At 7:30 tonight, it will be exactly thirty years since I graduated from Laurens District 55 High School. It was hot that night, June 3, 1989 and the green polyester robes and my borrowed necktie didn’t help matters much at all. The ceremony was in the gym since our auditorium would barely hold the graduating class, much less the ten visitors each graduate was allowed. I was second from the top in class rank, but “Wham” put me third from the bottom in getting my name called. I joked with Stacy Wilson sitting next to me that some of our A and B named friends would be at the beach before they got to us. All 399 of us.
It was to be the capstone of a high school career which had started off with great promise, but somehow had gone off the rails to become a complete trainwreck by the time I walked across the stage. What I didn’t realize then was I was suffering from clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. I needed a lot to put Humpty Dumpty back together and by the time someone sat with me long enough to figure out what was wrong with me, it was basically too late to matter much. As bad as things were, I had no idea how much exponentially worse it could get.
I wish I could go back and talk to the kid I was then. I could see me materializing next to him that night long ago and, after the shock wore off, taking him by the arm and guiding him to one of the benches around the courtyard to sit down and warn him about what was coming so it all wouldn’t blindside him the way it did.
I’d tell him the downhill spiral was going to pick up speed tonight. In just a few minutes, our AP English teacher is going to pull us aside and tell us just how much of a disappointment we’ve been. She’ll call us overrated and go into how we squandered our massive potential. Then she’ll go off and get ready to go in with the rest of the teachers.
I’d tell him this ceremony was going to be long but he had people watching him who he thinks right now are going to be around forever. Papa and Granny Wham are in the crowd. Mama is in the crowd. They aren’t going to be around as long as you think they are. They’ve got a few years left still, but not nearly enough.
You’re going to be sitting with your friends one last time. You’ll see some of them in college and some of them who aren’t friends now will be best friends before it’s all said and done. Take a good long look. You’ll never be together with them again. You’ll also never have friends like these ever again. Not in college and certainly not once you become an adult, whatever that means.
The ceremony will end and you’ll hug some necks and take pictures with family and friends, then it’ll be time to go. You’ll go out to the Chevelle and just before you get in you’ll see the first girl you ever loved parked with her new boyfriend three spaces away from you. You know she’s pregnant by the boy and the knowledge is like a sliver of glass in your eye. You walk over and give her one last hug and you tell the boy if he ever hurts her you’ll hunt him down and kill him like a rabid dog. He laughs and nods. He knows you won’t. Even when you find out months later from her brother how baby daddy now husband has been beating her black and blue, you won’t do anything and you’ll feel like chickenshit for being a coward for a long, long time. No, you’ll just go back to your car and watch her drive away. It’ll be the last time you ever see her.
I’d tell him things are going to go crazy now. You’re going to get moved from your great store to a ghetto store on the backside of Greenville so you won’t last much longer. You’ll work a first stint in a textile plant and realize what you don’t want to do with your life but other than that you won’t have a clue. Oh, you don’t go to college that first year with everyone else because your new girlfriend is crazy and doesn’t want you to and you don’t know how to say no. Instead you’ll do 13th grade at Greenville Tech until you realize it’s taking you nowhere.
The good news is you do get to Clemson. You’ll have forfeited all your scholarships and grants so you’ll be drowning in debt but you’ll get there. Engineering isn’t going to work out though. Calculus just isn’t our strength. You’re going to be a teacher instead. College is interesting. You’ll meet some great people and you’ll meet some assholes and you’ll spend a lot of weekends and some weeknights too filling that growing empty hole inside you with Jack Daniels and vodka. Overall though, you have a good time, but it’s over way too soon and you’re own your own again.
That teaching degree doesn’t turn out to do much. You’ll send out over fifty resumes and go on one interview. When it doesn’t pan out, you’ll go back to textiles. About this time you’re going to meet a woman you will do well to walk on by, but you won’t and you’ll end up in a mess like you wouldn’t believe. In general, women have been and are going to be a sore spot in your life up until you meet Budge, but she’s in middle school right now and doesn’t know you exist.
