One facet of returning to Boston after half my life away is dealing with the demons of High School. Not just my demons but those of my friends from my home town. Things we didn’t talk about then are now part of the conversations. The emotional irritants from 1986 have been encapsulated in enough mother of pearl to be taken out and admired in the light. As technology increases the frequency of re-acquaintance, old names and faces trip old traps. The strong and confident find themselves in tears over a snub two decades passed. Anger long since packed away in the attic is extracted, unfolded, and ignites upon exposure to fresh air.
When we were expecting our son, my wife and I read many books. One phrase that stood out is ontology recapitulates phylogeny. In simpler language, an embryo passes through all the stages of evolution before it becomes a baby. All those previous steps are incorporated into the nascent human. But evolution didn’t stop with human infancy. Dr Karp suggests we should think of toddlers as cavemen not yet ready to comprehend full language. Is the teenager then still carrying around the same set of energy and impulses as we needed when we were in the trees? As adults, we have built on what we were as children and teens. We’ve incorporated it into our adult selves. Have we grown from our pains or just grown around them? Nietzsche promised us to grow stronger from a non fatal encounters, but was that may have just been the optimistic aspiration of a man in extreme pain.
Like Robert Frosts swinger of birches, I have gone away and come back. My arc described not just a removal from earth, although I have spent a good deal of time looking down at earth from high up on a cliff side, but also a removal from the society in which I first developed. I can’t claim to any great insights to any development but, maybe, my own. It is not that I have grown beyond who I was in 1989, but that I’ve gotten a sense of how that boy fits inside the man I am now.
Stoughton. Mention of the name of my home town now evokes a common response: Ikea. Yes, the great blue behemoth sits in the center of the woods that we dubbed Sasquatch Territory many years ago. The name came from the trees bent, like Frost’s Birches, from an ice storm, that an older brother in the neighborhood would rather have ascribe to the attentions of a descendant of some sibling branch of our phylogeny. The naming was inspired, no doubt, by the most popular of episode from the Six Million Dollar man. Those woods were our playground, our battle grounds, where we built dams and dug for old railroad spikes. The benefit of living with such great woods behind our houses came at the cost of being removed from the center of action, around the North Elementary School, where the tighter knit subdivisions lead to the forming of alliances that would play out on the school grounds and classrooms. Four of us from the edge of Stoughton had the combination of nurture and nature to succeed in Stoughton’s Academic environment. A Catholic, a Korean Buddhist, and a Unitarian, and me, the Jew, somehow survived and succeeded, at least academically.
Stoughton is proud of its blue-collar roots. Drinking and smoking were normal part of teen culture, as was a moderate degree of drug use. We lost a few kids to driving accidents, most notably for me one of my older sisters boyfriends. There was social ostracism, taunting, bullying, and fights. The latter were often started with our version of a thrown gauntlet, the phrase “meet you at the tracks”. We even have our own minstral, singing in much more evocative terms than I ever could. My sister’s friend Lori Gerow grew up and married into the name Lori McKenna. How a girl from a school that prized speed metal above all grew up to be a country/folk star is just the sort of irony that you might expect from a town that is caught on the edge of the Boston Metrosprawl: not quite farm country anymore, but not quite the city.
There are many stories triggered by this reminiscence, but they don’t really address the matter at hand. My demons from this part of my life are domesticated beasts who now rarely ruin the carpet or chew my slippers. I faced them later in life, when they were the members of a larger pack that briefly overwhelmed me. That time brought deep introspection and a truce that has held. Nec Stoughtonia Terrent. High School Ended for me in 1989. Between there and here is a long journey. But my connection with these friends, the commonality of experience ended then, too. After that, Stoughton was a place visited for a Week during Christmas or Summer in between Training and Education. After my folks sold their place on Larson Road, I didn’t have any excuse to go back, and lots of other demands on my vacation time. So to connect with people I knew back then, I refer to events of two decades hence. But what to do when the responses bring forth such vehemence? Stoughton wasn’t nearly the worst thing I’ve faced in my life. I can’t claim I would have chosen that as my upbringing, or that there are not major steps there I would have changed, but I don’t hate the place, not by any stretch.
One common theme though is a sense that we really didn’t know each other back then. Certainly the divide along gender lines was quite strict amongst us, the geeks. There might a be a strong friendships that crossed lines, but they were ones and twos. My friends were mostly guys. Girls in class were fearsome things, more likely to laugh at you then to respond kindly to an approach. My early relationships happened during transitions: summers, trips. Even crushes were reserved for girls outside my classes, girls who wouldn’t have seen the ass I made of myself by talking too much during a class I had prepared for too little. I don’t know if a 13 year old boy and girl can be just friends. Certainly it is a chemically unstable situation, too prone to slip on one side or the other into obsession or rejection. Some of the girls in the classes were caustic . Some unconscious action of mine would bring derision, a sneer of contempt and add another layer of shellac to my shell of isolation. It didn’t keep me from speaking up to the teacher, to challenging the pedagogy, but is kept my attention focused on the front of the classroom. Another girl from these days remain fixed in my mind with a perpetually startled expression, mortified of the least attention. An essay read aloud in English class would periodically cast a brief spotlight into the mind of one of these foreign entities.
There are a few things I got from Stoughton that I might not have if I had grown up elsewhere. It was far enough from the city that there were still large tracts of woods. Both houses I lived in backed up to stretches of woods large enough that I never fully explored them. I loved the freedom and relative safety I had of wandering free in the woods, a freedom that my Brookline raised son will not be ableto enjoy without travel. Stoughton was a small enough town that we knew, if not everyone, than the majority. Rare is the member of my graduatin class whose name does not evoke some small memory. I remember my teachers, knew the principals. My folks and my friends parents were involved in town meeting and in social issues that affected our town. If I was left behind by the organized sports collectives so popular amongst my peers in elementary school (Soccer, Baseball) the music department and High School Wrestling team made up for it. The honors program challenged me enough to get me engavged, but was not so competative that it stifled anything other than the superstars.
Today Stoughton is more memory to me than reality. I cheered to hear that we won the football game on Thaksgiving against tradition rival of Canton, but didn’t go to watch the game. Few of the teachers that taught me are still employed in the system, far more have retired. My friends no longer live there: those that stayed in the area have migrated to surrounding towns, or, like me, have been drawn in to the city. Periodic epsidoes involving Ikea aside, the greatest draw of Stoughton remains the staple of our diet from adolescence: Town Spa Pizza.