There are definitely moments from my school days I could happily forget: woodwork, piss splash, Mr Kollar, the walkathon, the certificate I received on assembly for ‘letting my poetic juices flow’. Throwing out the certificate in an act of faux detachment and then crying about it later.
You can trace the slump in my participation in extracurricular activities over the eight years that I spent at that school. There was a time when I was a library monitor, sang in the choir, ran around in a soccer uniform, was in Tournament of Minds, debated, worked on the school paper and played violin in the string band. Debating and soccer were the only two I took with me from primary school to secondary. By grade ten, even these had fallen away.
But despite the awkward adolescence and what might have appeared to be a total lack of school spirit, I loved school. Even when I complained about. Even when I took sick days when my best friend was taking a sick day, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the place alone. I think it’s the relationship that everybody has with high school. You feel like it’s an oppressive, inescapable environment and so you rebel by having the best time of your life.
On the eve of my first day of grade twelve, I accidentally dropped a 5kg weight on my toe. My mother thought the toe was broken, and I wept because I thought I would miss that pivotal first day and because my toe hurt like a cunt. By then, I’d been living school like it was an extended episode of Glee. I became one of those seniors who announced things like ‘Today’s our last first day of Term Two!’ and then hugged you. I wanted to be in the yearbook again outside of my class photo — and this time not as ‘Tom’ McGuire. I wanted it to be the best year of my life.
And it was.
I made 2008 my bitch. I topped half of my classes, including Chinese, having stolen the award out from under the chopsticks of my rival Ramon Chan. I swam in the swimming carnival for the first time in years, instead of just showering in the change rooms so that it looked like I’d been in the pool. I spoke to the students I’d never spoken to, revealed my updated sexuality in the middle of a drama performance, told my favourite teachers to keep in touch and watched my least favourite one fall down a flight of stairs. Our QCS tests came and went, or OWLs as we called them, and then the formal and then graduation and then we were gone.
Every two years, my school and its sister one put on a musical. This year it was Grease and my friends and I bought tickets. Mostly I wanted to go so I could point out all the reasons why Grease wasn’t as good as the school’s 2008 production of The Wiz (I was Uncle Henry) but also I really wanted to walk around the grounds again. The friends I went with were from the sister school and so they weren’t familiar with the campus, but I was more than willing to act as guide.
We entered my alma mater from its back gate because from there you just follow the main driveway around to the theatre. Halfway along the driveway, the one that looped the entire school and that the seniors had lapped every year on their last day for the eight years that I’d been there, I stopped. In front of us was a building I’d never seen before, larger than any other on one campus.
The girls asked me which way to go and I didn’t say anything. I was looking around for the primary school office, for the groundskeeper’s workstation, for the priory, for all the things that should have been where we were. But they’d been demolished. Instead there was just this huge, impassable structure with new, smaller buildings around it. One of the smaller buildings said ‘Tuckshop’ which was unsettling because the tuckshop was supposed to be on the other side of the school.
I felt like a stranger, a visitor, like someone who had never set foot in the place, instead of someone who had played tigi in this exact spot a hundred times, and run the senior’s lap, and dropped my textbooks and been shat on by crows and made friends between classes and run from the groundskeepers and chased after tennis balls.
Eventually I got over it. In fact, I got over it as soon as Grease started and Danny said to Sandy halfway through their conversation ‘Anyway I better go, I’m in the middle of a race’. I had been stupid to think that walking around the campus would feel the same as it did as when I was in school. But I knew that if going back in time was as easy as going back to a place then everybody would do it. I would, and I’d tell myself to keep my poetry certificate.