[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn’t know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they’ve found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.
Alex Eaton, Class of 1981, had impeccable timing. Except when he didn’t. But somehow he always recovered. Miraculously. Through him, I realized my own dyslexic issues, and in an uncommon kindness for a teenager, he tried to help me by insisting I learn to juggle to improve my eye-hand coordination and left/right orientation. (Okay, it gave him a chance to show-off, too.) The same Hail Mary skill that made him a talented athlete also made him a fine actor. Granted, he never knew his lines until opening night, but he instinctively turned each scene into something riveting. Required to light a cigarette onstage in Look Homeward, Angel, Alex didn’t just light it, he leaned back and blew smoke rings. Unscripted. Audacious. Perfect.]
When you ask, you learn that everyone hated high school.
You and all of your adult friends hated it, too. It may come up occasionally over dinner or coffee, but, for the most part, no one ever even talks about high school because everyone hated it. You hated the awkwardness of your body, your voice or your skin. No one understood you and your high school was oppressive intellectually, stifling socially and basically a prison where you did hard time. You couldn’t get out fast enough. And when you graduated, in your head you said, “Hasta la vista, baby!” in your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.
No, there’s no debate.
Everyone hated high school.
You see, in high school, I got to be the Golden Boy. I got to be Hubbell Gardner, or, more precisely, I got to be Robert Redford. In high school a friend of mine had a name for me. Lisa was a year behind me and helped me with all the math I never mastered. The name was “The.” That was it. The. She didn’t call me it often, at least not to my face, but I was thickheaded enough to finally ask once what she meant by it. She screwed her face up and said, “What, you don’t get it?” I was clueless. “You are The Alex Eaton. It’s just easier to say The.” Oh. Like The President of the United States? Or The Ohio State University? “Yeah, like The One and Only.”
I got that it wasn’t a compliment. Not the way she said it and certainly not the way she meant it. But I loved hearing it anyway. Because deep down, although I never admitted it to anyone, what I aspired to in high school was to be The.
For me, being The
meant being quarterback and captain of the football team, captain of the soccer team and captain of the track team. It meant being team MVP and earning all-conference recognition. It meant being Senior Class President and Co-President of the drama club. It meant singing in the choir and always having a girlfriend. It meant, as a senior, scoring the winning touchdown in overtime against our crosstown rivals. It also meant getting plumb lead roles in all the school plays, stealing bottles and bottles of Jack Daniels from my father’s liquor cabinet and chasing young women on a regular basis.
All of which I did.
I didn’t hate high school; I loved it. Seriously. But that’s not to say it was a walk in the park either. I don’t expect any sympathy here, but there were these things called “grades” that kept getting in my way. I’m dyslexic and so in high school I couldn’t read and I couldn’t write. I couldn’t add or do any of the other mathematical derivatives expected of a high school student like multiplying polynomials or solving quadratic equations. I couldn’t memorize and I couldn’t take tests either. So academically high school was a real grind. It didn’t help that I attended what was considered one of the more challenging high schools in Oklahoma, where both my older sisters had graduated from and gone on to attend Yale University. Yale. Both of them.
I didn’t go to Yale.
But I did go to college and play football, and luckily, I learned a few things before I got there–things that helped make my life more than just the Golden Boy moment of high school. Because it easily could have gone the other way. There were plenty of people who were willing to give me a pass when I fell short and played the Golden Boy card. In fact, most of them did. When you are the Golden Boy, people tend to look the other way when they shouldn’t. But because of a handful of amazing people and a flawed but extremely progressive high school, I wasn’t allowed to glide through my Golden Boy stage with so much rope that I hung myself.
But God knows I tried.
I think this handful of people knew that what really mattered in life had nothing to do with being the Golden Boy. That it would be fleeting and potentially destructive. And, in fact, being the Golden Boy did make adulthood a little more challenging when I finally got there. But like I said, I was lucky. Despite being much more interested in pretty girls than American Civilization, there were teachers in my life who taught me about things like honesty, empathy and trust. Accountability and consequences.
Karen Henry Clark was one of those people. Craig Benton was one, too. Coach Charlie Brown, Doug Bromley, Don Paige, Carlos Tuttle, and Ted Sloan, as well. All of them, to the one, held me accountable when most others did not. They forced me to push beyond the easy smile and gee-whiz slacking common of a Golden Boy and to work for things harder to obtain like how to give credit and how to take blame. And when I failed, they continued believing in me even as I gave them ample opportunity not to.
And honestly, when you’re the Golden Boy, you don’t always get that.
Karen would stroll behind the pillars of our Commons where we rehearsed the school plays and peer around them, gazing over the top of her glasses, and giving me a look of amazement mixed with dismay as I freelanced my way through a soliloquy that should have been memorized weeks before. She never dressed me down publicly but also never let me off the hook. I’d try to do to her what had worked with others, to smile my way to a shortcut and forgiveness, to no avail. Her small notes on the back of incomplete English assignments haunt me to this day. I have them in a shoe box as reminders. There’s also lots of encouragement in those notes.
I was never going to be a professional athlete. I chose not to pursue acting and it chose not to pursue me. But it turns out that through all of this there was something I was pretty good at in high school that has become my strength in adulthood. Leadership. I think my mentors at Holland Hall saw some of that. And while I didn’t fully embrace it at the time, the singular skill they helped me discover and nurture in high school, and one that I have honed throughout my adult life, is how to effectively lead people.
So unlike you, and almost everyone you know, I loved high school.
But my good fortune is that while my high school experience became a big part of me, it is only one part of me and luckily, I hope, not the best of me. The Golden Boy thing had a time and a place. But rather than let it ruin me, Holland Hall, and a small group of pretty exceptional people, helped me keep it in proper perspective so that I passed through it rather than got stuck in it.
For that, I am forever grateful.
Alex graduated from the University of Redlands in California, lived in Los Angeles and then New York City where he met his amazing wife Diane. They moved the family to Tulsa 18 years ago where Alex now leads the largest travel management company in the state. They have two boys, James (19) and Garrett (13). James graduated from Holland Hall in 2014 and is attending Cornell University. Garrett is in 8th grade at Holland Hall, where he recently won the middle school geography bee.
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