High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
The hallway is empty, only the safety lights at the ends and in the middle by the office provide enough illumination to see anything at all. I let the door I had opened with a key shut behind me, the click of the latch hardly registering. I look down the mostly dark hall and feel that jittery sense I’ve had before when in a deserted building. I recognize it immediately. It says I shouldn’t be here, that someone will catch me, that unknown dangers lurk, that I should get out. Get out, now! Which is silly, but logic is one thing, emotions something else.
The reality of the situation is, I have permission to be here even now, in the evening when the place is locked up tight and the janitorial staff long gone. I’d been able to convince Dr. Sanders—Principal Sanders—that I wanted to reminisce alone in the school and would lock it back up when I left. I’d told him I wanted to relive my past in a very small and harmless way.
He hadn’t asked me about that. He very likely assumed he knew, that it was obvious; that he couldn’t be more wrong wasn’t something I had any reason to bring up. But he did ask me a question, not why I wanted to be here when everyone else was gone, but when.
The why was a lot more interesting, a lot more personal, but I was spared that. The when is now. At night. I told him I had to return to college and it was tonight or never. I wanted to see the place with no one to interrupt me, with no one around. That’s what I got.
The place is dead. It feels it. So different than during the day, when it’s filled with life. Filled to overflowing. That’s part of what makes how it feels now so strange. Gives me a little twinge in my stomach. I shake my head and laugh at myself.
But being here alone is part of my reason for being here, and if it feels a bit strange, that’s okay. I’m nervous, but now I can attribute that to the atmosphere.
I had to come at night, uninterrupted by the people who’d love to see me, talk to me. I couldn’t walk through the school with kids still here. Or teachers. No, this is the only time I can do this. At night. Alone. So that’s a big part of it.
I’m alone with my memories, memories evoked by the look and feel and smell of the place. Alone as I’d been when I was actually a part of this, even while in the middle of everything. Then, I’d been one of many, though I always felt a little bit alone.
Funny, even though the school halls look eerie—with shadows and hidden niches creating elusive images and causing unsettled nerves and unease—at the same time the very strangeness of the place somehow makes it easier for me. Easier to remember. Easier to bring back memories.
I’ve come in a side door, using the key Dr. Sanders had given me. “I’ve never given this to anyone before,” he’d said, and what I heard was, “Don’t make me regret it.” And that made sense. Sure, I’d been something here, more of a something than most, I guess, and perhaps that had earned me this privilege, but no one is perfect in high school, no one stays completely out of trouble unless they operate under the radar, and staying under the radar simply wasn’t something I’d been capable of doing. Still, Dr. Sanders felt I deserved extra consideration, that I was worthy of a favor being extended.
I look around, seeing the empty hallway stretching before me. I have an ultimate destination, but that is for later. Just now, what I want to do is walk these halls. See things from a different perspective, the perspective of someone who no longer is a student here. Of someone who’d grown up here and then departed.
Yes, this place holds many memories.
I walk down the corridor, remembering what classes were taught in every room I pass, and the teachers who worked in each come to mind. I stop at the third door I come to. A vivid picture comes back to me. It is accompanied by a stirring in my stomach, a visceral response to a memory that returns in stark clarity as I stand in the doorway.
Ninth grade. I was a freshman, fresh from middle school. Fresh from all that had gone on there. This was my first class of my first day in high school. I stood looking at the chairs, half empty but filling up as kids moved around me into the room. There were only a couple of kids I knew. This school was enormous: over four-thousand students. It was fed by five middle schools in this middle-sized city. Madison High School had all sorts of reputations, depending on whom one was talking to. It had many separate cultures: the intellectuals, the band and chorus guys, the theater and drama crowd, the jocks, the shop kids, the slackers, the artists. And then there were the ordinary kids, the ones with no group affiliation, the kids who were just there, doing their best to survive. The school was, according to legend, the toughest high school in the state, academically and sometimes athletically. To hear kids talk, it also had the roughest gym classes, had a top-five-in-the-Midwest music department with a topnotch symphonic band, marching band, choir, orchestra and various smaller groups the kids put together themselves. It was also home to two gangs, one with mostly black kids, one with predominantly poor whites and Mexicans as members. The school had a no-nonsense vice-principal that you did not want to get to know, had a no-bullying policy that was unevenly enforced, and had had state-champion football teams three of the past six years.
