five year stint, I had led a rather eventful life—continuing my education at university, living overseas for a while, and starting my own family. With each passing year since graduation, the vision of Centennial faded into the distance. Much like the surrounding area of the city within which our high school resided, many things have changed. I had no idea what I might discover, or even recognize, when going back.
The Ottawa Centennial social media sites started to add hundreds of long-forgotten alumni after the fire. Stepping out from behind the shadows of the past, a growing group of commiserating baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and older Millennials collectively organized an impromptu reunion. A small group of dedicated alumni took care of all of the details of spreading the word electronically and over the phone. I wasn’t surprised that I wasn’t contacted by anyone, as it had been a little over twenty years since the last time I ran into an old friend from those Centennial days. I began to think that this might be the right time to take a bold step into the past.
About a month after the fire, as I sat in my car outside the venue of the reunion, I felt a deep sense of apprehension. In much the same way that I mustered the courage to make that first leap off the diving board into the deep end of the pool in grade nine after learning how to swim, I would have to take a breath before opening the driver’s side car door. I could have easily put my getaway vehicle into reverse to resume my well-rehearsed daily routine, or I could take a ride on that time machine. There’ve been other reunions in the past, but I never gave those events much thought. Not only did I not stay in touch with people from high school, but bumping into anyone from the old days was an extremely rare event. I had truly moved on. The anxiety I felt entering the unfamiliar building where the reunion took place was eerily reminiscent to the feeling I had walking into another building, for the first time, decades ago on a sunny Tuesday morning in early September. What if I didn’t recognize anybody? What if nobody recognized me? And if they did, what was I going to say? What if I ran into somebody that I had done wrong back then? What if I ran into that same douche bag that sucker punched me back in the 11th grade? Would I be tempted to make a scene and return the favor some thirty years later? To venture back into a world I left behind, I had some real fears.
At the time, I couldn’t say why I decided to show up to the reunion. But after what seemed like an eternity, my curiosity overcame my nervousness and ushered me into the basement of a local church. Constructed around the turn of the 20th century, the framework of that medieval-looking Catholic sanctuary was maintained over time by renting out its basement for weddings, dances, and events like the reunion. Illuminated by the faint buzz of long fluorescent bulbs and muted sunlight transmitted through thick basement windows, the musky smelling room was modestly filled with round party tables, a cash bar, and a small area prepared for soon-to-be-arriving snacks. Having showed up early to a sparse crowd of alumni, most of whom were considerably older than I, I instantly recognized one of my teachers. As she had been a young and gregarious computer science teacher, I clearly remembered Ms. Santos enjoying her affinity for teaching cutting edge BASIC language coding, as she did keeping us teenagers in check with our exploding adolescence. Pleasantly surprised that she remembered me, I gladly monopolized her time to catch up on three decades of life, without noticing a growing crowd of high schoolers of yesteryear filling the room. After deciding to finally yield my time with Ms. Santos to others in waiting, I soon made eye contact with Jane, who was one of my first new friends in that opening week of high school. That mid-morning art class took place in a typical studio-type room sporting large bay windows allowing the sun’s rays to highlight the displayed student artwork. With a slightly nervous, yet enthusiastic smile, I pulled myself up from my seat beside Ms. Santos and sauntered towards Jane. As I politely maneuvered past small groups of people laughing and recounting the good ol’ days, I took particular notice of her appearance.
Following a three-decade delayed hug, I remarked, “What the hell Jane, didn’t you get the memo that we’re supposed to age? You look great! Haven’t changed a bit.” Through her laughter, Jane replied, “You look exactly the same John…except for the hair. Where did it go?” In a witty sort of way, I quipped, “Look, I didn’t actually lose any hair…it just re-located itself to my back.”
Jane followed with, “That’s funny and a little gross. I see that you haven’t lost your sense of humor.” I replied, “Hey, why start now at taking life too seriously?” Jane said, “That’s pretty good advice, John…just like the guy I remember at Centennial.” Jane continued, “I’d like you to meet my husband.” Standing beside Jane in a throwback, but stylish, black leather jacket, was a guy roughly my age. Wearing glasses that fit his goatee and intentionally bald look, he reached out to shake my hand, to which I reciprocated with, “Hi, I’m John. Jane and I were friends back in the day.” I wasn’t quite sure if Jane’s husband was the jealous type, as he just stood there with a wiry smile while nodding and remaining silent.
