Authors: Luke Loaghan
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
by Luke Loaghan
Copyright 2012 Luke Loaghan,
All rights reserved.
Published in eBook format by eBookIt.com
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The more you reach, the more it pulls away. The universe contracts and strips away everything you have left. Happiness can come as close as a finger tip away, as near as a glance, or as far as a single breath can travel. I had nothing left to lose, and yet, I still lost everything. The night of the prom remains the single worst night of my entire life.
Where did I go wrong? How did I end up here? It is twenty years later, and I am the antithesis of who I intended to be. I had a plan. I had a future. I had so many things going my way. Now I’m just another person obsessed with high school, wishing that I could go back and do things differently, make better decisions, better choices. I am still haunted by my senior year of high school.
My senior year started out ordinary. I was a regular kid with normal ambitions, with aspirations of college and a career and so much more. Everyone experiences stress and pressure in their lives, and sometimes more so during their last year of high school. I had the normal pressure, the normal work load, and the usual decisions that had to be made. But it all became very complicated, very quickly. We all make mistakes; we all have regrets. Time has given me new perspective, but nothing has changed, and nothing ever will.
It was such a crazy time to be in high school. Everything changed that year; music, technology, the way we talked, the way we dressed, the way we saw the world. The world always changes for kids graduating high school. I think about my teachers; I think about my friends, and the choices I made, the people I knew, and of course, I think about her…all the time.
I could not attend my reunion this year; it’s hard to believe that twenty years has passed. It’s hard to believe that all of this happened so long ago and yet the memory is fresh; the wounds are unhealed; and for me, the bleeding never stopped.
It all seems like a myth, like a dream, like a story that is a reflection in a mirror.
Some say that they can leave high school without regrets, just like I tried to do. Go ahead and avoid your destiny.
It was the beginning of senior year, and there were only ten months to go until I could really begin living my life. Only ten months until I was out of high school, out of my house, and moving on to bigger and better things. I had hoped to leave New York City behind and never look back. I was seventeen, and practically an adult, though only in my eyes, and definitely not in my father’s eyes.
That past summer, I had a job at a bar in the city, but for one month. There just weren’t many summer jobs available. It was the end of the 1980’s, the local economy was awful; the country was in a recession, and most businesses did not hire for the summer. The housing market had crashed two years ago, and foreclosures were abundant. Instead of making money and saving for upcoming senior year expenses, I spent a month at home with Harry, my younger brother by one year. I studied for the SATs with books I borrowed from the library. And as usual, I practiced my musical skills.
I felt privileged and fortunate to attend Stanton High School. Our principal, Mr. Mash, instilled in us that we were the chosen few, the diamonds in the rough. Nearly a million students in New York City attend their local neighborhood high schools, but the best of the best attend Stanton in downtown Brooklyn.
Admission to Stanton required passing a rigorous entrance exam and obtaining letters of recommendation from the principals and teachers of our middle schools. The admission process filters out the academically weak and creates a highly competitive environment. Stanton had a one hundred percent graduation rate, and a ninety-nine percent college acceptance rate. One percent of the graduates go to the military. By military, I am referring to West Point or Annapolis. Stanton was unique for a public high school. One thousand students gain admittance into the freshman program annually. By senior year, the attrition process whittles the graduating class to about seven hundred students.
There was an exceptionally high statistic at Stanton – the number of student deaths. The suicide rate in particular was the highest of all high schools. There have consistently been nine deaths in every senior class. Stanton students are like eggs boiling in a pot. Sometimes the heat can cause an egg to crack.
Mr. Mash, a Stanton alumnus, was very proud of the school. Mash was of stocky build, and waddled when he walked. He wore old tweed jackets with elbow pads, wrinkled oxford shirts, pilled sweater vests, argyle cardigans, and worn out penny loafer shoes. He had white hair, longer than traditional length, that he wore brushed straight back down to the nape of his neck. He was most easily recognizable for two features: his glasses, which always rested midway down his nose, and his long gray eyebrows that protruded in opposite directions. Mash’s official title was Principal, but he looked more like a private boarding school head master from the last century. Students often referred to him as the Head Masher.
Mash was the most gregarious principal that anyone could ever meet. He was well known for standing in the lobby of Stanton’s beige, twelve-story brick building, and talking to students as they entered in the morning; although, it could have been better described as barking rather than talking to students. Mash would point out the school’s hall of fame wall, in the main corridor on the first floor. The most famous and notable of Stanton’s alumni were photographed, framed, and mounted on this wall, along with their graduation year and notable career achievements.
“Look at these photos!” Mash would shout with much exuberance as students entered the building. “Look at this great and stupendous hall of fame. Scientists, Nobel Prize winners, chief executives, the world’s greatest engineers, captains of industry, and published authors…” Mash would often lean into a student, usually some unsuspecting freshman, look him or her in the eyes, and ask, “Will you be on this hall of fame one day? Will you be in our Canyon of Heroes?”