I had no idea whether there was any truth about any of this, except that last one. That one I knew to be true. My older brother, Clay, who’d graduated last May and was now on an athletic scholarship at a Bit 12 university, had been Madison’s quarterback the past three years. Two of them had been championship teams.
Like most of the other freshmen, I felt a little lost and a little scared and way too alone. I hadn’t made any high-school friends yet, a point brought home with a vengeance as I cast my eyes around the room. Except for a very few faces I recognized from middle school, this was all new. But looking at all the faces in the room, seeing the obviously nervous ones; the ones wishing they could hide somewhere; the curious ones like I was; the ones who had sat down next to people they knew and were chatting; the ones reading a book or looking at their phones; the ones who were scanning the walls of the room, looking anywhere but at other kids; I had enough self-awareness to recognize and appreciate the feelings we all were having. I understood that every one of the kids in this room was feeling the same uncertainties I was to one extent or another.
A man entered the room with the last few kids to straggle in. “Okay, I think I’ve collected all the strays. Welcome to Madison, everyone. I’m Mr. Tolliver. Tolliver the Terrible. That’s what some call me. I hope none of you will be that crude. Or unoriginal. Disparagements should be creative, not regenerated. Besides which, that one doesn’t even fit. I might be awful, but terrible? I think not!”
I glanced around the room and saw every face, every set of eyes, glued to Mr. Tolliver. I couldn’t help smiling. The one thing I really liked in a teacher was personality. The dull, bland, emotionless ones had never engaged my interest in either them or their subject. Mr. Tolliver, I could see, was nothing like that. I had no idea what he was like, but it was apparent he liked to be the center of attention and had a healthy dose of self-esteem. He wouldn’t start off this way otherwise.
He was a tall, well-built man in his mid-thirties, I guessed, and he quite obviously had an outgoing nature.
Now, he was chuckling at his own joke; no one else was. They had no feel for the man yet. They knew looks and first impressions could be deceiving. They weren’t sure they were supposed to laugh with him—or even if he was kidding.
He stopped laughing and in a gruffer voice, said, “This is English 1. Anyone who is in the wrong room, the wrong class, get out!” He gazed around the room with a stern look, then smiled. “No one is getting up! You’re a smart bunch. Usually I have four or five dumbbells who can’t match the room number on their schedules with the number on the door. Congratulations. You should all get A’s.”
Mr. Tolliver had been standing behind his desk. He now stepped around it and sat back down on the front edge of it, the edge closest to us. He studied our faces for a moment, seeming to look each kid in the eye, then grinned.
“If this class is typical, you’re all a little nervous, not sure what to expect. You probably don’t know very many people in here. You’re wondering if you’ll make friends, how you’ll fit in. So, I’ll start earning one of those nicknames you’ll come up with for me. I’m going to have each of you stand up and give me your name and your preferred nickname. This isn’t so much for my sake; it’s mostly for you, so everyone here knows a name or two to match with a face. You won’t remember all the names, not even most of them. But you will remember the ones you want to remember. So, let’s start.” He pointed to the girl sitting closest to the classroom door in the front of the room. “You first, then across the front row, then the opposite direction back across the second row and so on. Please stand, face the class so everyone can see who you are, and speak up. Everyone, try to face the class as well as you can so as many people as possible can see your face.”
He nodded at the girl, a blonde. She stood, and I saw she was short and a little chubby. “I’m Alison Carstairs. I like to be called Alison.” Then she sat down, blushing.
The IDs went on, most of the kids not adding a nickname, especially the girls. I was sitting kind of in the middle of the room. When it was my turn, I stood, turned briefly to both sides so everyone in the room could see me, then back at Mr. Tolliver and said, “I’m Whit Chambers. Just call me Whit.” Then I gave Mr. Tolliver a sort of forced smile and sat down. I hoped like mad I wasn’t blushing.
The next kid was starting to stand when Mr. Tolliver raised his hand to stop him, then turned back to the class as a whole.
“Class,” he said, “what we have with us here is a celebrity. Whit is Clay Chambers’ brother. I’m sure you’re all aware of who Clay Chambers is. He kind of ran this school for the past three years. Apologies to Principal Sanders, of course. King of the Prom all three of those years, starting when he was a sophomore, which was unheard of. But you lead your school to the state football championship as a sophomore, that’s what happens. Whit might feel some pressure to live up to his brother, more than one might expect, because Whit too plays football, plays quarterback in fact, just like his brother, and the coaches tell me he’s got a good chance to take over his brother’s position this year—as a freshman. You’ve gone out for the team, haven’t you, Whit?”
