A weekly pilgrimage to the library with my mom and sister was one of the staples of my childhood. I’d sit on the yellow carpet and pull books off the shelf one by one, putting into my book bag the ones that piqued my interest. The novelty of nearly unlimited, free books never wore off, and it hasn’t to this day. My mom always said that she “felt rich” coming home with a bag full of library books.
Sixth-grade outdoor education stands as one of my all-time best school experiences. Visiting Mendocino Woodlands, which is located about three hours north of Sonoma, was my first meaningful connection with nature, and with my peers. Singing around a campfire and nervously hiking in dark woods together bonded us in a way that no activity on campus could. We went in October 1991 — 17 years ago exactly — shortly after starting middle school, and the trip set a positive tone for the rest of the year. I recorded in my journal that my classmates and I had named our small group “The Poisonous Flying Raccoons” (see reference below) and they had nicknamed me “Bob.” Don’t ask me why, but I liked it. I penciled in my slanting cursive about Outdoor Ed, “I wish it would never end.” As a senior in high school, I still remembered the week vividly and wrote the following poem about it.
I set out in the beginning of the project to sort through the stacks of keepsakes. I’ve tended to romanticize the past and get very attached to people and experiences, and I’ve kept almost every piece of memorabilia possible: movie tickets, school projects, and letters. They fill whole boxes and drawers. I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was about ten, so collectively they take up half a bookshelf.
I’ve finally decided that having hung on to everything has held me back from moving forward, and it’s time to let go of “the good old days.” I’ve been so busy gathering new experiences at school that I haven’t devoted time to processing the past, but I’m realizing how important and urgent this is. I keep meeting resistance from myself as I strive to move forward, and my instincts say that I’ll be able to bring fresh experiences into my life more easily once I clear out the old. Over the next few days, I’ll post snippets of writing, some old photos and other keepsakes, and reflections on what I’m remembering.
It’s been one of those days when I wonder if I’ve become any happier and more evolved than I was ten years ago. I sometimes conclude my blog posts by reflecting on how I’ve thankfully become more confident, socially skilled, and calm in challenging situations than I was as a student. I recognize that I’ve made progress in those areas. Unfortunately, I still face some of the same struggles I had back then, especially perfectionism, overachieving, and a hyper-awareness of my “issues” and their causes. I still have melancholy tendencies, have trouble taking care of myself, and avoid taking risks because I’m scared to fail.
Though I may not always express it in the blog, this fall has been one of the hardest times in my life. I’ve had to structure my time completely on my own and am facing my past head on, almost every waking minute. I’ve shared only glimpses of this process. I tend to write instead about the highlights of my reschooling, which I’ve found entertaining and fascinating, like learning guitar with the third graders and doing P.E. with the middle schoolers. I’ve written about frustrations in retrospect, once I’ve taken a lesson from them. However, it’s the times in between these moments of enjoyment and learning that are the most difficult. I’ve been hesitant to write about these times, and about re-experiencing the parts of the school system that I desperately want to change. These things are not only tough to describe accurately, but they’re also so important to me that I want to do them justice.
I expected 8th grade to be as emotionally turbulent as I’d remembered it, with kids constantly eye-rolling, scoffing, teasing, and just generally being too cool to talk to you. I admit to being one of the worst offenders. The current 8th graders at Altimira are nice. Let me repeat that: They’re nice! The ones I’ve encountered smile at me and each other; they chat with their classmates, even the ones they’re not close with; and they genuinely seem to care about each other. It’s not just for my benefit as a grown-up, either — the kids confirm that they think the school has a culture of tolerance this year.
