Two vantage points, one high school

My son is entering high school.

I can hardly bear to utter these words. "Entering elementary school" and "entering middle school" went down far more smoothly; but this high school business is bittersweet.

Probably because it's Alyosha's last educational stop before some still vaguely defined future. Probably because this means that, even at the tender age of 14, my son, and his cohorts, are beginning to leave home, though from the look of his bedroom he is certainly unaware of this yet.

Last week there was "Family Night," a sort of introduction to the milieu of the high school and the extracurricular activities it offers. I felt distinctly out of place, as if acutely aware that I had already done the high school thing, and it was somehow unnatural to be back.

After we parents and students had assembled in the gym, listening to a presentation by the faculty and the administration, we were released into the hallways to visit classrooms, where we'd be able to speak with teachers and upperclassmen about courses and activities.

The rush of bodies brought back memories of hurrying to classes in the two minutes we had between bells, and I felt suddenly disoriented. At one point, a teacher came up to me, laid a hand on my shoulder, and, as if addressing a freshman, asked, "Do you know where you're supposed to be?"

It occurred to me that I was supposed to be at home, or outside, or in my car - anywhere but here. And then I caught sight of my son, amicably hobnobbing with his fellow presumptive freshmen, already a man about town, poised and feeling at home, possibly dreaming of his first varsity letter.

I envied him this smooth transition to high school. When I entered in the late 1960s (something else I can hardly bring myself to say), the atmosphere was very different. Freshmen were the lowest rung on the ladder, and we were told not to forget it.

On that very first September day, we huddled together like newly hatched chicks, our hair pomaded back and our faces buried in our collars, lest we make eye contact with an upperclassman - woe unto us!

Hazing was de rigueur. Nothing violent or injurious, but enough to add to our trepidation at being in a new environment, surrounded by so many unknowns.

On my first day, I recall hurrying through the hallway, holding my stack of books in front of me with both hands, barely able to see over the top. Suddenly there was a bump, and the tower came crashing down. As I fell to my knees to gather up the books, I heard a senior laughing with his friends before moving on to his next prey.

My high school had three floors, but during that first week, freshman after freshman was sent on an "errand" to the nonexistent fourth floor ("Where the swimming pool is!") to bring a message to the "lifeguard."

We were also told that it was our job to clean up senior trays in the cafeteria and walk only on the right side of the hallways.

Of course, all of this gives me a chuckle only in retrospect. At the time I felt like a small, defenseless island being invaded by an armada.

My son will not have to deal with hazing, and this is a good thing. Younger kids think the world of older kids, and as I walk my judicious 10 paces behind Alyosha, I watch as upperclassmen put out their hands to him for high-fives. I listen as a sophomore soccer player tells him he's happy my son is joining the team. And I am encouraged when a teacher slaps my son on the back and welcomes him to the high school.

STILL, I am glad to leave. As I said, I don't belong here; my son does. On the way home we stop at a Dairy Queen, and halfway through my sundae I pause and look at my son, at the carefully primped hair (sans pomade), the baggy, in-style clothes, the size-11 sneakers, and his quiet capacity to accept things as they come.

Even though he is only 14, I have already done almost everything I can do for him. In sending him to high school, I am, in a way, turning him over to other forces, to see how his convictions hold up to theirs, to see which of their ideas resonate with him and which ones he will soft sell.

I may not be ready for high school, but he is. It is time.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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