Damn! Damn, damn, damn! I looked down at my desk briefly, then up at the teacher, trying my hardest to keep my face blank. Why was he calling me out like this? It wasn’t right! I wasn’t any sort of celebrity. I was a 14-year-old kid trying to make my way in a new school where I didn’t know many of the other kids—well, hardly any. Yeah, I was going out for football. Practice had started three weeks earlier, and I’d been out there with the other kids working hard, but I wasn’t at all sure I’d make the team, and besides, it was all just for fun. I loved the game but didn’t expect to play, not as a freshman; I’d be lucky not to be cut. The team had won state last year and had a lot of juniors and seniors looking forward to doing so again. Me, play? Me, a celebrity? No way.
I was just a kid trying to fit in, be anonymous, find out how things worked here, maybe get to know some kids who seemed the kind I’d like, and now this teacher was ruining that, shining a spotlight on me and ruining the thing I wanted most—to be just another kid at this school. Dammit!
Mr. Tolliver was looking at me expectantly. Probably expecting a response. Probably expecting me to rise, expecting me to provide some cocky entertainment for the class, to talk about myself. Well, that was not me! It just wasn’t. And I resented being put in that position. Not that there was much I could do about it. He was a teacher; I was a kinda-scared kid out of his depth here. Kinda scared, but now a little angry, too.
I could tell by the way Mr. Tolliver’s forehead was beginning to wrinkle the longer I stayed in my seat looking back at him that I wasn’t going to get away with just sitting there, acting dumb. But what I was feeling mostly was that this guy, whom I’d been prepared to like, was being entirely unfair to a kid he didn’t know.
I couldn’t make an enemy of him in the first ten minutes of my first class, whether he was being fair or not. So, without standing, and speaking softly, I said, “The team’s been practicing for three weeks already, getting in shape mostly. First game is a week from Friday. I’ll be there if I’m still on the team then.”
Mr. Tolliver nodded, and showed no signs of wanting to end my embarrassment. “I understand you have a new coach this year,” he continued, still speaking directly to me as though the rest of the class wasn’t there. “The old one retired. Some say he left because Clay left; he realized he didn’t have a replacement. How’s the coaching been so far?”
Man, oh man! I frowned. Mr. Tolliver was way out of line. He never should have mentioned I was going out for the team, and this was even worse. Asking me to evaluate the coaches? In front of a whole class of kids? Adults? Why would he do that? Anyway, I simply wasn’t going to answer that question.
I remained seated, and I dropped my eyes to the desk and mumbled, “Not my place to say, sir.” Then I raised my eyes to Mr. Tolliver and gave him a very steady look, showing no emotion at all, but holding Mr. Tolliver’s eyes longer than a student would ordinarily hold the eyes of a teacher. I was pissed. My attitude tended to change when I got mad. I was never a confrontational kid. The opposite, actually. Till I got mad.
I was surprised when Mr. Tolliver smiled. That was not the reaction I’d expected. Then he gestured for the next student to rise, and it was as though the past few minutes had never happened. The introductions resumed.
I didn’t pay much attention after that. I was locked in on what had just happened. I’d been called out in front of the class, put on the spot. Asked an embarrassing question. Forced to respond. No one else had experienced anything like that. My question was, why? How had Mr. Tolliver even known who I was? Chambers wasn’t exactly a common name like Williams or Jones or Smith or Johnson, so perhaps that was why Mr. Tolliver had made the connection with Clay. But no, he’d seemed to know more than that. He knew I had gone out for the team, even if his first question sounded like he didn’t know. But he had to if he knew that I was a potential QB. Well, maybe he was just a huge fan of the team and had spoken to the assistant coaches who’d been running the practices.
I stewed it over till the naming was done, and then Mr. Tolliver told us all his class rules: what was expected of us, how testing would be done, what sort of homework we’d have, what the syllabus that he handed out was, all the ins and outs of what the year with him would entail.
