Twenty years ago, I put on what I assumed would be friend-making shoes, and walked into Central High School, determined to find the kids who also listened to WDRE, 103.9, which was then the Modern Rock station. On that first day of school, it turned out that the Chucks I’d put on were too new—too un-scrawled-upon, too black where they should have been frayed grey, and too white where they should have been smudged and cinder-like. I didn’t know anyone in my class, and I didn’t know anyone in the school; that not-knowing felt so pervasive, I felt as if I didn’t know my very own cells—as if I didn’t know my fingernails, the tips of which were trying to pass handouts that flew silently by. I was from a super-small middle school. It seemed that high school was, horribly, about being invisible, and being way too visible, all at the same time.
That was me—my toes coated in two rubber nubbins of awkward white. That was me—wondering where the other kids who liked Nirvana were, wondering how there could be so much hallway, and so very little of me. That was me—slumped over dismal sandwiches (apple butter on multi-grain? really, mom?), in the exclusionary jubilance and fake wood folding tables of the lunch room (how did I know they folded? because I sat alone, in the lunch room, thinking, If only I can make it seem like I’m just carefully figuring out exactly how this table folds up). That was me—clot-mouthed from 8 to 3, and crying in the evenings.
I mean—it got better after that. It got a lot, a lot better. Every morning I would flap whatever shoes I wanted—corny plastic sandals, or my dad’s snow boots, or some befuddling thrift-store shoe, held together with Duct Tape—happily up Central’s indomitable granite steps. With my friends who liked Modern Rock—and with some friends who could care less about Courtney Love but were really into Magic Cards, or God, or Queer Theory—I stalked around this school’s halls. It got better, and my feet came to believe thoroughly and entirely in their ownership of this place. Perhaps, actually, my feet communed with the slick of these shined floors too much—I would not, my friends, recommend spending weeks going barefoot in school, as I did, in the Spring of Junior year.
It got better, and my body divested all memory of that first September’s wrong-shod unhappiness. But—freshmen, dear ones—the getting better isn’t necessarily what this letter’s about.
It’s the day before your first day of high school, and I think of you, in your homes. Your homes might be like the home I had: a house with a vestibule and cats’-eye colored floorboards, where big but rather disenchanted, itch-frayed furniture was slowly easing out the tacks that had kept it together. Your homes are likely to not be this, though, and they might be all the different sorts of homes that I traipsed through, as a kid in high school. Your home might be one where Monday is pasta night, and sauce splashes like the proliferating chatter on plastic tablecloths. Your home might be one where hallways are troubled by carpeting, a grandpa’s polyester slippers, and too many once-wheeled, bleached plastic things. Your home might enclose a venerated fridge which—itself—encloses endless, stately Tupperwares of Kimchi or Palak Paneer. Your home might be the type that has a den, or that has down-filled comforters instead of quilts, or that has periwinkle Lay-Z-Boys and cable. Your home might be like the one that we never went in, but just said goodbye near the trash-clotted hedges, outside the hair place, near the intersection.
Maybe none of these homes are your home, but you are somewhere—your thumb making a long print on the text message you don’t know how to answer, or the soles of your new kicks tamping down a double-dutch move that astounds everyone around. I think of you, as you’re ranging newly long legs over midnight lawns in Northeast Philly—maybe in trouble with your mom, maybe coming home to the silent kitchen tiles of a double shift. You are in church, with high-school hopes breathing through the hymn’s lower notes; or you’re clapping with a moon-bright, New Year happiness; or you’re grasping silky scraps of autumn festival red; or you’re lowering your forehead, in quietude, toward Mecca. I think of you, as the last night of your summer hangs pendular, like a question-mark, and you flip a page in your journal, with the streetlamp making its final punctuation, and you ask yourself what next?
School will be starting tomorrow. Perhaps your anxiety is stacked in the corner, plastic-smelling as all those new binders from Target. Maybe you’re worrying your fingers across the fabrics that hang in your closet, fearing that each of them seems too grainy, too swishy, too rigid—too obviously made for the poor. It’s possible that you’re touching the small grit of pimples on your cheekbones, your chin—reading them like a Braille that warns of four-year disaster.
Honestly, dear ones—I hope that these very fears are your fears. I wish you fears of wrong shoelaces and zippers ticking open. I wish for you the terror of occult locker combos, the dread of 12th grade elbows. You’re a kid, and, if I could, I’d bequeath you kid-worries—the worries that I, myself, owned, those twenty years ago. But you’re a Central kid, so your worries might be scored into a more iron, immutable furrow. You might’ve been told, by an honest and grieved grandmother, that Central is the way—the only way—for you to be loosed from the claustrophobia of your poverty. You might feel that the word Harvard is the sole redemption for your family’s crossing of oceans—for your mom to go from being an Albanian doctor to being an American secretary, or for your dad to go from being a Pakistani professor to being an American deliveryman. The flutter of your family’s language might have always been, as long as you can remember—succeed, succeed, succeed. You might just have an ambition that traces to no-one—that traces to nowhere but your own stubborn spine. You might long for the football field, so greenly different from your block, and the reverberating crowds in the stand, and your iconic shoulders heaped with praise. No matter what your need, no matter where you come from—the breathing of generations is all happening within your 9th grade lungs.
And—o hopeful, o ambitious, o thinking that perfection can be channeled through a well-kept daily planner—you’ve spent your summer listening to the news. You’ve watched Dr. Hite’s mouth unhinge its dire predictions—pronouncements that schools will not be safe, that these are unacceptable conditions, that no child will be able to learn. Your brain—so used to churning through word problems—has been calculating class size, dividing too many kids by not enough teachers and realizing that some of your math classes will have registers of 37, registers of 40. You’ve heard the phrase No Counselors, and wondered how you’ll apply to college—and then your breathing has done that thing, where it feels like a mesh bag is closing round your lungs, and your throat grips against the caustic sick that pitches up, and you wonder what you’ll do, in French class, if this happens and there’s no counselor that you can go and see. You’ve seen how your mother winces with disappointment when someone on the television asks How will students achieve in this environment; even though you didn’t make any of this happen, you feel somehow guilty, as if you’ve already failed before you’ve even begun.
Dear freshmen: it’s the night before the first day of school, and I find myself unable to sleep. I clamber through the anxious rungs of the midnight hours, one after another. I wonder how I might console you—how I might promise that everything will be the same, that everything will be all right. I wonder how I might speak of what you’ve lost, of what’s been taken away from you—of the opportunities that you’re not even going to know you’re missing, because you’ve never had them. Those twenty years that have elapsed since my own freshman year seem, now, to be compressed, calcified in each of these sleepless hours. The late-night clock works its ticking into my throat; what was once my pulse is now the desperate, repetitive jolting of time.
Here, freshmen, is the thing. If you’re frightened and lonely, I’m frightened and lonely too. This is my ninth first day of school, and I have no reason to be thus afraid. But, right now, the abandonment I feel just makes a space that is vast, and rust-buttressed, and clanking with indifference. It’s as if my vocation is just receding, dizzyingly, away from me. Anything I try to do just feels like flab-handed grasping, an ineffectual, repetitive, flipper-like slapping. It’s hard to imagine being brave and strong in my waking, and being able to tell you it’s OK, when my night’s been so winnowed.
Nonetheless, freshmen, we will cross a threshold tomorrow. We will be there together. In whatever shoes you wear, in whatever school we’ve got—we’ll be there, we’ll take a step, and after that stepping, yet another.
- Ms. Toliver