There were ways I fully came into my own. Having been relieved of any obligation to take any more math classes until college, I had enough credits to just take 3 classes and a study hall at Real School. I took a semester of Speech and a semester of Urban Literature with really great teachers. In speech I sat with a friend from Arts School and had a grand time basically hanging out and occasionally writing stuff. With probably 30 kids in the class, it was a breeze for me– give a speech once every couple weeks and spend the rest of the month listening to people. In Urban Literature we studied primary sources of the history of my sometimes sad city, and read books like Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, a book that probably would have been banned in most of my friends’ more suburban school districts. I remember reading an amazing short story about a little boy earning his father’s praise by shooting an escaped slave. Then I went to Psychology, which was taught by my Biology teacher from the year before. This teacher was one of the great ones, and taking a class with her in a subject I was actually interested in was academic bliss. There are times when I feel compelled to defend my alma mater despite its very real issues– and she is a reason. I saw my college friend’s biology and psychology homework and marveled at how easy it was compared to the standards she held us to. There was chemistry though, because my school required 2 lab classes to graduate. Chemistry was a class my father pushed me to take when I thought physics sound much more interesting and useful. I maintain that I was right to this day. Chemistry class for me represented, now and then, everything that was wrong about education today. Once every week or two there would be a test. I would memorize terms the night before, take the test, and promptly shuttle the knowledge out of my brain. I worked the system, masterfully, earning an A- in the course. After years of taking “Honors” classes in almost every subject, I purposely downgraded to an “Academic” class. But I did not then, nor do I now, have any understanding of chemistry, period– in a class that was supposedly preparing me for college level science classes. Chemistry’s entire significance was that it allowed me to pass high school.
Art School, of course, was fabulous. My acting classes were wonderful, including my main one that had a great new teacher I am friends with to this day. My classmates and I were very close-knit and we enjoyed ourselves except for occasional worries about whether our presentations would be sufficiently impressive enough to the younger classes we imagined looked up to us. There were several performance events towards the end of the year that I felt proud of and I cannot begin to express how grateful I was for having been able to have had the chance to do them. I had convinced Urbanblight to forego his parochial school education (I don’t recall that took much convincing) and join me there. This made for great fun and lots of Burger King (weird now, since he’s a vegetarian), although there was a definite moment when he realized he knew a thing or two, and didn’t quite hold me up in quite the same way he used to. There were areas in which he always thought of me as wiser or more knowledgeable, and I distinctly remember feeling a little threatened when his confidence changed.
It was a difficult year for me in terms of Sister. January 4, 1996 stands out to this day as the worst night of my life. I remember calling Urbanblight at 6:02AM the next morning to tell him how I watched her come down from what we think was pot laced with heroin, in my bedroom, thinking she was going to die and believing it would be my fault for not calling a hospital or telling my parents upstairs. He had to explain the early call to his parents by claiming my parents were so stupidly conservative we didn’t have a TV or radio to notify us as to whether Arts School was having a snow day. I told my parents she was sick and that I was tired from taking care of her and convinced them to let me stay home from school too. I remember volunteering to shovel off and warm up my dad’s car, and putting a Blues Traveler tape in while I sobbed, the first moment I’d been able to, obsessing over the image of my 15 year old very little sister, clutching her dirty white teddy bear, confessing, “I’m not strong.” I repeated a verse that I had desperately found in my Bible that night, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made.” And I remember thinking how– ironic?– it was that in the end I would find a way to tell this story but that there would always be a sort of guilt or embarrassment to admit that my religion had meant something on the worst night of my life. I remember Urbanblight coming over after school with my “homework” and the smell of his green jacket while he held me. I remember watching TV with my mom and my sister, and how my mom stared at my sister suddenly– and I knew she knew that something was up, something wasn’t right. I remember Ucellina’s reaction– “Wow, I think you finally entered adolescence.” And I remember that it was very odd how life went on as if nothing happened.
A few months later Sister was skipping school with some friends and they were in a car crash, the day a new Children’s Hospital opened in town. She had a black eye– or more accurately, a startling RED eye, for some time afterwards. My parents were embarrassed and mad, and I imagine scared that she could have been more hurt. Her Catholic school made an example of them, overtly saying “see this is what happens when you skip school.” Sister had always been at war with the administration of her school on a lower level, but this was the moment when things got really bad there, and for my parents with her. And I remember feeling powerless to protect her from herself or from these various adults’ feelings towards her. I longed for her to find a sport or hobby, a class she enjoyed– but she settled on a boyfriend and smoked cigarettes out on the back porch while my parents either didn’t notice or pretended not to. Mornings especially were a nightmare, with my mother screaming upstairs, begging Sister to get out of bed and go to school, Sister yelling back to leave her alone. If ever a situation called for professional help it was this, but as far as I can tell my parents sought out no real resources for themselves or for her.
I recently was talking with the Doctor about my college selection experience, something I had not thought about in some time. It surprised me how quickly and deeply the pain of that time cut into me. Struggling and then choosing to go to Boston. Telling my parents my decision (in tears), and then telling my friends over the next 12 hours. My mom showing up at school unannounced to take me to lunch. Driving around while she told me that my father was “scared,” that we “couldn’t afford it,” that she didn’t think I “really wanted it,” and that I needed to go to school seven blocks from my house. Robbed of my decision, I sat in shock, anger, paralysis. My mother was purposely manipulating my emotions to keep me there. I think it was then that I became stubborn. It was then that I realized how hard I had to fight some things. It was then that the “outbursts” I sometimes get criticized for today (in my professional life surrounded by passive agressive types) became a survival mechanism I had determined I must learn. I had already told people. It had taken so much energy to embrace Boston and to make myself sign up– for me and my future, to choose to grow rather than to hold on to my childhood. And suddenly that couldn’t happen, because what was really important was that I protect my family emotionally, in every way.
The more I think about senior year the more I realize how complicated a time it was for me. I guess it is no wonder that 11 years later I would still be processing so much of it.