I don’t know what this is or where it would ever go. But it felt good to write.
In my 8th-grade yearbook, on the inside covers where people are supposed to leave their indelible wisdom for the ages alongside their silly doodles and autographs, there is a fantastically artistic signature from Shanna J. She claimed my yearbook’s virginity: “Looks like I’m the first one to sign your book back.” She went on through a light but fun paragraph of memories, complete with doodles of her in a bathtub — don’t get the wrong idea: she performed a dance routine to “Splish Splash” in the school talent show I co-emceed. “You’re the best talent show MC/host/councelor” (sic) she wrote. “Hope you’re around next time I get nervous around balloons.”
I haven’t thought about this in years. Decades, really. I wasn’t sure at first what the balloon reference even was. Now I remember: the “bubbles” in her act were small balloons that kept popping as she got into and out of the prop tub, and they freaked her out. Apparently, I helped ease her nerves. I don’t know how. I probably cracked jokes.
I’d like to say my skills as a comedian are what landed my job as talent show emcee. I come from a family of joke-tellers, and my friends today know me, in part, for my sense of humor. But I do remember very vividly the day I was selected to emcee the talent show.
My teacher and the show’s coördinator, Billie C. Hoffmann, had an old cowboy boot she used as a hall pass. This thing was so ancient it sagged at the ankle so the whole sheath of the boot flopped sideways. The toe curled up. Over the years, students had painted the boot in highlighters, paint pens, and Wite-Out. We cherished it. But in the run-up to the talent show, Mrs. Hoffmann hung the boot on her classroom door. Any student, at any time, could put his or her name in the boot, and from these names, Mrs. Hoffmann would select the coolest, most outgoing boy and girl to serve as co-emcees.
I was not the coolest kid in school, not by a long shot. I also was not as outgoing as I am today. At least, I didn’t feel that way. But the year before I’d run the spotlight for the talent show and loved it, and since I didn’t have any particular talents, I thought maybe I could at least deliver a little pre-scripted banter between acts and get on stage that way. So I put my name in the boot.
I was astounded when I’d been selected as the boy emcee. Excited, sure, but also a bit wary. How on earth had I been picked? I went to Mrs. Hoffmann after school one day — she was my English teacher the year before and oversaw the yearbook I was working on this year, and she and I were becoming friends — and I asked her, just to make sure: “What made you think I was the best boy for the emcee job?”
She said, “I’ll be honest with you. You were the only boy in the boot.”
In my yearbook, Mrs. Hoffmann wrote, “To my friend Sam — fellow coke drinker, fellow talent show star, fellow journalist, all around nice person in spite of the weird laugh, fellow classical music aficionado.” (While my classmates were jamming to The Dead Kennedys and The Cure while working on our yearbook after school, I plugged in my Walkman headphones and listened to tapes of Schubert and Vivaldi.)
On that same page, Stephanie M apologized to me. “I’m so sorry I can’t calm down,” she wrote. “Last year you were one of my good friends.” And of course there’s the obligatory “stay cool forever.”
I didn’t stay cool forever. I don’t recall being particularly cool in middle school, but in high school, I became decidedly uncool. I hung out with the D&D geek crowd, getting milk-bombed in the cafeteria, and once I’d fumbled my way through a string of embarrassing overtures to girls and finally landed myself a real live girlfriend, I systematically alienated all my friends.
And I don’t recall being a particularly good friend to Stephanie, either. I was always cool to her, and when my middle-school friends, in their idiot machismo, sought to diss her as unworthy of friendship (I won’t repeat their insults here), I want to say I stood up for her. But I also don’t remember what I might have done to earn her friendship or make her want to write in my yearbook. My friends thought she had a crush on me. I didn’t know what to think — I felt overwhelmed by attention, and just wanted to crawl into the familiar comfort of weekends playing Nintendo and drinking two-liters of Big Red cola at my friend Josh’s house.
Josh E was one of my two respites from the mundanity of family life. He was the first of my few friends, and he was the first to get a Nintendo, and we would spend whole weekends together at his house playing Super-Mario Bros. He was always better than I was. With our mutual friend Warren, we were a goofy, geeky triumvirate of adolescent bonding, all but inseparable.
I’d lost track of Josh years ago. Even in high school, really: while I was off indulging in what I thought was great romance and shoving all my friends farther into the shadows, Josh — classy guy that he was — had slipped quietly away, not engaging in the drama of bros-versus-girlfriends but simply letting happen what happened. I drifted away; he let me. So I hadn’t heard from him since before graduation.
He died while I was teaching college between my masters degree and my doctorate. I got the email from my father; much later, I got the story from my old high school friends, though to this day I’m not entirely sure what happened. Josh had been driving across the Nevada desert late at night. He’d been in a car wreck — did he flip his truck or slam into another car in a head-on collision? I can only hear the echoing whine of wrenching steel, smell the acrid burn of tire upended in the dark desert air, feel heady from the gasoline fumes. As far as I know, he died instantly.
When I called his mother to offer my condolences, she wept into the phone. His mother was a fantastic woman who liked country music and fed us tortellini — I hadn’t known before then that there was any pasta beyond spaghetti and macaroni. Crying over the phone, she asked me, “Did Josh believe in heaven?”
I don’t know what Josh believed. The only memory I have of us talking about the afterlife was the time I was complaining about the Texas summer heat and he explained how much he loved the heat: “When I die, I hope I go to Hell,” he said. “Heaven would probably be too cold.”
On the phone with Josh’s mom, I said, “We didn’t really talk about that sort of thing very often, but I’m sure he’s in a better place.”
In my yearbook, in a sloppy, open hand and a rebellious disregard for apostrophes, Josh wrote, “Hi Sam, Dont be a Fuck Face, Josh E.
It’s as useful a mantra as any I could hope for. I didn’t heed it in high school. I try to heed it now.
This is a nonfiction exercise outlined and practiced by my good college friend Kristen Keckler in her guest post on Bill Roorbach’s “Bad Advice Wednesdays” series. Her post’s title: “Bad Advice Wednesday: Reelin’ in the Years.” The gist: dig out your old high school yearbook, check out the signatures there, and let the memories flow.
So I did just that. Except my senior yearbook doesn’t have any autographs — by that point, I was so adolescently rebellious and so disillusioned by my high school years that I’d given a big middle finger to the whole tradition of yearbook signing. Plus, I knew no one would want to sign it anyway: I was kind of a dick in high school. And I wasn’t one of the cool kids, so who would want to sign my book?
That was the story I told myself then. These are the stories I tell myself now: I was on my way out, not looking back, and couldn’t be bothered to track down signatures. Also, I was absurdly shy and didn’t want to face the rejection of someone choosing NOT to sign my yearbook.
My freshman yearbook is similarly empty, though I couldn’t tell you why.
So I had to go back to my middle school yearbook, eighth grade year, where, miracle of miracles, I do have a handful of signatures, most of which I reference here.
All the names here are real, though, as I said, Josh has since died, and Steph has since married and changed her last name. She is a great friend today, and I’ve tried to live up to her early and probably too kind estimation of me. Shanna I haven’t heard from since school. I did reconnect briefly with my dear Mrs. Hoffmann, who now insists I treat her as a colleague and call her Billie. She remains one of the coolest teachers I’ve ever had.
Incidentally, I don’t have her autograph, but if anyone’s curious what famous ESPN Sports Nation host Michelle Beadle looked like in 8th grade, I totally have her photo in my yearbook. 🙂