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High school Neal

A high school reunion was planned for this weekend. We canceled in order to attend Neal’s funeral instead.

Did you have a close group of friends in high school? I did. My school was very small: 7th grade through 12th grade all together on one side of the building, Kindergarten through 6th grade on the other side of the building. I think I remember a statistic that the high school side had 170 students total.

Because of the size, we all clung to each other, regardless of who was a Freshman, Sophomore, or Senior. The jocks and the nerds and the metal heads and the brains and the cheerleaders – we all hung out together. But I was lucky enough to have something special. Within that tight group, I had my own little friends group. It was sometimes larger, and sometimes smaller, but John, JR, Jess, and Neal seemed to be the core, and they welcomed me when I was around. We all had family struggles. We were all poor. We were all smart. These guys were my family and today, I credit them for the the creation of the young woman I became.

When other people let me down, these guys did not. There were times when I would spend the whole day with them, just to feel better, loved, accepted. I would leave my house in the middle of the night and go find them sometimes. I even lived with JR’s family for a while. Our love and acceptance of each other extended to our families, and because we loved Neal so much, we loved his mom and dad, Ruth and Perry.

Sunday, Jess left a message on my phone to ask if I would be attending Neal’s funeral. I thought to myself, “I only know one person named Neal.” Puzzled, I did a Google search Monday morning at work, and found out that Neal had died. I cried. Right there at work.

We are too young for this.

I asked for Friday off and drove to Boise to attend the funeral. There was no question that I had to be there for his family, and in honor of his memory.

Neal and I were not close, in one sense. We haven’t spoken in years. I checked up on him occasionally on facebook. I came across his hilarious stories in my archives (I was the high school paper editor and Neal contributed brilliantly comedic stores). I found old photos of Toe Jam performances, the band the guys formed so many years ago. But I guess I didn’t need to talk to him to feel him as part of me. Neal is family. So yeah, we were close in that sense.

I forgot about the time change, and arrived exactly one hour later for the service than what I planned for. I arrived in time to hear people talk about their memories of Neal, and I learned that I had lost an opportunity to share in the life of a good man by not visiting him in the intervening years. It sounds like he improved the longer he lived.

In the hallway at the church

Jess, JR, Katrina, Scott, and Doni. At a bar not too far from the church

And we had a reunion anyway, because we were there. John couldn’t make it, but JR, and Jess were there, and so many of us. The others, like me, had been welcomed back then into their awesome little clique whenever we wanted to join them. In a moment alone, all swollen with the emotions of seeing so many familiar faces again, the unbidden thought came that it would be so much more perfect if Neal was there. Then I remembered.

And Neal *was* there. But not as much as we wish he were.

Sunset over the Weiser River as I headed to Scott’s house for the night.

I stopped by the river to breathe a little by myself, after the funeral.

The next day I made the long drive back home. I appreciated the beauty of my old home state.

At a rest stop along the way, there were information signs about the Oregon Trail and difficulties pioneers experienced in making the month’s-long journey across the state of Oregon. How grateful I am that I could cross the state in 7 hours for my friend’s funeral.

Southern Idaho is all about agriculture.

Somehow, the desert here can still be beautiful.

New dress and fancy shoes

My little girl is now out of Middle School and on her way toward being a high-schooler. Very cool, a little scary, and a recipe for adventure. Life is so full of doors of potential. All around us, doors stand in their frames, just waiting for our inquisitive minds to try the handle and see what it’s like to walk through. Nothing brings that thought to mind lately, more than my thoughts about Miss Tara graduating from the 8thgrade. How often I wonder where her life will take her, and how eager I am to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch her leap into it!

me, my girl, my mother

Last month we attended the Portland Title VII Indian Education graduation ceremony. Tuesday’s ceremony was at her own school with her classmates. It was really fun to be there with all that Eighth-grader energy and with their proud family and friends. I tease Tara, tongue in cheek, that I’ve got Gypsy blood, and always on the edge of being blown into the next town with a change in the winds. Contrary to my natural instincts, I’ve allowed societal and psychiatric pressure to coerce me into holding still for awhile for her sake. It paid off when I watched her classmates graduate and knew half their names and could tell you something special about almost as many of them. Holding still helps me connect to my community, and that’s a beautiful thing.

goofing around in the cafeteria

She’s a cultural minority at Harrison Park School, like all of her classmates there. It’s probably the first time I’ve experienced a clearly demarcated group that has no obvious physical qualities that make up the majority. The group is so unlike her very white upper middle class elementary school in Beaverton (on the other side of town). Sorry Beaverton, but over here we SO have it going on! The students beaming as they crossed the stage were descendants of families hailing from places as diverse as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Nigeria, Mexico, and, uh, Oregon. There were American Indians, Muslims in their headscarves, tall and dark, short with red hair, loud, quiet, smart, popular, shy, and all obviously loved by not only one or two who might be related to them, by also by supporters throughout the auditorium. There were cheers, yelps, clapping, and whistles scattered amongst us all when a new student made their way into the spotlight to collect their certificate of promotion.

My neighbor, Herbert, also the parent of a graduate

It was obvious when a student was popular: sometimes the place would erupt in a roar of appreciation. And I often could guess why: they cheered for the sweet-natured but fierce team player on the volleyball team, the beautiful chess champ, the tall traveling athlete who cherishes friends, the pianist, the scholarship winner, and the one who makes everyone laugh. What a great group they are. I am proud of my girl and proud of her classmates. I’m so glad to have witnessed their last three years together.

