I wrote this after walking around my old home town. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I’m putting it here for a bit. I have such odd feelings about my old hometown. Really, it’s one of the few times in my life where I feel like I may be the only one in the world that feels this way.
First of all, I want to say that my adulthood has been way better than my childhood. I’m not James Barrie wishing for never-ending childhood or a magical island. And really, even if I could relive a couple years, I wouldn’t choose high school. College was much better. I certainly wouldn’t choose junior high or elementary school, where I was constantly a fish out of water and simultaneously in over my head. Some years of my childhood could have qualified me for PTSD. I’ve told many, many students that life gets better exponentially the farther you get away from high school.
But Pullman. Ah, Pullman.
Maybe my memories would feel different if my parents had stayed in the city longer, but they moved when I was seventeen, thus encapsulating my time in Pullman in a sort of box that became my childhood, from beginning to almost end.
I didn’t grow up—I staggered up, was dragged up, fell down repeatedly, and a few times rocketed into the sky.
Our class only had about 150 students in it and most of us had lived in Pullman since kindergarten. We knew everyone and everyone knew us. In a school that small, there was no reinventing yourself. You’d been judged long ago, and everyone knew where you fit in. Teenagers don’t forget.
I made friends and made mistakes and loved people blindly and stupidly. I had my heart broken, and broken again, and literally prayed to stop caring about someone and cared anyway. I loved a couple of friends like they were sisters without considering the harsh truth that I could one day be disowned.
Well, as they say, it’s better to have loved and lost.
And then it’s reunion time. Each time I come back, I discover that my peers have been changing right alongside me, riding the river of life with all its turbulence and joys. I find I have things in common with people that I never expected. I’m truly happy for their successes and mourn their losses. I’m not looking for any sort of validation. I’m way past the age when I believe my high school peers can give that to me. So when we get caught up, it’s all as it should be and everything is right in the world.
Except that coming back is also like walking into a memory that’s empty of everything but ghosts. I see the Neil Public Library and I’m four again, picking out picture books with my mother. It’s a good recollection, but still a painful one because memories of one’s mother shouldn’t be so fleeting and threadbare, so cut short. She is gone, but part of her still lives on in that red brick building and when I look at it, it’s the one place in the world that I’m back with her.
Time skips and I’m fourteen, riding my bike without braking, all the way to the library because there’s nothing to do in the summer but read and no one will drive me. I look at Dack Street and I’m a second grader riding my bike around with a gaggle of neighborhood kids or sitting on Kristy Turner’s front porch with her, scheming how we can convince her parents to take us to Reaney Park Pool. The water is always freezing, but I jump in the deep end anyway, and we’ll spend most of our time rescuing the ladybugs that had poor navigation skills from drowning.
I look at Gladish and I’m in sixth grade and can taste the soy hamburgers that for some reason I loved. I can taste other things too—the sting of rejection. Sixth grade was the time when everyone else figured out how to act—except me. I was wild, brash, oblivious, and such a target.
Some of my peers there cut me down, intentionally and unintentionally, and for the next few years told me in subtle ways that I wasn’t enough. And I was so far from perfect—sometimes swinging that same blade at others myself. Fortunately, my church leaders, ever patient and kind, taught me that I belonged and I was more than enough. I even believed them some of the time.
And then there was high school where I tried so hard to walk the tightrope of coolness, to pretend I was someone who knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I completely didn’t. But mixed with all that insecurity was magic because sometimes you just didn’t care what anyone else thought and so many things were hilarious. Laura Kleinhofs and I made a giant paper mache hamburger in art class and left it on a stranger’s doorstep. We decided that gifting a stranger a huge random hamburger was the perfect prank. The recipient probably still wonders to this day where that thing came from.
There was the time Laura and I tricked Michael Kerr into TPing Larry Johnson’s house by convincing him that Laura lived there. That was two birds with one lie.
So many moments of happiness. The emotions I felt back then, the highs and the lows, I was sure I was the first person to ever feel them.
Now when I see the houses and buildings in Pullman, it’s like looking at a stage set that’s gone wrong. I know what the story should be and yet the actors aren’t there anymore. Every time I see a teenager milling about town, I think: Wait, I’m the one who is supposed to be young and expectant. This is my childhood, not yours. But of course, it’s not anymore.
It’s so odd to stroll around. At every turn, I feel like I should meet specters from the past. And there’s always that sense that if I just keep walking, I’ll run into myself–that part of me that was beleaguered and hopeful and innocent. When I’m in Pullman, time stops, and something feels so very unfinished. I’m not even certain what it is.
When I leave, I leave those emotions in Washington until the next time I come back, visiting my childhood like it was a tourist destination. Rome, London, Janette’s stage set of memories.
Well, as they say, “You can’t go home again.”
Sometimes They are right.