I found the box in my brother’s attic. I guess somewhere along the way I just assumed it found its way to a garbage can somewhere (possibly a rightful response to leaving my stuff at my brother’s house). I just wasn’t expecting to find it. I’m not certain why I had gone up there in the first place. Regardless of the motive, I found it tucked back deep within the eave where the roof slopes rapidly into the floor. It required a stealthy army crawl along the plywood flooring to avoid the roofing nails protruding through the sheathing above my head but the cost of dusty clothes seemed worth the price. There it was. A white bankers box with the handwritten scribble “My junk.” (How gentle I was in describing my possessions back then.) Though I had packed this box some eight years earlier, I still knew the gist of what I would find. “The gist” it turns out, is not preparation enough. As I swiftly removed the lid, it all hit me. No, not “contents under pressure.” Nostalgia. Though this was most certainly not a memory box since memory boxes are for girls, it was filled to the brim with memories. Trophies from sports. Programs from various ceremonies and events. Newspaper clippings detailing accomplishments. Class pictures of friends. A mug from prom etched with the phrase “I will remember you” along with a plastic crown (regal, I know). Countless other memories, some too embarrassing to mention, in this non-“memory box” box labeled “My junk.”
I don’t know what you remember about high school. I sometimes remember more than I would like to, thanks in part to boxes full of stuff I can’t bring myself to throw out. I remember freezing cold football games and long musical rehearsals, the solitude of study hall and the freedom of leaving campus for lunch with my friends. I remember countless books and tests and A’s and F’s. I remember having my heart broken. I remember losing fifty dollars that I did not have gambling in a friend’s basement. I remember face planting on a sopping wet golf course in the Poconos on Prom weekend. I remember laughing really hard. Sometimes for days. I also remember hurting deeply, sometimes for longer.
For most of us I think the high school years are some of the most confusing. We want so much to be something, to be someone, that we attach ourselves to anything that promises identity. We join teams so we can be a part of something. We study hard so we can get into somewhere. We make friends so we can belong with someone. Belong. We want so desperately just to belong. Mixed with this confusion was an overwhelming sense of fear.
What if I’m not a part of something?
What if I don’t get into somewhere?
What if I don’t belong anywhere?
I remember the fear of not belonging being enough to make an insecure high school student desperate, and desperation is an ugly beast. That beast told me that true belonging would be fully realized if I would just be what everyone wanted me to be. I wasn’t so sure, but the ugly beast assured me it knew best. So I became like a Mr. Potato Head, adding to myself whatever would make me look more human among my peers, minus Mrs. Potato Head’s parts because there has to be a line somewhere.
It’s actually quite surprising what can happen for you when you let the ugly beast guide you. At first you may actually be caught off guard by the words you hear coming out of your own mouth – because you don’t really feel that way about that person and you know mom would not approve of the use of that word, whether as an adjective or a noun. It gets easier and easier, however, as people start moving towards you to see what you might say next, because you’re funny, and they like that. They really like that. And inch by inch, you have earned your way in. You now belong. Well someone belongs…but it’s not really you.
So, on that winter day deep within a frosty attic, a stark reality was brought to light. All of these things I was, I no longer am. Sure there is something to be said about these experiences making me into who I am, but I don’t mean it like that. I’m talking about the way in which a fearful and confused high school boy utterly clung to these things as proof that he was something. I can no longer cling to them. No one in my world cares if I was a lead role in a musical. No one loves me because I was prom king. I can no longer find belonging in that. My world just doesn’t spin that way. It’s like the college student that still hangs out in the high school parking lot in his letterman jacket. At some point, the jacket must come off. These things that I found myself in got lost somewhere along the way between the Christmas decorations and my dad’s collection of Popular Mechanic magazines. In the midst of gold-sprayed plastic and yellowing papers with curled edges, I somehow ended up in a banker’s box in the attic.
And the irony of it all? Some ten years later, it still feels really good to lift that lid sometimes. Maybe not physically like the bankers box in the attic, but you know what I mean. Someone starts talking about football or whatever your thing was and your mind begins thinking how to work in the fact that you were the starting QB for your high school football team or the first who-who for the varsity what-what (extra points if you could not only work it into the conversation, but lead them to ask more). You catch a glimpse of interest and admiration in their tone and, honestly, it’s compelling. So you tell a little more (and exaggerate just a little) and pretty soon, the warm rays of approval are shining down upon your skin. And that’s when you feel it. Belonging. In that moment, you belong.
I mean to take nothing away from you. I love remembering the past (half the reason I can’t throw the box away). There is nothing like sitting around with old friends laughing about the time someone said something to someone at that somewhere. It just brings a smile to my face thinking about it. Certainly we can visit those moments, those days when life was different than it is now…but we cannot live there. I guess what I’m saying is this- if I am not growing…if I am not letting new people and experiences into my life…if I am not setting the past aside and living in this present reality…and I mean really present…than I might as well be in a trophy case in the school gym or in a yearbook on the bookshelf or in a white banker’s box deep within my brother’s attic.