Farewell to the Admiral

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When I read tragic news, I imagine the deceased’s family and friends might read the articles and find the summary so trite and generic. But I understand that news is about boiling things down so that strangers can stay informed, then move on with the the rest of their lives. I just never thought that the news would be about someone I once knew.

Let me define “knew,” because that word is nuanced, and I would never want to exaggerate a connection when there are family, colleagues, and close friends mourning someone they interacted with every day. I knew Ms. Yamamoto in the sense that I was in her classroom for nearly a year, hearing her calm, hey-life’s-going-to-work-out voice most days of the week. I knew her as the teacher who possessed both fine qualities of John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society, and Bill Anderson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; she was the storm that lit my passion for literature and the calm that quieted my frenetic worries as a high school junior. Later, I knew her a bit more through her poetry and blog posts, which, when written by a true writer like Ms. Yamamoto, makes you feel as if your souls are connecting for an instant.

Her death makes me feel a type of regret that I’ve tried to avoid—that’s why I’m always chasing my dreams, not taking my aging parents for granted, and treasuring small wonders. It’s too late to ever connect with her again, and now I only have my memories of Ms. Yamamoto.

But they’re great and precious and I want to write about them because I think it’s a fitting way for me to grieve.

In AP Language and Composition, an environment where it was typical to measure myself against peers and feel pressured to chase perfection, Ms. Yamamoto eased my mind. I never felt like the outcast, despite feeling different from my amazing classmates—future lawyers, doctors, dentists, and scientists. The divisions that separated us—real or imagined— disappeared. I was much more of a listener, but I felt included in inside jokes like “I like to eat blood in the morning” and sentences that included the word “bosom,” which always had us breaking out in laughter. Ms. Yamamoto would indulge us, sometimes exasperated, sometimes confused.

Ms. Yamamoto assigned us the usual homework and we read Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea (we were, after all, an AP class). But there was one assignment I adored: Occasional Papers, something she might have picked up from her own time as a student or from a fellow teacher. Occasional Papers were sparked by occasions or inspirations or things important to you. You. That was Ms. Yamamoto’s focus. She saw each of us as individuals. I’m not saying that other teachers didn’t acknowledge this—but perhaps she stood out the most because in a time when I was losing my Me-ness, she had offered me a way to find myself again.

In one essay, I wrote about always losing my Cheshire Public Library card. Another one was about music, I think. With each paper, I began to see my classmates and their passions.

Ms. Yamamoto might not have known this—or maybe she had; high school students can be really shitty secret-keepers—but a classmate named her Admiral, after someone from some war, and that became her nickname. So we, by association, became her Soldiers.

(Or Souljas—because we were teenagers and utterly ridiculous.)

She took pride in us. That was undeniable. Ms. Yamamoto had an office—or the English Department did—where each student was able to hang a poster listing their college acceptances. And that made us proud of ourselves. The next year, I think we tried to keep the class together, gathering occasionally in the office. And I think after college, most of us met up for hibachi. It was nice, but it wasn’t the same; we all seemed to know that shine was gone, couldn’t be replicated again. But in a way, doesn’t that show the value of our time together? How perfect it was? How perfect Ms. Yamamoto was to bring us all together?

Ms. Yamamoto and I became Facebook friends when I started college. I can’t remember who Friended whom. Maybe I did in a rare moment of bravery. She read some of my blog posts and said she loved my voice and when I wrote about our class, she wrote, “You guys were a really special class.” Wow, she got a nose ring? (Or was it always there?) In turn, I followed her blog. Based on some posts, she was writing to work through some things–like all of us. I should have messaged her more often. Liked more of her posts. Emailed her for coffee (Cheshire is not so inaccessible from Manhattan).

I still have her copy of The Elements of Style. I even named a teacher in my YA novel after her. She’s this no-bullshit art teacher and mentor–a woman small in stature but fiery and compassionate in her voice and manner. I couldn’t wait to publish the novel, then return one day to the fun house-shaped halls of Cheshire High School, place it in her hands, and say, “Don’t be freaked out, I know we haven’t been in touch much, but you inspired someone in this book.”

As news outlets report on Ms. Yamamoto’s passing, I worry that my vision of her will chip away. So, as her still adoring student, I’ll remember her here.