My mother sewed a dress for Miss T, who had chosen the design and the fabrics. (She also sewed her own dress that you see in the photo above.) Tara felt like a beauty in her lovely dress. I was delighted to see my tomboy in GIRL clothes! She thought at first she wanted to wear my old combat boots with her dress. It was a way for her to match the dress code and retain her individuality. She wasn’t ready to make a clean break from her typical fashion preference (ripped jeans, Vans, and a hoodie) to satin and tulle. But… after twenty minutes in front of a mirror in the dress, she was rummaging through my closet and pulled out my Kenneth Cole sandals. It was a sweet moment. It’s not always easy to accept growing up gracefully, and I understood the small steps she was taking to try on a new role.

happy graduates

All the graduates ended up in the cafeteria where we gathered for photos and hellos to old friends and goodbyes to dear teachers. The graduates were bursting with high spirits and joyous celebration. They decided to gather at Jonah’s house for ice cream afterward, so Mom, and Aunt Eireanne, and I went home and left T with her friends to celebrate their special evening together.

wearing my own letterman's jacket

As an aside… The following night my girl was getting ready to head out to Cirque de Soleil with ex-boyfriend Mark. Looking through the hall closet for something warm to wear, she pulled out my old high school jacket. Talk about bringing it full circle. I wore that jacket not too long ago. Let’s see, it was about 6 weeks ago. No, more like a year or two ago. Well, actually – now that I think about it – that was 23 years ago. She wore the jacket and I reminisced. I can’t believe I’m the mother of a Freshman.



…High Schools, that is. Yes, it’s that time in our household to make preparations for high school, which is so close on the horizon we can almost touch it. You care because the school my kid ends up attending is the one you will have to endure hearing about on this blog for the next four years!

Putting serious effort into choosing a high school has made me think back to my own teen years more than once, because this is like no high school experience I’ve seen before. It is surprisingly similar to choosing a college, and I am drawing greatly on my college experience to guide my kid through her approach. This may very well be one of the reasons why children of college graduates have an advantage over other kids; or why at the University they thought it was such a big darn deal that I was the first in my family to get a college degree. I cynically assumed their praise was merely because a new person was in the Ivory Tower Club. That may not be true.

Since my time at Brandeis University (only 4 years ago), I have wondered if the statistical difference between children of college-educated and non-college-educated parents was related to insights the elders could provide, that might smooth the path for the youth. I began thinking this after some dreadful mistakes in financial, coursework, and lifestyle planning in my first year; things that significantly set me back that could have easily been avoided or mitigated if I had asked for help or had been a little more savvy. I won’t wait for my daughter to ask; I’ll just put it out there!

Portland Public Schools encompasses 7 traditional high schools, plus a polytechnic high school (focusing on teaching trades), and a young women’s science and math high school. Every student is expected to attend the neighborhood high school, with the option of attending any school in the city through a lottery system. Each high school apparently has a specialty, such as music, or preparation for law studies. Because students and their parents can shop around, each school held an open-house to show off their school attributes.

Compare all this to my high school experience. In our tiny ranching/logging community of 603 people, the one school building held every grade from Kindergarten through high school seniors. There was no question where to go, and there was no need for open house nights and all these advertising brochures I keep getting in the mail. The higher education teachers taught 7th through 12th. My science teacher, for example, was my teacher in every scientific field of study for 5 years in a row (I elected not to take physics my senior year, or it would have been 6). Good thing I liked him!

My daughter can go online for the high school course catalogs to plan out her next four years to her best advantage. At this stage, we can compare course offerings to see which schools can teach her what she’s interested in. Compared to my choices for English classes in high school (English I, II, III, and IV), at one of the schools, Tara can choose from 24 English and Literature courses, including traditional work but also an accelerated reading program, literature in film, classics, creative writing, and an honors course. Art classes are taught by different teachers who focus on fine arts, sculpting, woodcraft, or graphic design. At one high school, there are 22 dance classes to choose from, at another, three of the 14 available math classes are college accredited. We were told a student can graduate from high school with a Freshman year of college already finished!

Franklin from the outside: Wow!

My suggestion was to visit the schools during open house, to gather more information. Though we can consider all of the schools, we’ve narrowed it to two. Tara is motivated like most people her age, by wanting to go to the school where her friends will go – that’s Madison, our neighborhood high school. But Franklin is closer to the house (school district boundary lines are suspiciously drawn in a manner similar to voting districts), and in a part of town we visit frequently. The demographics of Franklin include more higher-income families (so I assume that will mean more parental involvement), and the school building itself is inspiring!

Madison from the outside: Eh.

Our open house visits helped clear my vision. Franklin was full of parents and students, enthusiastically pointing us to the places we wanted to see. The library was impressive. The dance classes and AP math classes are tempting. Tara was drooling over the Animanga Club (“Anime and Manga combined? It’s perfect!”). Madison had an entirely different feel because it was filled with teachers. Teachers everywhere, dressed up like it was an Event, standing beside elaborate, professional-quality displays on different subjects. One told me, a bit sheepishly, “Yeah, this night is a pretty big deal for us each year.” They vied for our attention, pulling us from one academic topic to the next, then pushing us to the full-time, in school art gallery, then coaxing us outside to get a tour of the school’s community garden (run by students who actually take a class for it). The teachers had nothing but praise for each other, and they raved about how much they loved being at that school compared to other schools.

Madison from a more attractive angle

Honestly, any one of the Portland High Schools would have a greater range of learning opportunity than what I had in my small country school. So I could confidently say that any school she attended would be fine. I am a dedicated subscriber to the belief that education is dependent upon the student and the parents, after all. However, after visiting the schools, I must admit that Madison won me over. If that many teachers are that excited about teaching, some of the enthusiasm is bound to rub off on the students. All I want is for her to care whether she’s there or not, so she’ll be motivated to put some effort into it. I am pretty sure that Madison High School is where that will happen.

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