TO THE CLASS OF 2017:
It was 45 years ago this month that I graduated from high school, and every so often a few of my old friends get together for a weekend of wine, memories, laughs, and sentiment. This time we met up in Ventura. Even though our school – Piedmont Hills – was located on the east side of San Jose, a handful of us have relocated to southern California, and we thought we’d gather down there for a change.
Two days, many cocktails, countless stories, a plethora of hugs, and a few tears later, I drove back home, cranking up the tunes (a luxury best reserved for solo driving) and reflecting on where we’d all come from and where all these years had taken us.
I was utterly terrified on my first day of high school. I’d come from a Catholic school and had never known what it was like to have lockers, carry books, change classes, navigate from building to building, or walk hallways filled with students who were older, more mature, and almost adults. “I couldn’t believe that I was now surrounded by men,” one of us said this weekend. “Not boys, but men. With beards.” To some of us that was exhilarating. To me, it was just plain frightening. Raised by loving but extremely protective parents, I was naïve and unsophisticated.
Within minutes after I arrived at school that first day, a senior boy/man saw me and took off his class ring, slipping it on my finger and asking me how that felt. I didn’t know what to make of the entire thing. I was only 12 years old. Just a baby. I went home and told my father about the whole mystifying situation, and he made quick work of tracking down that senior and handing him a stern lecture. My father, you see, was the principal.
Obviously I had a few strikes against me.
Later that day, we were all asked to pair up and choose locker partners. Most of my St. Victor’s Elementary School classmates were off at Catholic high schools, and I didn’t know a soul. The time ticked down and I found myself standing alone, consumed, as always, with worry. But I mustered my courage, walked up to a total stranger, and asked her to be my partner. Her name was Barbara. I don’t know why I picked her. Maybe it was because she looked reserved, she wasn’t rocking a miniskirt, and she wasn’t sporting two tons of blue eye shadow. I hoped that my intuition was right and that she wouldn’t reject me. Saints be praised, she said yes immediately, which was a great act of gallantry because she had to have known that I was the principal’s daughter and that her association with me could prove to be an inconvenience at best. Almost half a century later, we’re still in touch. And by the way, she still looks exactly the same.
Barb didn’t have a single affectation. There wasn’t an elitist or supercilious bone in her body. Her parents worked on a farm, and she routinely presented me with gorgeous fresh produce as gifts. One time she gave me some sweet anise on my birthday and I was so thrilled that I gushed about it in my diary. I also remember driving out to the farm with my parents to pick squash blossoms, because there is nothing more delicious in this world than fried zucchini flowers. (Just dip them in egg and flour, fry briefly in oil, and be prepared to swoon.)
In those days, San Jose was not the technology mecca it is today. Much of it, in fact – especially on the east side, where we lived – was agricultural land. As my high school years went on, I would befriend lots of kids who had grown up on ranches and farms and knew their way around the county fair.
Barb had met Sue when they started kindergarten at Orchard Elementary School, one of the oldest educational institutions in the state (1856) and one that served residents of a part of the city that remained agrarian despite the burgeoning presence of housing tracts and malls. The two girls bonded at naptime that first day because Sue had an apparently-coveted Huckleberry Hound mat.
While Barb was more reticent, Sue was outgoing and full of spirit. She was optimistic and quick to laugh. I also thought she was very grown up – not in a “blue eye shadow” kind of way, but in a wise kind of way. She meant a lot to me because she always gave me good advice that came from a warm place deep in her heart.
In preparation for this reunion, I decided to drag out my diaries. For about 17 years, I diligently wrote in those little books every night, with the tiniest of Parker pen nibs. The diaries were delightfully unfiltered and un-self-censored, and when I think about it, I really have in my hands a remarkably honest chronicle of a young girl’s adolescence and young adulthood.
According to my diary, in March of 1972 I decided to run away from home. I loved my parents dearly, but holy cats they were strict with me! I wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school when girls were finally given that “privilege.” I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at a friend’s house ever, even if both sets of parents knew and thought highly of each other, because my father thought it was barbaric not to be at home at night. On my first date (I was a senior) with Jerry Miyakusu, my curfew was so early that Jerry had to shatter speed records racing home from Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in his sports car on dangerously curvy backroads. I’ve never wolfed down a pizza that fast since. And I think Jerry created a sonic boom as he hurtled me home. He wouldn’t have had time to kiss me even if he had wanted to.
(By the way, in 1972 when I was finally allowed to wear pants to school – but only on Fridays – I donned a super-cool ensemble that consisted of tight gold-plaid pants and long-sleeved gold Western blouses with lots of embroidered curlicues and snaps.)
Anyway, my frustrations with my folks had been piling up, and according to my diary, on March 21:
I called Sue because I thought she had an empty duplex, but it’s inhabited. She said, “Don’t leave, Paula, it won’t solve anything.” So I didn’t.