My mind is cluttered with the humiliation from awkward conversations with my crush, looming tests, and other responsibilities. But Ms. Yamamoto tells us that someone has an Occasional Paper. Her voice calms me immediately. We set down our pens and pencils and shift our uncomfortable metal chairs to face the front. The person with an Occasional Paper chooses to stand or remain sitting. Smooths out a wrinkled notebook page or unfolds a computer printout. I look at Ms. Yamamoto who waits patiently. Silence nets the room. I breathe at my classmate’s inhale, and before long, a singular voice takes up my mind, redefining a language I thought I knew so well—until now.

Thank you so, so much, Ms. Yamamoto.

 

Cheshire High School Reunion Part II

How I envisioned my high school reunion would go.

How I envisioned my high school reunion would go.

I honestly didn’t expect the response to my previous post about my high school reunion. People I haven’t talked to in ages had sent me messages saying they enjoyed my post and appreciated my manic candor. I’m guessing a lot of things I had said resonated with those who dreaded the idea of their past and present colliding at Aunt Chilada’s. I felt obligated to satisfy my readers (count: 2) with a follow-up post.

Before heading to the high school reunion, I had a smaller one with old friends, and we all crammed into the back of my Highlander, legs bent, knees to our chests as we faced each other (quite uncomfortable for KP who’s like 6’2″), and just talked about our lives—random things about significant others, roommate horror stories, pelvic organ prolapse, etc. People driving by, their headlights illuminating our silhouettes, might have wondered about what was going on inside the Highlander. I remember thinking that even if everything sucked that night, at least I’d remember this moment when us gals (minus one) were together again.

But it came to that time, yes that time, to make moves toward our reunion. We all knew it. Adele sang Hello on the drive there, which was so appropriate of course, but despite Adele’s well-timed accompaniment, I still felt excited after spending time with the vag squad.

So, I walked into Aunt Chilada’s feeling like this:

Only a few more steps into the restaurant moved to commence my discomfort. I had an odd flashback to one of my high school homecomings, where our adolescent, hormone-infested hormonal bodies were hypnotized by Miley Cyrus’ masterful lyrics in a song called, “Party in the USA.” Somehow kids managed to grind to it. I just remembered thinking, The fuck? Out of all my thoughts, this phrase perhaps occupied 95 percent of my thoughts throughout my high school career.

Then the flashback went away, because no one was grinding yet!

A note to readers (count: 5, now?): I was stone-cold sober the whole night because I don’t drink. If anyone ever harbored ill will towards me and wanted to render me comatose, pour me the tiniest bit of alcohol and I’d be out. (Please, don’t.)

I found myself fading out, forgetting about the music, and focusing all on sight. This tends to happen when I’m overwhelmed (and I’ve been told that my face goes slack and I go into a trance). This has also led to many awkward encounters when someone thinks I’m staring at them, when it’s most likely that I’m just thinking about what to eat next.

I spied two high school classmates dancing rather closely. I saw the same pair later on in the night, when they shared a kiss and went their separate ways. The girl was staring brokenheartedly after his retreating back. Perhaps she had fulfilled a long-time wish to make a move on the boy she liked. Good for her. But if she expected anything more from this encounter, I’d say the joke was on her.

Oh, the heartbreak in high school, those that you had witnessed—and experienced. I promised that I wouldn’t let my eyes drift too much, but they did and landed on a few boys whom I wish I had been brave enough to get to know.  I was disappointed that they were for the most part still handsome and mostly definitely unaware of my existence, and will never be.

Other classmates had ballooned. Some lost weight, was going bald, or dyed their hair. Names and question marks appeared in my mind’s eye as I tried to remember who was who, ineluctably mistaking one person for another person, who was most likely their best friend. Before and after pictures floated in my mind as well, snapshots of the past overlaying what was right in front of me.

There were many who seemed to use alcohol to mask their discomfort in this situation, not totally bad . . . . well, until the alcohol led to ridiculousness, and it became obvious people were laughing at them, not with them.

I was watching all this, because I couldn’t bring myself to hold any legitimate conversation, despite what I had said in my previous post. See, I’ve always been wary of social gatherings, noisy and quiet, but I despise raucous ones even more. Usually, the music serves to mask the tremble of your voice, which reveals your nervousness, yet also drowns out the ability to hear fucking anything. I found myself shouting—more like spitting–in people’s ears most of the time, then nodding, dumbly, whenever I saw their lips moving in return.

What are you doing?

Publishing.

Sorry, what?

