“It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things. “
― Theodore Roosevelt
Mom flew ahead to Tampa to try to figure out where we were going to live while Dad stayed in San Diego to wrap up his last weeks of battalion command. Pa Pa Dan met me in San Diego towards the end of July, and together we embarked on a week-long road trip to Tennessee, our family’s minivan stuffed to bursting with family treasures and our two golden retrievers. The dogs rode comfortably in state between our television and my mother’s silver chest. Mom and I then spent a week at her parent’s house in Tullahoma before the two of us lit out together for Florida. We crossed the state line late one summer afternoon and stopped at the Welcome Center. I grabbed a complimentary cup of freshly squeezed orange juice and marveled at the palm trees and the flatly tropical terrain.
Once again, I’d landed in a foreign country.
|The Chamberlain High School Chiefs|
Chamberlain High School was exactly like Fallbrook, save that it existed in a parallel universe. I’d fallen through the looking glass. Everything was recognizable; nothing was the same. Like Fallbrook, Chamberlain was a big school. Both had maybe two thousand students, but at Chamberlain these were divided into just three grades with freshmen at another school. My graduating class had a whopping six hundred seventy-five kids. Where Fallbrook had offered JV and varsity cheerleading, Chamberlain had cheerleading and dance, both varsity, with dance being the school’s preeminent girls’ sports team. Both schools boasted football teams that almost always contended for their respective conference championships in large, well-appointed stadiums. Both schools were physically large as well. But where Fallbrook had an outdoor open-plan layout with a central auditorium and an outdoor student quad, Chamberlain existed as a set of enormously long indoor hallways radiating from a central auditorium hub. Even the mascots were the same. Fallbrook boasted the Warriors; Chamberlain was home to the Chiefs. Both were stern Native American men seen in profile. The school logos were the identical save for their color scheme.
Something died inside of me when I saw all of this. Seeing the same rah-rah spirit that I’d loved so completely in Fallbrook replicated to the last detail at an alien institution on the other side of the country was somehow more than I could bear. Fallbrook had been unique and wonderful. But then Chamberlain was too--in exactly the same ways! I felt a sense of vertigo, and some part of my soul cracked, exposing a raw nerve covered imperfectly by a perpetual veneer of bulletproof swagger.
I slouched into the vice-principal’s office a few days after we arrived, wearing shorts and a faded-out t-shirt. I sat uninvited in one of his office chairs and threw my leg up over the arm like I was at home in my father’s recliner. My body slumped against the wall, radiating a carefully controlled California Cool. The vice-principal gave me his heaviest stink-eye, but I ignored him with practiced indifference. I’d come in ready to own his office. A part of me wondered what the Hell his problem was.
“Sit up straight, young man,” the vice-principal snapped.
I sat up slowly. “Okay.” Why am I talking to the vice-principal, I wondered. Doesn’t this guy know who I am?
He did not. The stink-eye intensified, and he used it to give me a long once-over. “So you say you want to go to Chamberlain…” His voice was a menacing growl.
“I guess,” I replied.
“Want” was putting it rather strongly. My folks had moved, and this was going to be my school. Chamberlain was a public school, so I knew they weren’t going to turn me away.
The vice-principal looked at my mother, and the patience of long suffering ran across his face.
Was that a sigh?
“Let me see the transcript,” he said at last.
My mother handed over a manila folder that contained my scholastic information. The vice-principal opened that folder with the edge of his pencil, as if my mother might have booby-trapped it. He started drumming his pencil on the top of his desk and glanced quickly at the pages within. Then he sat up slowly and started staring. His pencil tapped the table again and again. A long half-minute passed during which he snapped that pencil like it was a drumstick hitting a snare.
What the Hell is wrong with this guy?
When he looked up, he was a different man. A smile lit his face. To my mother, he said, “You, ah… you say he swims, too?”
“I swim butterfly,” I replied. “I placed top eight at the San Diego CIF Championships two years in a row.”
This earned a blank look and then went ignored. He looked at my mother again. “You know, he can’t be our valedictorian. Chamberlain doesn’t recognize honors credits received from outside the district.”
My mother was aghast. I, however, had been expecting this. You can’t win the Sarkis Spanjian Award without being at Fallbrook for four years, either. Guys like this never just give it away. They want commitment. Mom argued the point for far longer than I thought necessary. It was obviously pointless.
“Where do you think he’ll be ranked?” my mother asked at last, now sounding worried.
The vice-principal looked her over and then very clearly decided to try to mollify her. “Well, all the honors and AP credits he earns here will count, certainly. Chamberlain is a three-year school, so he’s not as far behind as you might think.”
Mom wasn't happy, but the discussion was moot. Besides, they were talking about the least important aspect of high school life. My road to college ran through Junior Nationals. This was not a secret.
“One more thing,” my mom said. She turned to look at me, and a sly look crossed her face. “Ask him if there’s a dress code.”
“A dress code? Mom, this is Florida.”
She pointed. “Ask him.”
Dramatic sigh. “Is there a dress code?”
The vice-principal looked pleased with himself. “You can’t wear shorts,” he said.
“No shorts. They’re not conducive to a proper learning environment.”
“No shorts?” I said this deadpan. I’m sure I must have rolled my eyes. “Mom, it turns out that there is a dress code. We’re not allowed to wear shorts. In Tampa, Florida.”
As we got up to go, I thought, Two years here? Good God, why can’t I just go home?