As the Class of 89’s 30-year high school reunion approaches, I’ve been thinking of the kids we went to school with. My Facebook feed is a flood of pictures and memories. Some pictures make me laugh, some cause confusion, some bring – most bring – all of the insecurity back. That knot in the stomach.
Some pictures and the memories they trigger make me curious about what life would have been like if had been a little more courageous, a little more of myself. Mostly, I am astonished by how interesting these children have become. And these are just the children who were in my class. There are so many more who were older or younger who I watched from afar who went on to the extraordinary.
For instance, there was a blond-haired boy I crossed paths with everyone morning in the band hall when I was in sixth grade. We shared a hundred awkward moments. Such is the nature of junior high band halls.
“Excuse me,” I said sheepishly, almost without sound. The words would be some of the few I would speak that day. Painfully shy, my voice was known only to a few of my classmates. So getting out of the way of Steve Smith – our band president, an eighth grader with a serious gaze and a hard-rock T-shirt – was a high priority, as he put up his clarinet, and I my coronet each morning.
In the universe of junior high school band halls, physical beauty is not what is valued. The ones who ruled were the ones who put in the time that was worthy of their talents, the ones who were gifted and who had the discipline to match. Steve Smith, it seemed, was one of those. And sixth graders like me knew it.
There were others who received such deference. There was the other Steve who I remember listening to. He was often saying something witty and insightful. There was Holly, the flautist, who somehow seemed too exotically beautiful – think German cabaret – to be at our school. She was a queen of that reality.
Mark was there, beautifully drumming on the practice pads in the band director’s office or in the rooms where children disappeared for private lessons. A friend and I later mused in a place of giggles and secrets about this lovely “Mormon boy” who lips had never touched the sweetness of sodas or caffeinated beverages. It was a right of passage among the band girls – and perhaps boys – to have a crush on Mark. Even though he didn’t beat Steve Smith in the songwriting contest. And Mark wasn’t on the football team like Steve Smith either.
In Texas, football – almost as much as Jesus – is worshipped. Pre-game pep rallies rivaled the fire and brimstone shouts and cries of an old church revival. We entered the sweat-stench gym, engulfed by the electric air of the victory songs under the direction of our teachers Ms. Strain and Mrs. Shine, where we witnessed what we would – in time – become. Scattered among the band members were boys in football jerseys, Steve Smith among them.
(Now, all three of older brothers had played football, and spoke of the cruelties of the sport, especially at that time when “getting licks” was the norm and daily practice. My brothers, who are also artists and musicians, were traumatized by the violence of it. My observation, not their words. I can see it in them. It was done to “make a man out of them.”)
At the pep rallies, the football players would run as is afire to our school’s fight song and burst through the paper sign the cheerleaders poster-painted and decorated with messages inciting future devastation on the field. We screamed, we cheered. Well, my classmates did. I meekly applauded, trying to not be seen or perceived to have any singular human emotions. I tried to keep my arms at my sides. But air full of music reveals what cannot be hidden.
Steve Smith was a leader. Of the clarinets, of the band, and when the football coaches had some of the players stand up to speak of how they pledged to destroy the other team in the upcoming game, Steve was on occasion called to rile up the crowd at the microphone. He placed his clarinet on his seat and walked to the microphone with other football players yelling “Let’s beat the Trojans!” or whatever the message was that day. And we cheered.
Steve left later that year. Disappeared. He would have gone to the high school after that year anyway, but there were no moments of avoiding his gaze outside the band hall while we waited for the doors to open.
Then, like so many others, I was struck by the song at the end of the movie “Good Will Hunting” when Matt Damon went to go see about a girl.Years later – although, I didn’t make the connection at the time – I did come across his show at Trees in Dallas. The doorman said this guy playing, Elliot Smith, was “from here.” But the friend I was with didn’t want to go in. So I missed him again.
“Miss Misery” by Elliott Smith.
“What. Is. That. Song?” I watched film’s credits and waited. And saw the name of Elliot Smith. I bought his music. The Internet then wasn’t what it is now, where all trivia of the world is at our fingertips. So I never made the connection that he was the boy from the band hall. I saw him on television, but his dark hair threw me.
It wasn’t until I moved back to Duncanville in 2008, when the Internet was more like it is now, that I looked up my hometown online to see what was going on. Wikipedia listed well-known people from Duncanville. Greg Ostertag – yeah, he was in the class behind me—couldn’t miss him in the halls. Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree – yeah, he was in my brother’s class, and I used to see him around in Denton during the Tripping Daisy days. “Mean” Joe Green – yeah, the kids in our town thanked “Mean Joe” when went to school with his children.
But when I saw Elliot Smith’s name on the list, I couldn’t believe it. Then the memories bubbled up. I grabbed my yearbook and the image of his serious eyes returned. The solemn, boy from the band hall was a star.
He created so much beautifully haunting music. The tragedy of his death – so young, so violent – breaks the heart to ponder. I don’t know how to describe how I feel about his music. I know that the sullen yet soaring sounds help to me feel in the times when feeling is the last thing I want to do.
Demons and dark places are sweetly shooed by his songs.
It moves me to see how his music touches so many young people in their teens and twenties. I get it. It’s beautiful to see.
I saw a story that he had a tattoo of Texas. Not because he liked it, but because he didn’t, and didn’t want to forget.
A sort of branding. The kind that burns and remains. An identifying scar.
Which brings me back to the reunion.
Why am I going back? I vomited so many mornings of high school. Why do I want to put myself through all the feelings and fears again? Why do we do this to ourselves?
There are a few, who – when we are together – can always find the laughter. We can sing the same songs. We know the same dances, the names and faces. When we were frightened, we continued on anyway together.
Then there are the others, the ones we shied away from then and still do. I supposed those others experience a variation on the same theme. We are all only human, and we only children when we passed each other.
And the pull of coming home calls to us. We must walk past each other again sometime, with surreptitious gazes of wondering, perplexity, confusion.
I have seen you a thousand times, but will I ever know who you are?
Still, there is brilliance in this little City of Champions, to be sure.
I hope I have the guts to see that brilliance when it’s right in front of me. Make it known, then and there. For I am certain it wasn’t long ago that I was inching by the blond-haired boy in the band hall, afraid of how his eyes looked at mine.
And I missed something special.
“Pitseleh” by Elliott Smith.
This song, these lyrics: Knocks me flat.
Oh my gosh that is beautiful. Truly the most poetic, lovely, haunting tribute to childhood and coming face to face with who we are.