Then the bell rang, and we were excused. All except me! Mr. Tolliver motioned me to stay for a moment as the other kids were filing out. Just that fast I was in a mood again. Not angry, exactly, but feeling less than cordial. Feeling a bit ill-treated. When I felt like this, my dad always said I became someone else. I tend to be a quiet, soft-spoken, easy-going individual and am difficult to arouse. But unfairness, directed at me or anyone else, bothers me. My dad said I didn’t suffer fools gladly; if my dad said it, it must have been true. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. I did know I didn’t like getting mad and didn’t like who I became when I was, or how I felt directly after the problem was over.
When I was 12, I spent a month on my uncle’s farm in the summer. My dad would come out on weekends. The farm was just outside town, and I could ride my bike into town and so still meet up with my friends. I could still be on a team in the kids’ football league. But I spent time doing stuff on the farm as well, which was a change from living in town. I liked it.
One Saturday I rode my bike back to the farm, dropped it in the front yard and stormed into the house. There was an old-fashioned upright lamp standing in the hallway just inside the door; it didn’t belong there, I didn’t see it quickly enough and bumped into it, sending the lampshade flying and almost knocking the lamp itself over.
I looked at it standing there upright but teetering, and I wound up like a place kicker and kicked it as hard as I could. It was flimsy, I was mad, and the fixture crashed into the wall, the glass reflector bowl shattered and the metal upright bent about in half. The racket it made would have raised the dead.
My dad appeared from the kitchen quicker than I thought possible. He looked at me, at the lamp, at me again, and said in his soft voice, “Clean it up. Vacuum everywhere the glass could have flown. Then go dig out the sheep enclosure. I want to see the cement floor when you’re done.”
He was holding my eyes with his. He waited a few seconds after he was done, then turned and went back into the kitchen.
My uncle raised a couple of sheep from lambs until they were old enough to butcher. They had a small pasture set aside just for them, and there was a door they could use from the pasture into a stall in the barn; they could come inside in bad weather.
The floor of that stall hadn’t been dug out for years. I’d guess it was about two feet deep in sheep shit. Dried, hardened sheep shit.
I got to work with a spade. I found that after breaking through the top crust, what was underneath wasn’t all that hard, and digging into it, while hard work, was amazingly satisfying. It was what my mood seemed to need, a strenuous, no-thinking sort of job where I could work off my emotions. I dug, filled a wheel barrow, wheeled it out to the dung heap behind the barn, and went back in. Time after time.
I’d been working about three-quarters of an hour when my dad came out. He stood and watched for a few minutes, then picked up his own spade and began working next to me.
He dug alongside me till that floor was just bare cement. Working together, it took us maybe two hours. We both leaned on our spades and looked at that floor when we were done. I didn’t know what he was feeling, but I was feeling some pride, seeing what we’d accomplished.
He hadn’t spoken a word the entire time we’d been working.
While we were both admiring the finished chore, Dad put his arm around my shoulders. Then we went outside, and he led me around to the side of the barn and sat down. I sat down next to him, my leg actually touching his.
“You still mad?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“You don’t get angry often, Whit, but when you do, it’s powerful. You’ll learn to control it. It’s hard at your age.”
That was Dad. No question about why I was so mad when I got home. He’d let me tell him if I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed; if I was, he was giving me the right to my own privacy. If I wanted his advice, though, that would be available just by asking for it.
Sitting next to him was so comforting. Knowing his support was unconditional was like a warm blanket on a chilly winter night. I sat quietly for a few moments, then said, “I was mad at myself.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, and then was quiet again.
“I saw three guys from my football team across the street from me when I was biking back here. They had surrounded a younger kid who was on his bike. They had stopped him. One took the kid’s hat and put it on his own head. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to him, but the kid started crying. They made fun of that.”
I stopped because my anger was returning. I didn’t like the way it made my voice sound, so I swallowed a couple of times and waited till my emotions calmed a little.
“Finally, one of them gave the kid a push and he and his bike fell over. Then the three of them laughed and rode off. They never did give him his cap back.”
It was silent then, except for the noises that are always present on a farm. The wind, insects, the lambs, chickens, whatever. The most silence came from my dad. No questions about the reason for my anger. That was for me to say, if I wanted to say it.
“I didn’t do anything, Dad. Nothing. I let them do that, and I didn’t do anything.”
I waited then. Surely he’d say something now.
And after a moment, he did. “What should you have done? There were three of them.”
“I should have stopped them.”
“Three of them?”
“I should have stopped them. I didn’t do anything. I should have. I’ve been mad at myself ever since.”