Mash knew most of the students by name, that is, if they were ranked in the top of their classes. Mash would seek out these elite students and get to know them, sometimes giving them public accolades, which were highly sought after by all students. He managed Stanton like he was captain of a large sea vessel. It was his way or the plank.
Some kids and teachers couldn’t take the workload or the mental stress. But the board of education never responded to complaints about Mr. Mash from students, parents, or teachers. In other schools principals get tenured, but at Stanton, Mr. Mash was fixtured into the school; brick by brick, limb by limb. Although a senior citizen, he had no intentions of retiring and demonstrated no signs of slowing down. Mash tried to make arrangements to be buried on school grounds, but was denied by the mayor of New York (who, incidentally, flunked out of Stanton many years previously.) The rumor circulating back then was that upon his demise, he was going to be cremated in the school’s furnace, thereby granting him unprecedented permanent access to the infrastructure of the landmark Stanton building.
Mash sometimes slept in the school, and showered and dressed there as well. There was nowhere else he would rather be. As for a wife or children, Mash was married to his job, and the thousands of students at Stanton were his children. When it came down to dedication, to duty, Mash was second to none. Mr. Chronus Mash was a titan amongst educators.
The students of Stanton spoke various languages, representing the melting pot of the five boroughs of New York City. Stanton sold academic prep books and materials needed for science and engineering classes. These books, tools, and materials were not cheap. Many students were enrolled in private study classes offered by the school, and needed money to pay for these classes.
The official school day at Stanton began at eight in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon. However, seventy percent of the student body was already in the building at seven a.m. when the prodigious steel doors opened. We were there for early morning cramming, and many of us stayed for activities well past six p.m. An eleven hour unofficial school day was the norm. If you didn’t spend at least eleven hours in school, a school official might ask if you were taking it easy or enjoying a half day.
I had learned to study on the subways and while eating dinner. Sometimes I even studied while taking a shower. I studied while walking from the subway to the school and in the hallways and stairs from class to class. I learned to live with just a few hours of sleep. I was a very good student, and could’ve been valedictorian at any other high school, but for all my Herculean efforts, I ranked nearly three hundredth in the senior class. Why was I unable to break into the top three hundred? The answer laid in the minutest of numbers. All that separated me from being in the top three hundred was a two point increase in my overall grade point average. The way I saw it, if someone missed an exam, I would move up. If someone committed suicide or suffered an unfortunate nervous breakdown, which happened more often than one might expect, then I would also move up in the rankings.
Every day that I went to school I studied hard, prayed for luck, and tried to spot the next kid heading to Belleview Mental Hospital. Sometimes I would glance out of a window during class and see a padded wagon, and know that my stock was rising. I wasn’t cold or callous, just indifferent. If it was me heading to Belleview by chauffeur, at least ten of my rivals would sleep better that night. Stanton was a very competitive school.
Test papers at Stanton were returned in descending order. The test scores and respective student names were announced by teachers. This was the case for every teacher, in every class; it was required by Mr. Mash. Public humiliation was a way of motivating students not only to do better, but also to go to another high school. When I was a sophomore, I received my test results at the top of the heap. But during junior year, I started receiving scores in the middle of the distribution. This was considered average at Stanton. I didn’t score below a 90 on any test that year.
Names, grade point averages, and rankings were on full display, from top to bottom outside the principal’s office. Mr. Mash made it a point to update the list every Monday morning. Exaggerating your rank was futile.
Stanton is the greatest public high school in the State of New York, and perhaps in the entire country. But if one wanted a Stanton education, one had to risk going to school in the most dangerous neighborhood in all of New York. In the 1980’s New York City was the murder capital of the world. Street gangs, drug dealers, robbers, muggers, and other nefarious creatures, were in control of the streets. Overcrowded housing projects surrounded the school, as well as a half-way house for the recently incarcerated. It was like going to school in a war torn city, like Beirut or Saigon. A Stanton education did not cost money, but it wasn’t free. Students came from Staten Island and the Bronx, and the outer parts of Queens. They came from Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a few even tried to sneak in from New Jersey. Most students commuted an hour and others as much as two hours. We risked our money and our lives for a Stanton education. There were students that came from far away nations like China, Russia, and India. Stanton produced more future doctors, engineers, and scientists than any other high school. It was a factory, a high pressure laboratory, and a competitive school for only the brightest students with the greatest mental faculties.
One learns the hard way about Stanton’s competitive environment. My fellow students were ruthless. In past years, castor oil was dumped in the food at lunch, causing hundreds of students to get diarrhea on important exam days. (It was official Stanton policy that make up exams were not allowed.) Book reports and final papers had been stolen from lockers, resulting in lower grades for missed assignments. I’d seen unattended backpacks become the object of arson. Pages from important text books and library books were often ripped out, resulting in incomplete studying. Tests had been stolen from teachers’ bags and from their homes late at night. These occupational hazards, compounded by the normal stress that came with being a teenager, caused students to crack, to break down mentally, to lose their minds. There was a direct correlation between a student’s ranking and their likelihood to have emotional problems.