It was the summer after my senior year in High School, and I was on top of the world. I had graduated near the top of my high school graduating class, had a great group of friends, and the prospect of MIT was rising on the horizon for the fall. As do many recent high school graduates, I felt invincible.
In addition to all of that, I had Laurel.
I had had a crush on Laurel since she moved into my small New Jersey town in 9th grade, but it wasn't until our Senior year that I got the nerve to ask her out. The connection was almost instantaneous, and the latter half of our Senior year we were virtually inseparable. I adopted her friends (and she, mine). We sang together around the piano. We laughed together. We shared deep thoughts and silly picnics. It was a near perfect high school romance.
The town where we grew up was Main Street USA. People think of New Jersey as a dirty, poorer version of New York City, but that wasn't my home town. Summit was clean and beautiful, honoring the title of "The Garden State." Summit was small enough that you could ride your bike across the whole town without too much trouble, but big enough to have five elementary schools. The downtown area was four blocks long by three blocks wide, and had small stores like you want your home town to have: a five-and-dime (Woolworths), a "haberdashery" (Roots--and not the chain), Trosts bakery, a book store (Christopher's) and lots of little nooks and crannies to be explored. Every year on the Fourth of July the whole town would spread out blankets at Memorial Field and watch an amazing fireworks display. We played football on Thanksgiving Day (against our arch rival New Providence) after marching from the High School to Tatlock field with the band and cheerleaders and homemade floats. It was an idyllic life, at least for me.
Laurel was a good match for my high school self. She was smart and witty. She cared about the world around her. She was good to her little brother and loyal to her friends. She was even kind to a former boyfriend (who became somewhat of a stalker). She sang in the choir and acted in the plays and was passionate about her future and education and politics. She was off to Colgate in the fall, and looked forward to her future every bit as much as I did to mine.
I was a pretty arrogant high school student. Because high school academics had been pretty easy, I assigned too much value to my own intelligence. I had not had true heartache or difficulty (though MIT would soon prove to be a humbling experience). While I did my high-school-best to be kind and generous, I am sure that there were plenty of times when I was insufferable. Nevertheless, Laurel was patient with me and my foibles, and we enjoyed each other's company very much. I'm sure that she would say that she had her problems too, but I was wrapped up tightly in my own world, and didn't see them very often.
Because of my arrogance I had adopted the stance of small-town-kid held back by his circumstances. This wasn't really true: if anything, Summit was a great launching pad for anything I wanted to accomplish. But I was a pretty straight-arrow kid so I needed something against which to be defiant. I chose "small town syndrome" as I called it, and I loved to point out the weaknesses of my limited world, making fun of the very things that I now consider to be idyllic. I used phrases like, "I'm going to shake off the dust of this little town and never look back," in the false bravado that so many high school students adopt.
The summer wore on, and we spent a lot of time together. I had a part time job (and so did she) but other than that we talked or "hung out" almost every day.
As we approached our last few weeks together, we took a trip to the Jersey Shore with another couple--my best friend, Dave, and his girlfiend at the time. The Jersey shore gets a bad rap, too, because of the name of that horrible reality television show. It really is a beautiful, playful beach, and we had a great day just enjoying the sun and the waves.
At sunset Laurel and I went for a walk along the beach. Inevitably our discussion turned toward our futures--she to Colgate and I to MIT. Without much emotion (or sensitivity for her feelings) I stated flatly that I didn't expect us to be committed to each other--we were going off to new experiences, and who knew what the world or future held for us.
She stopped walking. "Are you breaking up with me?" she asked.
"I don't know, am I? You knew that we would go our different ways at some point."
She looked sticken. "I guess...I don't know...I hadn't really thought about it I guess."
We walked a few more steps, and she said, "Can I walk alone for a few minutes?"
"Sure," I said, and I turned back toward our towels on the beach.
And that was that. When she came back to the towels I asked if she was alright, and she said that she was. We didn't talk much in the car on the way home.
Or really ever again.
We corresponded a little during our first semester at college (hand written letters--the way real people communicated before Facebook and Twitter). Our schedules didn't line up so we didn't see each other over Christmas, and then the letters stopped. I haven't heard from or spoken to her since.
I did, indeed, "shake off the dust of that little town" and never really returned. Oh I visited my parents at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I spent the summer in Boston, and by the following summer I was living abroad. Four years after I graduated my parents retired and moved away from Summit, and that door to my past--that connection to important people and events that so shaped my adolescent world--closed forever.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The point of this story isn't lost love or the recapture of youth or nostalgia or some such thing. It is about two things:
1) the fleeting nature of even the deepest of early-life relationships, and
2) the insensitivity caused by looking too far ahead.
I thought about the first when one of my son's former high school girlfriends got married. She is a wonderful girl, and married a great guy. But...what if? Unlike my experience with Laurel, my son and this young woman remained great friends after they dated. But he had broken their relationship after only a few months on fleeting, high-school emotions and circumstances. Another son saw his senior year girlfriend engaged to someone else before either of them started their freshman years of college.
I have a son who is a senior in high school this year. I want for him to have the amazing year that I had my senior year. Through most of High School I spent almost every day with a small group of friends: Dave, Sean, Craig, Lynn, Ginny, Gretchen, Lizzie. That group expanded to include Laurel and her friends the second half of my senior year. While I have connected to several in that group via Facebook, I did not keep in touch with any of them, except superficially.
So this is my deep insight and advice to this year's seniors: don't blow it. Take advantage of every moment, savor every experience, relish the freedom that you get from being nearly an adult with almost no adult responsibilities. Be spontaneous and silly without causing yourself stupid, long-term problems.
But also...recognize that there are many, many "lasts." Don't become too maudlin about those, but respect them for what they are--transition points from one life to the next. Don't rush that transition, always looking to the horizon. That horizon is great--college, independence, adulthood. But it will come up way too soon. As Sean Payton, coach of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, said to a group of high school football players:
"27 years ago I was in a locker room getting ready to play a game just like you are tonight. Walking in here, it still smells the same. One of the things that caught me was how fast 27 years go by...I would give anything tonight if I could jump in one of these uniforms with you guys. That feeling goes away; it goes away, and it doesn't come back every Friday night. It come when you get married. It comes when a child is born. So you get it, you just don't get it every Friday night. That's what I miss...So you Seniors that are focused on college, you're focused on your work after high school and what you're going to do next--you're focused on tomorrow, aren't you? There is plenty of time for tomorrow. But these tonights? They're going by fast. You focus on tonight. Because there are only so many of these nights left."
One last thought: be sensitive to these important people in your life. Very soon--too soon--they will waltz past you for the last time, and you will never see some of them again. Honor the moments you have together.
And to Laurel? I'm sorry for the way that I acted. I hope your life has been as outstanding as you imagined it on those spring nights back in Summit.