He put his arm around me again, shifting his weight and shoulders to make himself more comfortable. “You know, I think you could have stopped them. You have a presence, a dignity, a charisma maybe. Hard to put a name to it, but it’s there. Very unusual for someone your age to project that. People listen to you, respect you. That’s a very valuable quality. When you get mad, it’s even more apparent. You don’t rant and rave, wave your arms, nothing like that. You show it in your face, your body language.”
“So, I should have confronted them?”
“That’s for anyone in that situation to decide at the time. It’s complicated, and it’s not an easy question to answer. Most people don’t get involved. I’d like to think they regret it afterwards. Some probably do. What I can say is, every time you see a wrong being done and you walk away from it, letting it go unaddressed, you lose just a little self-respect. Your self-respect is one of the most important things you have.”
I was to remember that conversation for a long time afterwards.
I was feeling the stirrings of that confrontational mood as I walked up and stood by Mr. Tolliver’s desk. I didn’t like what had happened, and I didn’t like being held behind to talk to him. What I wanted more than anything was a low-key profile at this school. I wanted to walk under the radar as much as possible. What Mr. Tolliver had done was wrong and unfair. It was the sort of thing that I should have been able to accept easily enough, and with time I would have. First, though, I was there facing Mr. Tolliver again.
He was still sitting on the front edge of his desk. I was 14, but I came from a family of large males; not that I was that large for a high-school student, but I was larger than most kids my age. I was tall, and my head was above that of Mr. Tolliver as he remained perched on his desk. I was probably as tall as he was when he was standing. I walked up and stood an inch or two closer to the man than would have been natural; I was still upset and lost some perspective when that happened. I looked down on Mr. Tolliver, and spoke before the man could. My voice was harder than when I’d spoken in class earlier.
“Sir, I don’t understand what happened in here today. I’d like an explanation.”
“An explanation?” There was something in the man’s voice I didn’t expect. Considering it later, I realized what I’d heard was humor. Here I was, confronting the man, invading his space, looming over him, and he was entirely at ease, and he even found the situation funny.
I took a step back. But I didn’t respond to the man’s question. I simply looked at him.
When Mr. Tolliver saw that I wasn’t going to speak, that in fact my silence was speaking for me, he grinned. “Okay, fair enough. Yes, you’re right. I wasn’t entirely fair to you. I did make you speak a little more than the others in front of the class, and that can be intimidating for a freshman. I had a reason for it. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what it was; give it some thought and you’ll understand. I hear that you’re very smart. But, I’ll give you a hint. I know more about you now than I did before.”
I frowned, confused. “How did you know anything at all about me before?”
“I made it my business to know. I needed to. Look, you’ll learn this soon enough, so there’s no point in not telling you now. I’ve been asked to coach the football team this year. I’ve heard about you, you and Jake Ashbury, from the position coaches. Everything I’ve heard has been good. Better than good for a kid your age playing with a bunch of mostly upperclassmen. But you haven’t had any scrimmages yet. Those start after school tomorrow. I’ll be there tonight for the official first team practice with school in session. We’ll start putting in plays, separating offense and defense, assigning positions and building a depth chart. I’ll be running things. You and I, we’re going to get to know one another. I began that a little early today.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but Mr. Tolliver interrupted before I could say a word. “I’ve been helping the local college team. I had agreed to do that before I was offered the head-coaching job here, and I honored that commitment. That’s why I haven’t been there. But, I’ll see you after school. Now, you’d better scoot. You have three minutes to get to your next class, and Mrs. Stevenson doesn’t like football players. She won’t cut you any slack.”
I made it with seconds to spare, earning a glower from Mrs. Stevenson but nothing else. I was glad of that; I didn’t want two conflicts with teachers on my first morning as a freshman.
I remember that first class and meeting Mr. Tolliver with surprising clarity. The emotions I’d felt come back. The unfairness I’d felt being spoken about in front of a class of strangers; being made to respond; how I’d reacted to stopping to speak to him after class.
I’d spent four years with Mr. Tolliver and never really knew him well. The man was complicated, complex. But I learned a lot from him. Of that, there was no doubt. Some of it was not what he set out to teach me, but isn’t that often the case with the adults in a kid’s life?
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My thanks as usual for the work my editors put in pinching and punching this story into shape. A special word of thanks to Colin for supplying the artwork and supplementary material.