Bear took me to see his middle school and high school. This is out in California, in the Bay Area, where we spent Christmas with his family. The schools were composed of lots of long, low buildings– a series of ranch houses, bumping into each other at interesting angles. We started at the high school. Through a window, I saw a skeleton.
“That’s the supply closet,” explained Bear.
“Just like I imagined,” I said. Which wasn’t exactly true, because the skeleton was wearing a hat. I couldn’t have predicted that.
He pointed at various doors and windows. “That’s where I had calc.” “That’s where I had bio…no….that’s the art room. Stools mean either science or art.”
He showed me where he used to hang out, on this low, concrete wall, in a little courtyard. And here, on the steps. And here was the library, and the enormous sports’ fields and the enormous pool. It was like a compound, where people might live for decades without leaving. They might play football and baseball and volleyball and water polo (wait…unless that means horses), and stay forever.
“It has everything!” I said, impressed.
It was the most time I’d ever spent at a high school.
We checked out the middle school next. There were anti-bullying signs everywhere. Pasted to the windows. “We don’t tolerate bullying here!” “Are you being bullied? Here are some things that bullies do:…”
“Kids get mean in middle school,” said Bear simply. “Everyone knows that.”
Everyone does know that.
I was struck by the menu over the lunch window, which was outside, because it’s California where apparently you can eat lunch outside every day, like in a fairytale or something. There were so many dessert options on the menu.
“Wow,” I said. “You could have ice cream every day, for lunch.”
“Wow. If Jake had known about this, he would’ve gone to school.” Jake is one of my brothers. He used to go to synagogue on Shabbat for the dessert at the oneg (social time) after the service.
It was hard for me to imagine kids eating ice cream for lunch every day. That would be really unhealthy. It was hard to imagine it, because it seemed like they didn’t get to make that many other decisions. They had to take the same classes (Bear told me there weren’t that many electives in middle school), and they had to be in the same place every day. But they got to decide whether they wanted a hot dog, a hamburger, fries, and/or ice cream, every day. Interesting.
“That’s where the kids who did drugs sat,” said Bear, gesturing to a shaded spot (I refuse to say “shady”) around the corner of a ranch building from where he’d sat outside, eating his ice cream for lunch.
“Drugs?” I said, confused. “This is middle school.”
He smiled. “Drugs,” he said.
And I said, just like a lame adult, “Didn’t anyone tell their parents?!”
“Kids aren’t doing drugs in middle school,” I said. “What are they, like, twelve?” I was a little proud of myself for knowing, like I always am when I can guess which age corresponds with which grade level.
Bear wasn’t interested in arguing with me. “They did drugs,” he said.
“What kind of drugs?”
He was walking past the druggie section of the middle school, towards a sign that read “No tobacco No alcohol No drugs No skateboarding.”
“Probably mostly just pot.”
“OK, good.” Good? Whatever. I let it go. Kids will be kids. I guess.
I looked around. It was not a bad place. But it was hard to imagine getting up in the morning and going to the same place, every day, as a kid. It was hard to imagine spending years here, and then years at the high school complex, the way I’d spent years at college. At college, almost every day, I thought, “I’m gonna get out of here. I’m gonna go somewhere nicer.” I didn’t go to college at a very pretty place. It wasn’t actually even as pretty as where Bear went to middle school. But I also didn’t like the feeling of being stuck in what seemed like a sort of artificial world of college-tagged buildings full of identical flimsy chairs with flip-out desks. I wasn’t crazy about the food options. Actually, by my second year, I wasn’t into the ice cream in the dining hall anymore. It tasted funny.
I tried to imagine little Bear, walking between these buildings, going to class. I could almost see him. I wondered what he was feeling.
“Not my best years,” said grownup Bear. “I was pretty much a loser.”
How can you be a loser when you’re twelve?
By being chubby and having lame friends and playing nerdy games, he explained. Oh. Right. Of course.
“You know,” said Bear, as we walked off into the sunset through one of the middle school’s athletic fields, “I get it how people are offended by you.”
I laughed. “Thanks.”
“I mean, by your life– by not going to school.”
“You invalidate them. I spent so much time here. What if I didn’t need to?”
“I know. Exactly. But when you admit that, you feel like you wasted a lot of time. So you don’t want to admit it. You want to believe that it was worth it.”
I nodded. I am never surprised anymore when people are angry at me for not having gone to school. Maybe in their place, I’d be angry, too.
Or maybe I’d just be sort of nostalgic, for all that ice cream.