When I recall that crisp morning at the end of summer 1982, there are two distinct, yet competing emotions present. Giddy with excitement, I am a fourteen year old boy who is, to pt it mildly, scared shitless. All too aware that entering grade nine is a big deal. This is it; this is high school.
A new and very strange animal.
Taking my place among the other fourteen year old freshmen in the auditorium of a freshly remodeled building on the stately Ottawa campus, none of us have any idea just how privileged and sheltered our existence is. Bustling with excitement, the extent of our concern is over the schools new no ties or jackets policy; we can now relax a bit in our uniform issue Oxford button downs and sweater vests. No more underclassmen jackets and ties for us!
Well, aren’t we just the height of cool. Or so we thought.
At the time, I knew little regarding just how much this first year will set the tone for the ranking that will dictate high school social order. Because try as one might, there will be little escaping the boxes we place ourselves and each other into. I don’t know it at the time, but I won’t fair too badly. Certainly not top tier king and queen of the homecoming (the ones who usually achieve peak success in high school), nor will I be resigned to the nerd table with the future CEO’s of tech giants. In the end, I will settle comfortably at the top of the mid tier, via my status on the swim and rugby teams. Positions that will garner significant points. The real truth being that despite my athletic skill, team sports will never prove a remotely comfortable fit for me.
Like every other fourteen year old on the planet, if you had told me then that my peers considered me reasonably attractive, I would have never believed you. What I do have however, according to many a ninth grade girl, is “great hair and the best sweater collection”. I often wonder if that is code for “we know he’s gay”!
It will be during these high school years that I develop gradually into what many see as an extrovert, successfully navigating the teen social stratosphere via good timing and a quick wit. What I will lack in Godlike studly looks, I will make up for through self effacing humor and the confidence to take a risk.
By the end of October I will have found my tribe, the small but close group that, despite a few comings and goings in junior year, will remain largely intact until graduation in the spring of 1986. Enemies will be few, though after an unfortunate first week run in, I will be overly cautious around the auto mechanics / bully crowd. The cause of much fret and worry in that first year, I will learn their bark is infinitely more severe than their bite, and that dagger looks and a dismissive sneer are to be the extent of our interactions.
Visiting my father in Ottawa recently, and going through several long packed away boxes, I came across some pictures of my first grade nine coffee house night (our schools way of making dances cool). Let’s just say I am relieved that my coming of age was before the digital video revolution. Because even from the worn pictures, one gets the sense I was quite the enthusiastic dancer. The expression on my face suggesting I’m more than impressed with my abilities. With the other jock / preppy boys that constitute my clan, we are the ones the girls end up dancing with while they pretend not to pine for the Stud Gods of higher grades. Shaking our ass to The Clash, affecting the requisite mildly disinterested pose, we are spontaneous, somewhat silly, and confidently assured through the safety in numbers.
When the evening comes to an end and the music inevitably slows, I will almost pass for a guy who is enjoying dancing in the arms of Jen, my cute friend with the blond bob. Scent of her Lauren perfume inches away from my face, moving under blue and silver spotlights while the last song of the night, True, by Spandau Ballet plays on.
Appearances can often be deceiving. As I pretend to enjoy the dance more than I do, there are only two things on my mind. The totally-hot-babe-status of Jen, my dance partner, is not one of them. Close to panicking, I scan the gym in a futile attempt to see if anyone noticed me staring (attempting subtlety, failing miserably) at the blue eyed eleventh grader.
The same boy with the tall, muscular frame who’s sweaty body had been directly on top of mine in a scrum during rugby practice hours earlier. He is the one I can’t take my eyes off. There’s no way to know it now, but in less than two years, Darren and I will skip second period study hall, and in the locker room of this same gym awkwardly explore each others mouths with fast, eager tongues. Our hard, impatient maleness, clumsy with pent up frustrations of teenage angst, while The Outfields hit, Your Love, plays in the gym above us. But in that moment we are passion, lust, and desire, and so many other things plus more.
But I am convinced Sarah Burroughs has seen me looking. A mouthy gossip like her overbearing, head-of-the-parents-club mother, she’s razor sharp and misses nothing. I also wonder whether Jen is angry at me, or relieved that my hands are still on the small of her back; instead of squeezing her tight, Red Tab Levi covered ass, like virtually every other male is doing to his partner in the dark and crowded gymnasium with the desperation of a last slow song hanging in the air.