Today I learned that it’s never too late to apologize.
I met two of my high-school teachers, Bonnie Seebold and Jan Leary, for lunch. Bonnie was my creative writing teacher and one of the first people to encourage me to write fiction. Jan taught the French 1 class I took when I was a senior. As I explained in Monday’s “Diary,” I behaved pretty badly in that class. One of the reasons I invited her to lunch was to talk about it.
When I brought it up, Jan got a very grim look on her face, and she said, “Let’s not talk about it.” I tried again, but she just shook her head and said, “People change, you were a different person, let’s just move on.”
I’d been talking to people about this all week, because it seemed interesting to me that I still felt so guilty about how I’d behaved 20 years ago in French class, and because I didn’t have the faintest idea if Jan would have forgotten all about it or if she’d still be angry. The consensus among my friends was that she might not even remember it, and if she did, she wouldn’t care anymore. But I wasn’t so sure. I was the one who was there, and I knew how bad it was. And besides, if I still felt bad about being such a jerk all these years later, why couldn’t she still be mad about it?
We moved on to other topics, and then we were joined by Andy Kaplan, one of my old English teachers, and Jan’s husband, John, my adviser and history teacher. I asked all of them about their high-school experiences (it was only recently that it even occurred to me that my high-school teachers had actually gone to high school themselves). Bonnie, John, and Jan loved high school. Andy said he loathed freshman year and it went downhill from there. He had actually gone to Parker for grade school, which he liked so much he went to bed every night in his clothes so he could get to school faster in the morning. But then he transferred to a big public high school where his clarinet playing was not appreciated. As we talked, John and Jan got into a discussion about some houseguests they were expecting. At one point, John asked, “Has the house been cleaned?” Andy quickly labeled this the “marital passive” voice. That’s why I like hanging around with English teachers.
After lunch, I went to lead a storytelling seminar in Jan’s English class. Now that I saw how upset she was with me, I realized what a serious gesture toward forgiving and forgetting it was for her to ask me to teach the class. But it was also painfully clear that I hadn’t been forgiven or forgotten.
The class was a lot of fun. I told the students a short story about a friendship I had with a guy from Florida when I was in high school, and how it went awry when he came to visit me in Chicago and I snubbed him in front of some of my other friends. After my story, I asked if they thought it was true or not. I thought it was an entirely true story, and that this would be obvious to all of them. Instead, they thought it was a partially true story with a lot of exaggeration, most of it unconvincing. As they explained what struck them as false, I realized they were right about everything. This was the vaunted teen-age bullshit detector in action. If only I could keep a class of these kids nearby whenever I’m writing.
Next they told stories about various things that had happened to them. One student had driven in a car full of drunken adults. Another had been terrified on a hiking trip by a man pretending to be a bear. A number of students told simple, affecting stories about bullying and being ostracized. Then we all wrote down one sentence exactly as we had said it in our stories. The students’ sentences were perfect—grammatical, interesting, just well-written. I was trying to use this exercise to show them how their natural speaking voices can act as a guide to improve their writing.
I ended by talking a little bit about how all people are artists. Children love to paint, dance, sing, and write. Eventually, though, most kids get discouraged, usually because their artistic offerings are criticized or ignored. I tell the students that if they can get back to that early love of creative expression, they’ll find an outlet that will work wonders for them throughout their lives.
After class, Jan and I walked around the school a little bit, and I brought up French 1 again. This time she was willing to talk. She told me how I had walked into class the first day, come right up to her, and said, “Don’t expect to get anything done this year.” I had been a good kid all through high school and she wanted to know why I’d picked her class to act this way in. She told me I’d pretty much made that year miserable for her.
As we talked, it was clear that Jan felt bad about being so upset about something that happened so long ago, just like I felt silly about feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago. But at some point, as if by mutual agreement, we just let go of those secondary feelings about what we were feeling. And then I think we discovered the same thing—the passage of time is overrated. She was angry; I felt like a jerk. It didn’t matter how long ago all of this happened. And then I said, “I’m sorry.” And she said, “It’s nice to hear that.”
And not only did the bad feelings that we’d had for 20 years disappear in an instant, just palpably dissolve and float away, but an unusual type of connection took their place. We’d gone out on a limb together. We’d admitted to each other that we cared in a situation where maybe we weren’t supposed to.
This is why I wrote a book about high school in the first place. To admit that I still care about what happened then. That I still care a lot. And to prove to myself that other people do, too.
Tonight, I met with a book club that just read 10th Grade. There were about 12 people there, mostly in their early 20s. We went around the room telling stories about our experiences in high school, then we had a great discussion about 10th Grade. I can hardly express what a pleasure it was to sit with a group of people having a serious discussion about my book. It’s something a writer doesn’t get very often, and in a way, it brought my own characters to life for me. Here they were, out in the real world now, being talked about, scrutinized, and holding their own.