I graduated from high school almost thirty-seven years ago. Thirty-seven years. Four hundred forty-four months. A little over 13,500 days. There was a time when I couldn’t even imagine being thirty-seven years old, but here I am with just a little less than six decades of living under my belt, and I’ve been out of high school for thirty-seven years. If I repeat the number enough, it might seem smaller – “thirty-seven, thirty-seven, thirty-seven.”
I’ve known my friend Marty for almost 40 years – we were teammates on our high school track team. Marty’s mother was a sweet soul, and she was a wizard with a Super-8 camera. I’m not sure how she did it, but at every major track meet and school event, she was there with her camera, not only capturing Marty’s successes and antics, but documenting the high school careers of dozens of Marty’s friends. I am fortunate to have been the occasional subject of her wizardry, although she always seemed to favor the few times that Marty beat me in head-to-head competition, and miss all the hundreds of times when I beat him (the nice thing about memory is that it requires neither accuracy nor honesty – the truth is, Marty was usually faster than me, although it’s taken me 40 years to admit it).
Marty is the owner of a treasure trove from our joint past – the collection of Super-8 movies that he and his mother crafted together. Marty obviously inherited some of her artistic wizardry, because he digitized some of these films and set them to music, and he periodically shares them and takes his classmates on a journey four decades into the past. He has just done this with the film of our high school graduation from Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Maryland, in the late spring of 1980. Thirty-seven years ago.
I don’t often travel back there – it was not my best time, and although my memories no longer torment me, they’re not quite harmless, either. Marty and his mom are wonderful traveling companions, though, and the places I visit with them are happy.
I hardly remember what it was like to look at the world through seventeen-year old eyes. I look at the grainy images of myself and I want to warn that stupid kid about what lies ahead, to keep him from making the mistakes that lie in his future, to avoid hurting the ones he loves, to sidestep inexperience, bad choices, bad luck.
I want to tell him that, regardless of what he thinks he’s already survived, life has more in store. I want to advise him to keep his eyes open and learn all he can, because he has work to do. I want to let him know that anniversary gifts shouldn’t have power cords; “sparkly” is better. I want to tell him which doors to open and which to leave closed, which battles to fight and when to retreat, and that nothing really matters unless it’s your family, your friends, or your faith.
I want him to know the wonders he’ll see; the midnight sun and the aurora borealis, the blaze of a rocket launch and the fire of a reentering Space Shuttle, the horizon from the cockpit of a military jet after the instructor steps out and says, “don’t bend my plane,” the night sky over the desert when you have work still to do and secrets to keep.
I wish I could tell him about the face of his beloved wife, illuminated by firelight. I want him to know that both his children will be beautiful, regardless of how they will look to him in the delivery room. I want to ease his fears that he will be like his father – he won’t. I want him to be sure his children will survive his mistakes and thrive – they will.
I’d be keeping him from becoming who he should be if I told him any of these things, though. He’ll live through it all. He’ll tell his own kids someday, “adversity builds character” but he won’t tell them until later that he heard it from Calvin’s dad in the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip before he learned it himself. It’s hard to believe the grinning kid with the Farrah Fawcett hair was me, but Marty doesn’t lie.
Except maybe about how often he beat me in competition. C’mon, I won a couple of races, didn’t I? I’ll remember it that way – thanks for the trip on the Unger Wayback Machine, Marty. I’ll always remember your mom and her camera.