Fifty years ago this month, that being June 1971, I graduated from Pelham Memorial High School. I still can recall those last days of high school. I remember cleaning out both my gym and regular lockers. There was the ordeal of returning school lent textbooks and library books. However, what I remember most was experiencing a powerful feeling of something ending. I had been in the same building, that back then housed both junior high school and the high school, for six years. Looking around the halls those last days and seeing the classrooms lined up brought back memories of teachers, classes, tests, study halls, yes some detentions, and other school activities such as late play rehearsals.
Walking through the hot non-air conditioned gyms to get to the senior boys locker room was weird. The lights were low and the echoing sound of each step personified the emptiness of this usually active space of competition. Now it was no longer going to be a part of my future life. But truth be told, I was exhilarated to be finally getting out of this place and getting on with the rest of my life, and at that time, I had no clue of the exhilarations, the disappointments, the tragedies, and the occasional luck and good fortunes that would make up my lifetime after high school.
Half a century later, I still can hear the bells, ringing to change classes. Sadly at sixty-something, we start losing friends who we grew up with, whose smiles we see in our minds when we hear their names. In the last decade, social media has given many the opportunity to find out what so many former classmates did with their lives. I enjoy that part of Facebook, the part of seeing the families of classmates from grammar school to high school.
Of course, I have distinctive memories of my senior prom, the next day traditional unofficial trip as a class to Jones Beach, followed by the graduation ceremony. Back then it was always indoors, in a very hot enjoined junior boys and girls gym with rows of steel folding chairs filled with proud parents and graduating students all sweating in 90-degree heat. Again, no air-conditioning in that school except in the main office. On very hot days being sent to the main office to deliver a message for a teacher was a respite from sweating in a classroom. On my last days, I remember sitting in classrooms with teachers wishing us well as no breezes came through the open unscreened windows.
Yes, walking out on the very last day while getting classmates and teachers to sign my yearbook had a feeling of finality. I still have that yearbook and my high school diploma not more than a few feet from me as I write this piece, as well as many others I have composed at this desk in my basement office over the years. I laugh when I see how small my high school diploma is compared to my college one hanging next to it, symbolic I suppose.
It was strange years later when both of my girls attended Pelham Memorial High School and I had to go to parent-teacher conferences, plays, and things parents attend. The halls seemed smaller, as did the classrooms, but the smell in the hallways never changes. They must use the same cleaner in every high school in the U.S.A. because when I was a substitute teacher at East Hampton High School and Southampton High School there was always that same scent.
I can still recall my favorite teachers, classes, and high school sports moments. They stay in my mind and pop up when something today reminds me of those yesterdays. As time marches on, so does the process of schooling and going through those grades that end with a 12. When you graduate high school your whole world changes, your social patterns, friendships, and lifestyle. My last memory of my senior year was walking out the front door with all sorts of books, notebooks, and my gym stuff, two combination locks and a big smile. It wasn’t quite like being released from a prison, but it was a feeling of being let go.