Back to School

Depending on traffic, I can get from my house to the house where I spent most of my teenaged years in 25-35 minutes. So it was no big hassle to go to my old high school early this morning. (Well, the “early” part was sort of a hassle. I hate getting up when it’s still dark out!)

Why was I up at the crack of God-knows-when? Well, a month or so ago, I received an e-mail from my high school: Would I be interested in coming to speak to students about being a professional writer on Career Day?

I figured why not. Again, it’s not like it was an arduous trek or anything. And I’ve learned that I really, really like talking to groups of students who are interested in writing. I was told that the Career Day groups (I would talk to two of them) would be made up of kids who had expressed an interest in writing, so I was good to go.

When I got there, I was hit with a massive wave of surreality. It’s been something like fifteen years since I walked the halls of my high school. But going from the student parking lot to the cafeteria doors felt like it could have happened yesterday. I mingled with a group of kids arriving for school and had to remind myself that I wasn’t one of them.

Inside, I suffered that most clichéd of all sensations – the school did, indeed, seem smaller. Now, I’m no taller or larger than I was in high school, so it’s not like I literally outgrew it or anything. I guess when you’re younger, school is so central to your life that it seems cavernous and overwhelming. Not so much when you’re an adult. (Although I did confirm that the school was actually smaller in one regard – the lockers seemed shorter and I discovered that they were, in fact, replaced with smaller ones a few years back.)

The building actually was much the same in terms of design and decoration. I wouldn’t have felt out of place had a fifteen-year-old me somehow stumbled through a space-time wormhole and ended up in the North Carroll High School of 2007. Two major differences: the main office, once open to the lobby, was now shuttered behind new walls and doors. And the media center seemed enormous due to the loss of most of the stacks and the ancient card catalog, which opened up the space. (So, yeah, it was the only part of the building that seemed bigger, not smaller.)

And you know what? I found that I could navigate as if I still went there every day. I knew where the English department was, where the Social Studies rooms were. A lost gentlemen (also there for Career Day) stopped me and asked for directions to the Senior Patio and I was able to give them to him, no problem.

Again, I hadn’t been in this building for at least fifteen years. Weird.

Weirder still was seeing many of my old teachers. In the same classrooms! My ancient history teacher “sponsored” my appearance, as I used her room to talk to students and she confirmed for me that, yes, some of the posters on the walls were the same ones there when I was a student. The teacher on whom I played the Great Ecuadorian Tortoise Blight prank (read Fanboy, if you don’t get this joke…) stopped by and hugged me, so I guess all is forgiven.

I saw a couple of my old English teachers, including the teacher who – at my senior awards ceremony – announced me as the outstanding English student by saying, “He claims he’s going to college to be a lawyer, but his English teachers know he’ll be a writer.” Damn, she’s good, huh?

Made my Brit Lit teacher very happy by reciting the first 18 lines to The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English .

Some of them were older. Some heavier. One or two – freakily – looked like they hadn’t aged a day since I last saw them all those years ago.

And the kids? God, the kids!

Some terrific questions from the crowd. They seemed to enjoy my talk, which I had worried about. After all, as I told them, there were FBI Agents and models and video game designers there for Career Day. People who could show you what they did, people who could explain what you had to do in order to attain their profession.

But I couldn’t show my kids what I did. It’s not very exciting to watch someone type! So I just walked them through the process of building a writing career, explaining about agents and publishers and the necessity of revision and good, honest feedback.

(I think it also helped that I was very willing to be a smart-ass. I noticed emergency evacuation plans on my podium, including those for the event of a nuclear attack. I made quite a bit out of those, believe me…)

I felt good doing the presentation. I was telling these kids things that I dearly wish I had known as a struggling wannabe writer at their age. I probably wouldn’t have wasted so much time on dead ends if I had known these things then. So at the very least, I hope I made some budding writer’s journey a tiny bit easier.

I stuck around for a little while after my sessions. Just wandered the halls a little bit. Talked to some old teachers (and did that Chaucer recitation). You know, in my first book, Fanboy fantasizes about achieving fame and fortune, then coming home and having everyone watch him in awe, fawning all over him. As shallow as it is to admit, I think there was a small part of me that shared that fantasy with Fanboy. When I returned to school today, though, there was no awe. Just people from my past who greeted me with a smile…and a handshake…and an honest, “We’re proud of you,” before getting back to work.

And you know what? That’s the way it should be. And that’s good.

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