PUBLISHING!@@**!

Not cool, to be honest. I genuinely did want to have longer conversations with really cool people who were slaying bitches in life, but I couldn’t muster the effort because of this noise. Again, missed opportunity.

I felt inexplicably angry at some points. Surges, I call them, in which a laugh, a glimpse of a classmate, or a small gesture brought back an unpleasant memory, and I couldn’t quite decipher it because it’d disappear too quickly.

I had hoped to see some faces and prayed to Satan that I wouldn’t see others. Not to say that I disliked the list of 28 people that I mentioned to Satan . . . it was more of me thinking and worrying about what I could possibly say to them. However, I caught eyes with these people. Quick glances: they are fucking painful. I mean the ones where you accidentally meet eyes with someone else, then you look away, knowing that this person saw you glancing away, and all you’re thinking is ShitShit. Shit. Your pain is only relieved when that person doesn’t approach you. But then there are certain people who think Ah, fuck, we saw each other, might as well torture her with forced conversation, and they stalk toward you, and you’re just scrambling for interesting things to say when you know you don’t have anything to say.

At one point I had retreated to a table with my friends. I put my back against the crowd, thinking, Fuck this sucks. I focused on my girlfriends sitting across from me, and I could see them staring out into the crowd, almost looking like they regretted coming here. As if, their faces were saying, why did I ever think that things would be different? It made me sad to watch, because I knew I was feeling the same thing. Then, someone made a bet, someone said, I kind of want to dance. EChow, I think it was, her shaved side hair emblematic of her rebellion, whether she intended it to be just that or not, led the line to the crowded dance floor. We danced stiffly side to side. I was thinking, Oh boy. And then, eventually, the night went away as our movements became more bold and crazy, and we focused solely on the fact that all of us were here together, again. When dancing with friends, I inexplicably end up in the circle. Perhaps because I’m shorter, perhaps because I gravitate to this area not out of ego, but out of comfort, knowing that I’d be surrounding myself with the people I love.

I asked KP to take this picture. I’ve always found it hilarious that if we were to “face” each other, we wouldn’t be able to: my line of vision would be on her chest. She’s too damn tall. So here, it seems like she’s standing on something to take a picture of us from up above, when in truth she’s just standing. Sorry, KP, to talk about your height, but it’s one of the things I love about you.

I kind of hoped we would look like this as we were dancing:

…though, that wasn’t the case. Anyways, who cares? Let’s say it again, WHO CARES?!?

A beautiful thing happened. I’m gonna quote the greatest wordsmith of the quintessential teenage experience: Stephen Chbosky. In that moment, I swear we were infinite.  I felt infinite. I felt infinite in the sense that I was there, in that moment, with the people who were and will always be dear to me. And that, I suppose, is the takeaway of a reunion:

Remember the good.  Fuck the bad.

(Some might say I’m trying to make something more than it is–it’s a reunion nothing more. But I’ve always been sentimental and shit.)

Taking pleasure in just existing, I felt more and more thankful of my experiences as the night progressed. And it seemed, by the noise and the number of bodies flooding the dance floor, that this was the case for my classmates. The music, however corny, served to unite us. People belted out “Forever Young” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” An alligator hat was passed around, for some strange reason. Someone placed a wooden chair in the middle of the floor—not sure it’d survived the night.

One moment stuck out to me: I had a friend in high school and we drifted apart for no big reason. Our eyes met from across the room, my friend pointed a finger—a yes, you gesture—and then suddenly we were embracing each other. With this brief touch, I tried my best to convey how happy I hoped this person was, how awesome they were and will continue to be. After that, we parted, never exchanging a word, and I was left feeling content.

The reunion ended at around 1 a.m., and the crowd definitely shrunk seventy-five percent. The lights became brighter, and I was able to see who exactly was there—and I looked away. I didn’t want to stare any longer, so with my girls, we headed out to paint the town fucking red.

Just kidding. Nothing’s open in Cheshire after 10 p.m. NOT EVEN MCDONALD’S!

We will all move on from this high school reunion—we have already. We will continue to take on the world, continue to find ourselves, continue to forge confidence in whatever we may do. My promise is to hold on tight to what matters and let the insignificant go.

For those of you from my past who are reading this post, I wish you well, and I hope you’ve gained only positive feelings from our high school reunion! Good luck to you, Class of 2010. T-What? Okay, I’ll stop now.