“So…,” I said, “…where did you two meet?” Jane replied, “Oh, we met in high school. We were a couple back then.” Now I knew some time had elapsed, but I felt confident that parts of my memory were intact. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember this guy. “Is that right? Did you go to Centennial?” I asked Jane’s husband. He answered, “Yep.” As my brain began retrieving data from a long-ago locked up vault, I remembered Jane being inseparable from a popular long-haired, leather and denim clad heavy metal rocker who could have easily passed as a stunt double for David Lee Roth in a Van Halen video. The name Jerry instantly came to mind. I noticed a concealed name tag underneath his jacket that reflexively caused me to reach out to move that part of his wardrobe to expose the name. In a move that could have easily resulted in me involuntarily taking another seat, but with raucous laughter from Jane, I read the name “Jerry” on his tag. Hilariously, it was clearly a ploy by these two to see who might recognize him, and I completely missed. I was simply left awestruck that those two high school sweethearts were still an item some thirty years later.
After a few minutes of bringing each other up to speed on our lives, Jane pivoted the conversation with a question, “Do you remember in art class when I threw that piece of paper at our teacher Ms. Donato?” I replied, “No…wait, you did what?”
Jane explained, “Ms. Donato was handing back our work and I got this really lousy mark. She was walking back to the front of the room, so I crumpled up a blank sheet of art paper and whizzed it past her head!” I said with a sense of intrigue, “I would have remembered something like that. But it’s entirely possible that I may have been skipping class and hanging out with my friends down by the lockers. I recall doing that quite a bit.”
With a deep sense of gratitude, Jane remarked, “I remember that Ms. Donato was so mad and demanded to know who threw it. I was so grateful that nobody turned me in.”
Even though I didn’t recall that event, it made sense that, as classmates, we would have exercised the iron-clad mafia practice of omertà, which is a strict code of silence and refusal to give up any evidence to authorities. There could have been no better way to generate a powerful sense of solidarity among a room of unwieldy thirteen and fourteen year olds than to “buck the man.” Besides, having started out grade nine as a rat wouldn’t have ended well for the unfortunate newbie.
As the reunion became more populated, many would enter and exit conversations almost as quickly as they came into the room. There didn’t seem to be enough time to catch up with so many people after so many years. I subsequently recognized, and was recognized, by others, exchanged pleasantries, past memories, and many funny stories. Having mingled and reunited with other alumni, even for only this one evening, gave me a feeling of relief that I had exited my vehicle. The anxiety I had experienced in the parking lot disappeared in much the same way as it had one fateful night in grade 12 at the Halloween dance. As the evening progressed, a strange and surreal feeling started to settle in. The chapter in my life book I thought I had closed for good after that last day of high school, re-opened in my mind. Much like hitting eighty-eight miles per hour on Doc Brown’s retrofitted DeLorean, my consciousness transported me to those days that ended a long time ago. The vision of walking with a small pile of books under my arm down long hallways, only to stop to share a good laugh with close buddies, was as clear as the people who stood in front of me. I then found myself mentally back in the boys’ locker room slipping on my shoulder pads as I prepared for another football practice while thinking of what I was going to wear to the upcoming dance. Into the evening and ensuing days, my own Pandora’s box of memories, feelings, and emotions flung open with no chance of that lid closing again. I tried to contain what came out, but it was a fleeting and useless effort. Every person that walked through the doors and hallways of our high school has a unique story to tell. If I had to tell one, what would it sound like?
This story would not be one of rags to riches, or one of triumph.
It would be a story of recognition, acceptance, and belonging.
A story of error, redemption, and salvation.
A story of keeping up and finding one’s character.
It would be a story of how a shy and awkward boy entered adolescence and through life’s trials and tribulations, exited a confident young man.
This would be my story.
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Check out the the full story at one of the following links below or on the Ordering page for links in different countries.