Everyone should be so lucky as to have their high school demolished. It gives a timeless place an obituary, neatly summing up the most formative moment of your life.
I grew up on a John Hughes film set in North Carolina. The tallest structure in town, the water tower, declared Apex “the PEAK of good living” (caps theirs). My freshman year overlapped with the height of suburban sprawl, in 1994, the same year the state chamber of commerce dubbed Apex the No. 1 small town in North Carolina. National Geographic called the area “a futuristic Pleasantville ” — Martha Stewart-brand housing debuted there in 2006 — and Apex, near Raleigh-Durham and Research Triangle Park, routinely popped up on Money magazine’s Best Places to Live, topping the list in 2015 . Apex was smart. Apex was kind. Apex was important. The school was across the street from a Bojangles’, which any self-respecting Southerner will tell you is a big deal — although you couldn’t go in the mornings, because it was too smoke-filled from the hog and tobacco farmers.
Back then, the Internet was still called cyberspace. We had CDs that cost only a penny, but no cellphones. (Instead of texting, we’d call collect and rattle off the whole message in the space where the operator let you say the name of who was calling: “You have a collect call from Momitsmeimatthemovietheatercomegetme.”) We were kids in the way people had always been kids. Our childhoods were not much different from “The Wonder Years,” set in the ’60s, or “Dazed and Confused ,” set in the ’70s, or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” set in the ’80s. It was that perfect adolescent era, acutely P.C. — pre-Columbine.
This was where my parents moved my family when they learned that our previous high school, in the ritzy suburbs of Washington, was the basis for the garish and tawdry “Beverly Hills, 90210 .” Apex’s pastoral moxie, by contrast, would be a finishing school of sorts for this Americanized teen my immigrant parents had on their hands. The town library was a tiny former railroad depot.
Yes, I was closeted back then, but in the best Seven Minutes of Heaven way. I was a mild-mannered honors student with a superpower for clique-jumping. I was a statistician on the track team, lettering three years. I was in a slew of nerdy clubs, and, having earned some good favor by bringing a canister of liquid nitrogen from home, I taught two days of stoichiometry in my sophomore chemistry class, replete with a costume change into a dress shirt, tie and briefcase. I wrote novels and designed SimCities in my spare time. I was in Young Life, didn’t have a first kiss until spring break senior year, ran away from home for two weeks, candidly drank from a thermos of mixed liquors and Dr Pepper, went stag to prom, hired a magician for a teacher’s birthday and told her he was a stripper, and spent lonely, sweaty afternoons performing thankless macarenas in the school’s mascot outfit (go Cougars!). I had all the power of being editor of the yearbook and being elected for two senior-year superlatives, as well as all the humility of being just another villager in the school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and failing every quarter of calculus. A helluva ride.
And this summer it’s all crashing down. Literally. The school is being bulldozed. While the students and faculty move temporarily into another school, the rubble will be cleared and a second iteration will be built wholesale. Fresh Start High. New Leaf High. Do-Over High. Once More With Feeling High. I Do Yoga Now High.
However long we live, whatever we do, high school is the hinge of our lives. Forever afterward, we define ourselves, in ways both blatant and oblique, by how much we’ve grown and changed and moved on from the foggy proto-adults we were in those days. Whichever member of “The Breakfast Club” we identified with, we all grasped, with a creeping awareness, that our future selves would be unrecognizable — physically, emotionally, spiritually, whatever. The 12th grade is certainly different from the second grade, but not on the seismic, quantum level that 25 is different from 15.
As with any ex, our subsequent yoga poses and cooking skills and international travels resonate best when our high school is stuck as we left it. As we blossom our way through cubicles and marriages and 401(k)s, our high school is supposed to stay chaste in a snowglobe of our memories. Our momentum depends in many ways on the stillness of all we have left behind. The audacity, then, of Apex High to move on from me — and from the thousands of graduates since it opened its doors in of 1976. It helps you confront the outsize role high school plays in your life.
Although that role is already one of a chameleon and a con man, more mirage than memory. A school is indifferent to your memories, because it also hosts so many other kids’ memories. No student or alum can define it. And, in fact, students and alumni keep redefining it.
Upon graduation, our most famous alum became — jarringly — a classmate who posed nude in Playboy’s Girls of the ACC that fall. But these days it’s probably either Justin Jedlica (a.k.a. the Human Ken Doll ) or four murderous students from 2008. The school is now routinely home to the state champs in lacrosse, a sport that didn’t exist in North Carolina schools in my day. Do people who have graduated from nearby high schools in all the intervening years think of it as Apricks High, the lacrosse school? The murder school? The school with the butt lift boy? Imagine hearing all the nicknames all your spouse’s exes ever called them.
Burn the boats, the conquistadors of the New World ordered. Don’t torture yourself with the fantasy of going home again, going back to the way things were, escaping into your beforeness in the face of the uncharted territory of all your tomorrows. Agreed. Then-me was zygotic, all potential and flux, and he tried to irradiate me to the world, to help mutate now-me into existence. Then-me was always trying, very trying.
While there are nostalgic locals today who probably deride the destruction of the school as a soulless update— the new sketches look like a Comcast regional distribution center —there is a certain gutsiness to going beyond a renovation. This is the blank slate writ very large. Your high school has reinvented itself. Have you?
College is where Stephen Colbert dropped his T and where Barack Obama doubled down on his black half. Harvard’s Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity gave Mark Zuckerberg a brief new life under the nickname “Slayer.” For many, college is a chance to raze the past and raise the future. Or at least try a dress rehearsal at adulthood. Everything in high school feels like a test, pop quizzes sprung by surprise scenarios — losing virginity, getting a job, or just treading water. We get better at it. We get to get better.
A high school itself, however, like a bunk bed or letter jacket or class ring, is not supposed to age gracefully. Indeed, it’s not supposed to age at all. But year after year of student after student insisting that this is the one true graduation wears upon a place.
There was a recent event for alumni, where Apex High opened for a farewell of sorts on a Sunday afternoon, with free iced tea, blueberry muffins and teachers roaming the halls. (“I’ve been in this classroom since the fall of the Soviet Union,” one teacher reminisced.) It was a strange mix of wedding and funeral — either way, a consecration. I went with a friend, a classmate, who stood in both the spot where she used to wait for her crush and the different spot where he would wait for her. She closed her eyes, inhaled sharply, twirled in her sundress and smiled. “This was the spot.”
The squeak of the gym. The smell of the auditorium. The feel of walking those same halls and bounding up those same stairs. Four years of fingerprints pack a powerful wallop when they hit you all at once. I stopped in my tracks and stared at a desk where I suddenly remembered sitting on Friday, Sept. 23, 1994, and asking classmates in Mrs. Ford’s first-period civics class what they thought of “Friends,” which had debuted the night before. I kept pulling at my shoulders, instinctively tugging phantom backpack straps. The power of place. A walked line, unlike a drawn one, cannot be erased. When I told an older woman that I had overheard she was a cheerleader in the Class of ’76, she corrected me: “Oh, no. I was the head cheerleader.”
Have you been to high school reunions? They are a sloppy trifecta of nostalgia, humblebragging and revenge. My 20-year is this fall. This was not a reunion. It was an event billed, in the spirit of so many cliched proms, as “Back to the Future” — and I realized, in a twist on the film’s mantra, that your past is whatever you make it, so make it a good one. I graduated 20 years ago, but that alumni event is when I moved on — from anxiety and comparison to gratitude and embrace — thanks to one final lesson from the finishing school at the peak of good living.