In fact, most of the kids I’ve met and observed at Altimira right now act this way. I say “at Altimira right now,” because not all modern middle schoolers are like this. Having worked closely with other 6th-8th graders recently, I can confirm that some are the cruel little buggers that you may remember from your own middle school days: the stuck-up popular “mean girls” that have gotten so much press recently, or the kid who makes himself look good by calling attention to people’s weaknesses. Those I’ve talked to say that there were more kids like this at Altimira over the last couple of years, but they’ve either gone onto the high school or have transferred to the school for struggling students. My 8th grade buddy, whom I’ll call Janessy, says, “The popular kids act totally different when they’re in class than they are with their friends. They sometimes try to make their friends laugh by picking on people.” But for the most part, the kids agree that while there’s a known popular group in each grade, “the populars” aren’t that snobby or mean, and it’s not a huge deal if you’re not in the in-crowd. People do their own thing, and that’s fine.
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Why is artificially flavored, frozen sugar water so delicious? Remember names like Alexander the Grape and Sir Isaac Lime, and the way your teeth, lips, and tongue were brightly colored after eating these?
As much as I’ve gone out dancing in the past few years, at clubs like Blondie’s, Vertigo, and Double Dutch, I still felt apprehensive about attending a middle school dance. Since I didn’t learn to love freestyle dancing until college, I’d only been to one dance while at Altimira: the 8th grade graduation dance, where a shy Asian boy who’d had a crush on me asked me to dance to Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” (Was it really only 4 minutes, 23 seconds long? I think we must have danced to the extended remix.) This time, for the Halloween Dance, I wondered if I’d know anyone there. Neither of the girls I’d shadowed were going, only some of their friends whom I knew peripherally. I wondered if I’d have to be that creepy grown-up dancing alone, and if I could even dance “appropriately” to hip-hop without looking ridiculous.
I arrived late, after the doors had already been shut, sneaking in through the unlocked bathroom right before a teacher sealed it off. I had, however, already been granted free admission, not needing to buy a ticket at lunch like the rest of my classmates because I’d planned to chaperone for part of the time. Leadership teacher Mr. Ryan (a.k.a. Andrew, my classmate from Altimira who’d ended up teaching at the school) emailed me to share the guidelines to be enforced: “No PDA, hands where they are supposed to be, no leaving the dance then coming back in, no running, no making out!!!” He added, “Just kidding, I have never seen that here.”
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Given that seventh graders tend to be more standoffish than sixth, I felt a little apprehensive before starting seventh grade this morning. Luckily, it turned out that I had nothing to fear. As I told a friend today, middle school is a lot easier to handle the second time round. It helps that I don’t worry nearly as much about what the kids think of me. I’ve already embraced the silliness of my pretending to be a kid, so I don’t embarrass easily. Since I often felt humiliated as a student at Altimira, being shy and overly sensitive, I’m pleased with this progress.
I met my student guide, Carolina, at her first period P.E. class out on the blacktop. Thinly built with black curls and dark eyes, she greeted me with a shy smile. As we chatted about her schedule for the day, her classmates began to ask the usual questions about who I was, so I made a general announcement. I’m so used to talking to groups of middle schoolers from my work with Spark, as well as substitute teaching, that I feel pretty comfortable with what can be a tough crowd.
This will be a quick update, because it’s again well after midnight, and my body is telling me that it’s fed up with my late-night writing sessions. Last night I stayed up until 4 a.m. writing about my rediscovery of music. There’s no telling when creative inspiration will strike, but I am going to start begging the muse to visit me at a reasonable hour. The chest pains and tightness that I’ve experienced on and off for the better part of this year have plagued me consistently this week. Even though I tell myself that no activity — not even learning a cool new song on guitar — is worth putting my body through the wringer, I get into a trance while on the computer late at night. One of these days, I will learn to like sleeping. Ever since I was a baby, I’ve always preferred to be awake and doing things to going to bed. It may be time to for another mandatory Day of Doing Nothing.
One note: While I was at my elementary school, I refrained from using its name to maintain a bit of anonymity. However, there’s no mystery about what middle school I’d attended because there was only one in town at the time I was a preteen, and its name was also emblazoned on my P.E. shirt. I’ve been calling the middle school by name, Altimira, and from now on, I’ll do the same for my elementary school, El Verano.