What My Friend Joe Taught Me

To this day I still have the high school nightmare.  It’s a simple dream.  There I am back in Hopewell Valley Central High, rounding the corner past the cafeteria and on up the ramp to where my locker used to be.  The halls are empty except for me and this thick feeling of dread.  Anxious waves in my stomach and my lips are dry.

I’m casting about for the source of my unease.  It can’t be that I’m late: Mr. Brennan was the greatest homeroom teacher ever and never marked us late.  It might be that I can see the open door to the French classroom and, “Je ne parle pas français.”  But I was always a good student, so I know it’s not academics that have me on edge.

Then it hits me.  I’m in a high school.  And in that iconic American corral the amplification of teenage hormones and painful coming of age stories has, over the years, imbued the very bricks and metal lockers with a nervous, hyper self-conscious vibration.

At this point in the dream, I tend to remember that I am no longer a girl of sixteen, but a grown woman of thirty-nine with two children of my own.  This knowledge is always exhilarating.  Liberation soars through my veins and I rush out of the building, joyful, free.

So yes, my high school years were the same as yours.  But amidst the angst and pain I was fortunate to meet some amazing souls, like my friend Joe.

Joe and his brother Todd entered our high school and turned things upside down.  Joe was in my grade, so I knew him better, but there was a gleam to both of the brothers that was impossible to resist.  They were into making films; created music in a band called, at least for a time, Heads All Empty; and acted in or directed student plays.  But it wasn’t simply an artistic bent that made them cool.  No matter what they were doing, it was interesting and, perhaps more important, inclusive.

Within a year, probably less, of the brothers arriving on the Hopewell Valley High scene, something truly remarkable occurred: nerds became cool.  And not only nerds.  Skate boarders, drama kids, band kids, druggies, hippies and punk rockers, straight edge and otherwise — they all became cool.

At the time I couldn’t have articulated how this happened.  But looking back, I can see that Joe and Todd through the sheer force of their personalities demolished the social order.  As the rest of us were struggling to fit ourselves into the available social roles of jock, nerd or outcast, Joe simply smiled and asked: “Who are you?”  And then, no matter what your answer, smiling bigger, he’d say something like: “It suits you.”

Joe taught me that genuine authority flows not from social forms, but rather from the individual.  I am free to create life to suit me.  I have that power.

More, he taught me that in the absence of social structure, anarchy does not mean dark chaos, but rather, a richer way of being together.  For when we each take ownership of our unique energies, when we act from a place of self-security and deep confidence in who we are, our communal life becomes miraculous.

The final piece of Joe’s teaching came in our senior year.  All of us non-popular kids were nothing less than thrilled at the social changes in our school.  But I don’t think any of us were quite ready for what came next.  Not only did Joe champion us outcasts, he began to befriend the popular kids too.

Soon, all of us, from the jocks to the nerds and everyone in between were attending parties together.  I remember in particular one kick ass Murder Mystery dinner party where I’m not sure we ever figured out who done it.  Our class put on not only a senior play, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, but also staged without any adult help, a musical written and composed by a talented boy in our class named Mark.

Through his final act of social order dissolution, Joe taught me to move beyond tolerance.  Tolerance is accepting others as different.  Love is realizing others are the same.  Big lesson from a kid who hadn’t yet hit his eighteenth birthday.

I learned last night that Joe’s physical body has died.  Learned at the same time that he did marry and has two kids too.  This is the stuff of adults, not us, who were but a breath ago filling the halls of Hopewell Valley High.

So my dear Joe, I thank you.  I thank you for being you.  I thank you for teaching me it’s cool to be me.  May your family be surrounded by love.

And because the memory of a magnificent Air Band Follies rendition of The Specials’ Stupid Marriage has never ceased to give me enormous pleasure, let’s end on that uplifting ska beat.

Listen up now, “Court in session.  What do you mean ‘Oy oy oy’?  Must have court in session.  Order.  My name is Judge Roughneck, and I will not tolerate any disobedience in my courtroom . . . .”

© Jennifer S. and harvestliberty.net, 2012.


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