Next to women, your biggest downfall is going to be money. Your credit score will be shot by the time you get out of college because of credit cards and to be honest, you’re never going to recover it, especially when you see what’s coming a few years down the line. Nope, you’ll be riding the paycheck to paycheck train like a champ, just like Mama always did and for a while, you’ll make it work, but it’ll catch up with you. It always catches up with you.
Eventually though, you catch a break. An old friend’s dad works for Greenville County Schools and he mentions your name to a principal and Bob’s your uncle, you get a teaching job at a country high school with students a lot like you. You’re gonna meet Budge your first day there, but don’t be discouraged when she blows you off. You end up growing on her after awhile.
You grow on her so much she agrees to marry you. Seven years out of high school, you are on your way to the American Dream. You’ll have a wife. You’ll have a singlewide trailer and eventually you’ll have a cat. You and Budge will go to church together at Abundant Life Church of God.
For the next ten years, things are going to seem good. Your life consists of Budge, teaching at Woodmont, coaching wrestling in the winter, and going to Abundant Life with all the other young couples you know there. You’ll have some rough spots. Depression and anxiety haven’t gone away. You self medicated them all through college and the first few years out, but now you’re married and a respectable church goer. You can’t pour whiskey in that black empty hole anymore.
Budge is going to notice and she’s going to sit you down and tell you to either get help or she’s leaving. You get a little help. You start taking your first real regimen of anti-depressants. They help some — more than you’d expected them to and things rock on for awhile longer. You’ll see the new millennium come in; you and your class will watch the towers fall. Students will love you, administration won’t, and your fellow teachers will split somewhere in the middle, but it’s a good time. Until it isn’t.
You’re going to say something people take wrong. You’ll end up in front of your principal, then you’ll end up in front of the school board. Then you’ll get fired from teaching. That black hole is going to open up and threaten to swallow you whole. You’re going to turn to your church family but suddenly you’ll be a pariah and you’re never going to know why. Basically everything you’ve lived for for the last ten years collapses in less than six months.
You declare bankruptcy to keep the trailer and car, but at the cost of ever having any kind of credit rating good enough to buy a house. You’ll drive a truck for your cousin for a year to make ends meet. You’ll get a masters degree in school librarianship and then against all odds, you’re going to go to work teaching at this very high school where we’re sitting now. It will cause you some cognitive dissonance for that year, but the NEXT year, you become a SCHOOL LIBRARIAN! You got fired from teaching and now you’re a librarian — that never happens but it’s happened to you.
Now you’ve got good meds, a great therapist, and your dream job. Looks like the worst is behind you. It was bad, but it’s in the past and things are going to be okay now. Until they aren’t.
You’re going to get fired from being a school librarian in five years. You have a disagreement with the superintendent and you don’t know when to shut up. So you get fired. You’ll try to get a job as a librarian elsewhere, but a friend who sees your application lets you know two people you trusted to give you recommendations have actually tanked you. You’re never going to teach again. The black hole swallows you whole. No light. No hope. No peace.
You’re going to give up. You’re going to qualify for disability based on depression and anxiety. The next ten years are going to be the toughest of your life. You’re going to take care of Mama for two years constantly then you’re going to watch her die. You’re going to take care of Granny Ima for two more years and watch her die. You’re going to wish YOU could die. The days are going to drag on in an endless parade of darkness.
Next thing you know, you’re going to be almost fifty years old with nothing to show for it. Budge tried to keep you going but you know it’s hard on her. You’re going to be taking almost 800mg of THREE antidepressants to get you out of bed in the morning. You’ll have a great therapist and a wonderful psychiatrist and they will do their best to keep you going, but even with all the people pulling for you, that blackness still envelopes you. Washed up. Lost two careers. On the government’s dime. That’s what I’d have to tell that kid with the mullet getting ready to graduate thirty years ago.
I’d have more to tell him. Some of it good, most of it not, but just with what he’s going to know now, it’ll be enough for him to go home and dig a hole in the backyard to climb in and forget life. He won’t though. He’s going to try. Now he’s going to fail miserably, but he’s going to try because it’s all he can do.
Love y’all. Keep your feet clean.