Junior High School ended with teary goodbyes. Snotty noses and group hugs with big promises to see each other as often as we could. And we meant every word. But what we couldn’t understand at fourteen-years-old, was how high school changes everything.
I grew up in West Valley City. The west side of Salt Lake City, Utah, the underprivileged side of town. But I didn’t know it was the poor side until I got to high school.
When I was only five years old, the seven of us maxed out our two bedroom Tudor style house on the hill in the east, and traded up (or down) for a four bedroom, two living room house down in the valley in a new up and coming suburb. The west side grew very fast. We had three elementary schools that fed into two junior high schools that feed into one high school. Granger High School, where we were all meant to end up.
In the middle of ninth grade, some of us ‘west siders’ had a lifeline thrown at us, well that’s how I saw it anyway. We had a choice of two high schools, Skyline or Granger. Skyline had very low student numbers and fearful the school would close down, they offered to bus kids from the overcrowded westside up to the east side of town—the Westside Greasers vs the Eastside Socs (ok a little dramatic but The Outsiders is one of my all-time favorite books. Haven’t read it? Do yourself a favour and go to the library today, right now! Go!)
Granger High School was where my older siblings went and where I was destined to go, however, something inside me wanted more.
I had been to elementary school and junior high with the same lot of people and a change of scenery seemed refreshing. Skyline High School was up on the hill, on the rich side of town and it came with its own risks. A lot of westside students choose to take up the opportunity, but by the time the first day of school came around, only a handful of my friends stayed with their choice.
I had been nervous about high school all summer but the week before school started, the stories started floating around. ‘Don’t tell them where you live or they will flush your head down the toilet and give you a swirly!’ The same stupid untrue rumors that still float around the halls today, 30 years later.
I woke up early on my first day of high school. I walked down the road to my stop and a few mins later the school bus rounded the corner. With only a handful of us on board, the loose parts rattled and echoed in the emptiness as the driver drove to the on-ramp of the freeway. This was the first time I had ever been on a school bus on the freeway, it seemed completely wrong. Forty minutes later we pulled into what looked like a used car lot of prestigious cars. It was full of Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Saabs and Alfa Romeos. My heart raced with fear and doubt settled into the empty space of the bus around us. Its potency almost making my eyes water.
We stopped right in the front of the school, right in the front! Horrified we quickly filed out, our covers blown. I thought about what my hair would look like after a swirly. With brand new backpacks full of new folders, notebooks and pens we found our lockers. Before the first bell rang, we split up with maps in hand, searching for our first-period.
“Good luck”, we said. “See you at lunchtime.”
When I finally found my first classroom, several students had already taken their seats quietly waiting for the teacher. Not wanting to be in the wrong room I stood in the doorway, double checked my schedule and looked again at the classroom number high above the door.
Without even thinking I blurted out, “Is this Sophomore English?” Startling everyone. One person said, “yes, I think so” rechecking their own schedule.
“Good,” I said confidently as I walked into the room, “because I don’t want to be in the wrong class.”
You could feel the tension in the room loosen and let out a sigh. Some students shifted in their seats as they chuckled. With the room a bit more relaxed, I took my seat next to a boy who was smiling and seemed nice. He was short, had straight light hair and wore a blue sweater. His name was Greg and in an instant we became friends.
Greg was from the east side and had every reason to be at this school, whereas I was a total fraud. He had the right to be confident, secure and assured, whereas I had none. Looking back on this day, it’s funny knowing now how nervous we all were for different reasons. But it was the first day of High School and so I faked it. I acted as though I had the same right as anyone else to be there (and of course I did, but I didn’t know that). I think this is where I learned to hide my insecurities with outspokenness.
I was one of five and my parents were divorced when I was eight. Divorce happened but it was not as common as it is today. We lived with my mom barely scraping by financially. My dad cried poor and only paid child support a few times. He called it ‘The Dead Horse’, he was paying for the horse he never had (my dad was a cowboy, the city kind though. He wore all the right stuff, cowboy hat, bolo tie, big belt buckle, but never really rode a bull. We loved him for all he was). We learned how to care for ourselves. When my mom was not at work earning a living for us, she spent nights and weekends behind her closed bedroom door dealing with stuff none of us kids understood.
Us three younger kids were feeding ourselves before we knew how to cook. Bread was our friend. I would ball up a slice of bread and pretend it was an apple. I would roll out a piece of bread like dough using the tiny kitchen utensils from our hand-me-down Easy Bake Oven. I would cut tiny cookies out of it, put it on a tiny plate and serve it to my younger brother and sister. My little brother’s preference was to take a bite from the middle of a slice, then peek his eye through the hole. My little sister liked to sit the piece of bread on the back of her hand and take little bites all the way around the bread. She could make it perfectly round right down to the last little bite. It wasn’t until I learned how to cook that I finally did #2s without any pain (seriously, no joke. It took me ages to push out a poo. Too much information? Sorry.)
Greg had a hard-working father and a mother who was home to ask how his day was. He came from a family that loved each other His mother made him a lunch every day and often with a little note. His family had a roast dinner together every Sunday. He had his own room, a mother who would randomly buy him something she thought he would like and it would be sitting on his bed when he came home from school. She would also pick up his dirty clothes off his bedroom floor and wash them. He was loved. He was one of five but never doubted his place in his family or in this world. That’s when I first saw a real family caring for each other outside of Brady Bunch reruns.
When the six of us met back at lunchtime, there were three that already changed their minds about the school. As the last three standing, we eventually met other west-siders who didn’t catch the bus and soon we started carpooling with them. None of us wanted to take the bus.
I can’t even remember if I told Greg I was from the westside or if it was the ‘Skyliner’ that gave it away but it seemed to never be a concern for him. The ‘Skyliner’ was an address book with every student’s name, address and home number in it. You couldn’t hide who you were and we stopped trying. We were what we were. Of course, there were some who were ‘too good for us’ but we got to know the people worthy of our friendship and we found comfort in that. We lost friends but gained many more. We learned how to be ourselves and discovered the world had a place for everyone.
So I did my best to blend in. I was friendly, paid attention in class and learned what I could. I tried out for the pep club (Cheer squad) with my westie friends and we made it! This was good for our confidence levels and we made some great friends from it. Friends that got to know us for us and not what zip code we lived in. I was proud that I had the confidence to do something brave and take a path less traveled.
Greg became one of my very best friends and we remained super close all through high school. His friends didn’t mix with my friends and I never got invited to the same parties but he taught me a lot about friendship and what it means to be a true friend.
Feature photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash