‘Tis the season of scholastic celebration. Images of young women in generic capes holding flowers and little kids saying goodbye on their final class zoom call are flooding the socials. It’s much rarer to see pictures of young men in their cap and gowns, which is interesting. I graduated high school in 1990, when acid was jeans were on their way out for the first time and songs as diverse as “Enjoy the Silence” (Depeche Mode), “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer), and “Vision of Love” (Mariah Carey) were big hits. I too held flowers and grew my hair out for years, literally, for grad photos. As rites of passage go, it’s a big one and I remember being scared and excited as the gateways of adulthood swung open.
I also recall feeling so much younger than the seniors from years gone by, whose images I eagerly poured over as soon as I got my hands on the annual yearbooks. Maybe it was the huge hair and Maybelline make-up, but the women who graduated before me routinely looked at least a decade older than my peers and me. I think it was the knowledge that they engaged in sex and other adult activities that pushed them into another social and chronological stratosphere. As a very late ‘bloomer’ I knew nothing about sex, boys (some of whom were also men), and myself in relation to affairs of the heart or rotary dial dating dynamics as they were then.
A couple of years ago I wrote a small story about one woman that stands out from my high school days, one of those whose former glory has never been regained. No one seems to know exactly where she is or what happened to her – minus a few sad details, a couple of kids, fell on hard times. The title “High School Confidential” comes from the Carole Pope song of the same name, that song many of us still know because of its titillating, strutty cords and sexy homage to the desire one woman has for another. HA: Kind of a strange place to end this introduction to a piece about high school graduation, but so be it!
High School Confidential
Nova shaves she sometimes wonders about her, that girl who shared her razor with them in the changing room before Grade 12 swimming class. Physical education. What a situation: A host of nubile young bodies pulling at their dated polyester gear to cover more skin and make room for the air they would need to earn a gold badge and ascend into the adult world. An easy credit for the trim, while some seemed to be in it for self-annihilation. Why else would larger, seemingly unhappy adolescents willingly choose to spend more time than they had to among the hard bodies and pretty faces of the popular, who also seemed to be among the fittest?
Nova and her peers were led by Mr. H., who had shaggy brown dark hair, a larger than fashionable moustache, and was eternally dressed in short-shorts. They had no way of knowing what his life was about, but Mr. H seemed driven by something larger than passing along sport knowledge to young people at the end of teenage-hood. Was it his own faded sports career, those ‘bad knees’ that cut everything short, an unhappy marriage, a desire to exact power over the powerless?
Whatever it was he deployed a style of rule that combined militarism and inter-gender cooperation with humiliation- three times a week. Although Nova didn’t really like him, she and the others were fascinated enough by his hyper-masculine antics to feel a kind of closeness with Mr. H.
The students felt a strange unity that had less to do with sport than the social and sexual things that took place among themselves. Gym class was intimate because it clustered them together in ways that reflected the normative hierarchy of the hallways and offered a chance to resist the established order.
A beautiful boy could be beat by a lesser-than girl on the squash court and through this feat she could become something else- attractive, powerful. An outsider boy might have a chance with a cool girl, maybe not to pair up with but he could at least share part of the room with her while they were on the same team: Solidarity.
But in the spaces of their own sex, the intimacy was different and firmly rooted in their bodies, which they didn’t really know what to with.
With bare feet on the tiled floors of the changing rooms, Nova and the other girls huddled in their spots, shoulders scooped, directing themselves away from any glances. They would wet the towels and their hair in the sink so Mr. H would think they had a shower. While getting dressed they concentrated on tucking things in and trying to hide the changes beyond their control- new hair, boobs, skin that felt cold after a workout. Desires also wafted through those non-descript green rooms, to belong and to be close to the bodies we think are beautiful. And some of them were, like hers.
With her four-door hatchback as our carriage, we drove away from our sophomoric institution into the cooler land of the university, with its arched trees, stone-hemmed buildings, and older, interesting people. Next to golf, swimming was the activity most of them dreaded, including Nova who couldn’t swim. She was terrified of looking stupid, of panicking in the water, of the way her skin turned an ugly splotched purple in the fluorescent lights that lived along almost every surface of the pool, white and hard. The razor was hers and we all took turns with it, edging away stubborn hair along our panty lines. What teenage girl thinks to shave there in the Prairie winter?
Nova watched her little hands and the fingers, which were always sore and red-looking, when it was her turn to do the deed.
Even this quick motion of removal was slick, like when she prowled down the hallway or squeezed slowly into her desk after the second bell. She wasn’t really pretty, but she was little and knew just enough to be sexy. Nova remembers her cupid-shaped face with its dimples and the icy blue eyes that seemed vacant and empty of a self-worth knowing.
She seemed to know that her fame would be brief, maybe that’s why she went for it – really went for it – with those legendary jeans. They came in teal and black and were lacquered on in a way that can only be described as mysterious. The people in all the grades marvelled at them, including the teachers. While it would take many years for Nova to come into her own, not so for the girl with the denim crown whose flower had already bloomed inside those jeans, walking down the corridor.
The razor, the pants, the teacher, the feels – this is what the thought of graduation summons for me…
What does this time of graduation, change, and the summer solstice perhaps, bring up for you?
Fun Fact: the sun used to be at its highest point (at noon, details) directly over the Tropic of Cancer at this time of year, but today it is in Taurus. Also: “tropic” comes from Greek “trope (τροπή)”, meaning turn (change of direction, or circumstances) or inclination, referring to the fact that the Sun appears to “turn back” during the solstices.