All the more ironic, then, to find myself, nearly fifty years after I had successfully made my escape, back inside the Gulag of my youth.
The Brockville Collegiate Institute (BCI, as we called it) celebrated its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary this past weekend. Former students from as far back as the 1940s attended. The students from the 1960s gathered at a riverfront pub Friday night to stare in amazement at each other, hurriedly trying to separate out a sea of (slightly) aged faces framed in gray from the hazy memory of friends last seen nearly half a century ago.
Many of us had managed to bury our youthful identities extraordinarily well.
Although we all had a great time, there were, interestingly enough, a lot of people who, much like me, did not bring particularly fond memories of BCI back to what was supposed to be a celebration of high school years.
Little wonder. When I was there, the school seemed to go out of its way to make classes as boring as possible. Conformity was the order of the day. We marched in single file from class to class. If a male student’s hair was deemed to be too long, he was ordered to get it cut.
The teachers were often downright nasty–the Latin teacher thought nothing of coming up behind miscreant students and slapping the unsuspecting offender across the back of his head (he let the girls pretty much alone).
So rather than breeding a generation of learned academics, the school appears to have turned out escaped prisoners of war, brought back together to talk not of high marks and great feats of athleticism (the Red Rams football team generally put themselves into traction before the season even got under way), but to trade war stories.
I thought at times over the weekend that I was part of a remake of The Great Escape.
I had a hard time finding anyone, myself included, who had even graduated. Yet somehow the attendees appeared to have done pretty well for themselves. The big high school lug became a lawyer. The hot-tempered tough guy became a town planner (although I’m still not so sure I’d want to cross him). The star of the football team back in the day and the head cheerleader got married and are still happily together all these years later (they even graduated).
A visit to the school the next afternoon revealed more reasons why memories of the time served there are not always nostalgic. A new wing has been added, but the original brick structure with its slightly Dickensian workhouse air, still sits fortress-like, frowning down on students and visitors alike–I can’t be sure but I think the building had a particularly deep scowl when I showed up at the door.
Inside, the brickwork and the lockers sport a fresh coat of paint–done in the school colors of black and red–but otherwise the halls and classrooms are much the same as they were when I was being frog-marched down to the principal’s office.
On a Saturday afternoon, away from the crowds of former students chowing down on hot dogs and hamburgers in the school gym, time here hasn’t quite stopped, but it has slowed enough to give you an eerie sense of finding yourself back fifty years or so in the place where you more or less started.
Not that I knew these halls and classrooms very well–I couldn’t even find my old locker, the one I was closing the day the vice-principal, Mr. Grant, confirmed in that formal voice with which everyone spoke to students (and probably still do), “Yes, I do believe that’s correct. President Kennedy has been assassinated.” As if presidents were gunned down every day.
Like Steve McQueen and company in The Great Escape, my friends and I spent a lot of time figuring ways to get out of this place. We would skip school nearly every Friday afternoon, hire some down-and-out-guy outside a King Street tavern to buy us a case of beer (in those days the legal drinking age was twenty-one; I was seventeen), and then retreat to someone’s place to sit around and drink.
The beer drinking was only part of it; what really counted on those Friday afternoons, was the friendship. Although we weren’t unpopular, none of the Brockville Boys I hung around with felt like they fit in. None of us liked school, principally because nothing about it interested us, and although we weren’t particularly rebels, in our own quiet way we disliked authority, at least not the ask-no-questions-just-obey-orders mentality omnipresent in our lives.
So we skipped school when we shouldn’t, and drank beer when we shouldn’t, and drove to Ogdensburg across the St. Lawrence River in New York State (where the drinking age back then was eighteen), when we shouldn’t. Everything we did, we should not have been doing. Which, of course, was what made it all worth doing.
When we came together this past weekend, all of us now in our sixties, some of us certified senior citizens, most of us grandfathers, we did not talk about what happened at school, we talked about the ways we escaped the things that happened at school. What transpired in these long echoing BCI halls was never very memorable; the ways in which we fled those halls–impossible to forget.
By the time Saturday night rolled around, the reunion was fast running out of gas. Following a standup dinner there was supposed to be the big, gala dance complete with live orchestra to cap off the weekend. But by the time the band started playing, everyone had pretty much disappeared. We are, it turns out, not as young as we used to be.
Time to leave. By then, someone had pointed out to me, probably accurately, that “when you were in high school, no one appreciated your writing more than you did.”
Someone else had announced that they had lost a hundred-dollar bet because I had not shown up at the reunion in a turtleneck–causing me to have nightmares about the number of turtlenecks I must have worn at BCI.
My wife Kathy, who braved the weekend and many oft-repeated stories, all of which seemed to feature me throwing up, wanted to see my ex-girlfriends. But, perhaps wisely on their part, none showed (no sign of Gabrielle, the long-haired girl who broke my high school heart, but then she was from the rival school, and not to be trusted).
Thus I was left with only sweet, fond memories of lovely young women who put up with a tall, gangly, pimply faced kid who had, to say the least, a great deal yet to learn about women (not to mention writing and turtlenecks).
At the end of it, as the Brockville Boys hugged and said goodbye, it struck me again that the BCI reunion had nothing much to do with high school. It had everything to do with enduring friendship. That’s why we were there. Not so much to remember as to reconnect, to keep going together. Back then we relied on one another to get through the hell of high school.
Fifty years later, nothing has changed. Except I don’t wear turtlenecks quite so much.
At least, I don’t think I do.