This is an exercise I wrote a while back about a visit to a familiar place. It got deep. It’s actually hard for me to share this with others, but I know that humility involves openness. I changed the names of people just to avoid hurt feelings, in case anyone that used to know me back then read this. I’m sure they could guess who is who, but for now, this is the best I can do. I regret the person I once was, and constantly wish to be remade in the image of Christ that I may love those who I have hurt. Anyway, here is a little piece about a trip back to Norway.
I push open the heavy metal doors, hand resting on the odd red plastic handle. I step into the doorway and instantaneously, the smell overwhelms me. It’s a good smell, a comforting scent. It is hard to describe, like the smell of a new car or the taste of Dr. Pepper. It’s cleaning solutions and brick and stone and must and age and wood and the years of students coming in and out of these doors. It is sweet to the soul. I step through the second doorway. I am here. The mahogany colored tile floor spreads out under my feet like an ocean, across the long wide lobby. The orange red toned bricks line the walls, looking like the walls of a traditional schoolhouse. To my left, up some steps on a platform the kiosk, selling shirts and fruit, water and school supplies. Further up more steps, the Lovelace Theatre, its entryway shrouded in shadow. In front of me is the entrance to the middle school, to my right the high school, to my far left, the primary school. It is here that all the worlds converge. Flags hung from a nearby wall, a flag for every nationality represented with pride. Five clocks dress the wall, showing the time in Stavanger, Houston, London and elsewhere. The office is busy with staff stepping in and out, the phone ringing intermittently. Suddenly, little third graders parade in front of me, on the way to PE. I smile. I am home. Separation does make the heart grow fonder. My ISS—International School of Stavanger. My home for four years, four great years, four developmental years. It’s been three years since I had come to you last, nine since I attended you as a fifth grade boy. My sister and I look around and mouth falls open in wonder and relaxation.
The echoing din of horns interrupt my dazed state of happiness. I crane my neck around and notice the band has appeared outside the doors of the school, practicing for the Constitution Day Parade. They start to play “Ja Vi Elske” and I am home. I sing along, inserting nonsense words here and there where time has stolen the real words from my mind. And so, with the Norwegian national anthem serving as my soundtrack, we march towards the office. The old receptionist is still there: Hedda. She smiles and responds “Ya, Yes, I remember you two!” once we tell her our names. We get two cute visitor badges and are told we ought to wait for one of the Edwards to show up. We thank her and sidestep over to the couches. We sit down in a fluffy, puffy cloud of leather and stuffing. I pick up a yearbook, one of the many that line the coffee table before my knees.
This was the first year I was gone. At the time I was dealing with loneliness, culture shock, Christian school ugliness, and being lost in a world (Texas) that I thought was my true home. Meanwhile, my friends—Kara, Jon, Charlie, Phil, even Josh—they were here. I flip through the pages and look for their young faces. They are all in college or university now, hardened by the years. But in their sixth grade photo, they shine with promise, potential, innocence. I flip forward and look at other friends, teachers, younger students, activities, sports. I comment on the lack of Elementary Student Council, which I had served as President for in my fifth grade year. The play looked more interesting, though, I note to my sister. The muscles in my cheek pull back and I can’t fight the smile. Yes I had missed all these years— 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 (though I visited that spring), 2007, 2008, 2009—but I was here. Now.
I flipped to another yearbook, then another, then another, exploring the myriad of experiences I had missed. Friendships I had lost, opportunities that had died and were buried here in Norway. These pictures told me what I had missed, and the smile faded. It felt like the back of my heart suddenly felt a draft coming from my neck. Not chills, but it was chilling. Nine years. What had happened in those nine years? So much. So much. My sister points out certain details in other yearbooks and we chit chat about small things. But we both feel it: regret. My, most of all, for I had championed the move back to Texas, the adventure-land I explored every summer and loved to death. So we moved, but instead of flying to Never Never Land with Peter Pan, it seemed more like I had slipped into the gray Doldrums of the Phantom Tollbooth.
There it was, snuggled in between a 2005 and 1994.
My year. Student Council. President over the primary school. Part of the first ever primary school play. Writer extraordinaire. I pull out the book, flip to a happier time, and stared into the soul of the 5th grade me. Oh dear. There she is. Elsa Bertram. And there I am, leaning away from her like the jerk I was. Oh dear. It was picture day, and I had chosen to wear my lime green polo and my pear of jean overalls. Mix of Texan and sophistication, I can say now. We all were waiting for our turn, and it finally came. Mrs. Ford led us over by the flags in the lobby. There were risers there and the photographer arranged us each one by one into perfectly aligned positions. Jan Reed went up, and then me. It was cool. She was a good buddy of mine. But then, horror of horrors, Elsa was placed next to me. She was the butt of all our jokes, because of her generally large size, goofy smile, her awkwardness, her tendency to only speak in German, her crushes on certain boys, her pals Sonia and Ruth, and much more. If I was going to stand next to her, people would think we were a couple, or at least somewhat liked each other. Things like that happened over nothing like that, like that British girl from third grade that every said I was going to marry someday. Plus, I had just recovered from the whole Kara situation last year—showering a fourth grade girl with gifts and attention can be nice, but when five other guys are doing it too, it can be very awkward. Eventually, I pedaled it back and we were friends. Cool. But Elsa? I smelled her in her lumpy sweater and saw her fair frizzing out, almost as if it were reaching out to touch me. I shuddered, as if one touch of her hair would plummett me down to the bottom of the school hierarchy, down next to the feminine boy Ian and, well, Elsa and her friends. So I learned to the right. The picture was taken, processed, sent home. I got a little flak about it from my parents. Some people kidded with me because it looked like I was trying to get real close to Jan—which wouldn’t have been cool, as she was kind of too much of a tomboy for most people. But eventually we got over it.
But the photograph is still here. It’s in my hands, in the yearbook that all visitors can see. And it’s in the yearbooks of all the students who were there that year, Kindergarten to Seniors. You can see it in my eyes—disgust, hate, ridicule directed toward the young girl standing next to me. My eyes are once again filled with disgust, hate, embarrassment—but it was for that fifth grade boy in his polo shirt and overalls. I start to think back to all the different stupid things I did that year, each one brought to mind by faces I see on pages 176 and 177 of the yearbook.
Josh, my best friend, smiles a crooked smile. I stopped hanging out with him that last year so I could join the cool kids, Kara, Charlie, Phil. He was too annoying, I had decided.
There’s Tim, who I remember intimidating and bullying with a group of guys on the slide. I don’t know why we did it, or how we did it, but he cried, we got called to the principal’s office. I lied my way out of it and got off scot-free.
There was Sonia, who fancied me and was my almost-girlfriend in second grade until embarrassment got the better of me and I shrugged her off.
There was Ruth, who was slow, but sweet, yet we never recognized the latter.
Aaron, with his different habits certainly did little to deserve the troubles we gave him.
Lucy R—ugly nerd.
Christie—used to be cute and cool, but not anymore.
Joseph, Sonia’s brother—a little dweebish with clothes that were small for him.
Each face told story. Each story told of a boy who hated, judged, teased, hurt, mocked, and disrupted the lives of other simple fifth grade boys and girls. I looked back into the eyes of the boy. He smiled back at me, living in the glory of fifth grade.
I closed the yearbook.
Mr. Edwards walked up and we began to tour that school I used to attend.