It was as simple as that. My plans were instantly jettisoned. Sue had spoken.
I guess it makes sense that Sue would go on to be a teacher and a motivational speaker.
I was an absent-minded little thing. It was legendary. My mother would ask me to “watch the rolls,” and I stood and stared at the oven glass and watched the rolls burn to a crisp. I routinely threw my socks away. I was playing the board game Risk once, with a Ritz cracker in my hand, and I popped the dice into my mouth and rolled the cracker!
Wednesday I looked in my purse for my glasses but they weren’t there. Obviously I almost had a heart attack! I decided to tell the parents at Clear Lake this weekend when they were in a good mood. But luckily I asked Miss Lasagna [yes, that was her real name] and she said she found them and my badminton racket on her desk. Whew! I don’t know how many times I have come so close to losing my glasses. And last Thursday I came home from badminton, changed, took off my blouse, and calmly went into the bathroom and deposited it in the toilet!
When I read back over those diaries, I am absolutely astounded at how worried I was about every little thing. I mean, I was a roiling cauldron of anxiety.
Boy, am I worried. Last semester I had a lot of points wrapped up by Final time, but not this year. In Chem I have a 90%, and I need an 86 on the Final to get an A. Shoot! His Finals are tough. I may shoot myself if I miss it. You won’t believe how worried I am. Every so often little pangs of fear go through me.
I am worried sick about the swim test tomorrow because of only one thing – diving. I can do everything else but that, and I get so embarrassed when I bellyflop.
Friday is the GAA/Faculty Mixed Doubles Tennis Tournament, and I am worried. I have to play some of the best players. It’ll be worse with Mr. Barisich as my partner because now he’ll know how really lousy I am.
Nearly every page is filled with one anxiety or another, sometimes accompanied by beseeching prayers to the Almighty. This one really takes the cake:
I, my friends, am really up-tight about something which most people would be happy about. “Our gang,” or, as we have come to call ourselves, “the out crowd,” has informed me that I may accidentally get a lot of nominations for Junior Prom Princess. Well, for one thing, I am not pretty. The only time I may be cute is when I smile, which helps decrease the length of my nose. Maybe I can persuade the kids to put up somebody else. Help me, God!
Finally, there’s this:
Today I went to the dentist. I had no cavities but I had fluoride. YICK! I hate it, and it always upsets me for a long time.
I honestly can’t figure out what on earth that last one means.
It was an interesting time to be young, back then. Just a few months before we started as freshmen, both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The number of Vietnam War casualties would hit an all-time high of nearly 17,000 in 1968. New and wilder kinds of drugs were infiltrating the schools.
Over the next four years, the war engagement would start to wind down. Men’s hair would grow longer. Women would start to speak up. The voting age would be reduced from 21 to 18. Meanwhile, we were learning who we were and how we fit in with the changing times. Some of us (myself not included) wore black armbands to school to protest the war. Some of us struggled with figuring out our political identities and how to behave in a world in which gender roles were suddenly changing. We made mistakes and we were insecure and we were sometimes jealous in the most petty of ways, but we were all finding our way, bound together by the fears and joys and struggles of adolescence.
I remained – not altogether voluntarily – essentially a Puritan. My friends still remember the long skirts my mother sewed for me. And of course, as the principal’s daughter, I could get away with nothing. On Senior Cut Day I was one of the few hapless kids forced to come to school. The worst thing I ever did was steal some pre-signed get-out-of-class-free pink slips from one of the counselors and use them liberally during my senior year. I was finally caught by a sympathetic teacher who never ratted me out to my father, thank goodness.
Some of the friends I hung out with, though, were a little wilder. I loved them for what they were, but I think they deliberately withheld a lot of their activities from me – an arrangement that, in truth, was beneficial to all parties concerned. One of those friends was Jane, who had a gorgeous English accent and whom I always considered to be supremely exotic. She seemed so worldly. She flowed mysteriously through our group and I was never quite sure what she was up to, believing that one day she’d end up as some kind of insurgent – maybe one of those radicals who joined the Weather Underground and set off explosives.
Jane became a nurse. A Critical Care nurse, in fact. I imagine she has helped save thousands of lives in her career. In Ventura we talked about what retirement would mean for her, and she said she feared that leaving her job would mean losing her purpose in life. So we all discussed options that would enable her to maintain her dedication to health care, such as volunteering in places like homeless shelters. As she wavered about eventual retirement, I could see, in her eyes, her devotion to her calling.
Jane wasn’t the only one of the group who went into public service. I suppose it was the specific time in which we graduated, but it’s interesting that no one in our group left high school with the goal of making money. That wasn’t even in our vernacular. I think it was because we graduated at the tail end of the peace-and-love days. We were many years removed from the Summer of Love, but we were also two years ahead of the invention of the microprocessor and the total domination of the world by Silicon Valley. Just a couple of years after we left high school, people’s values began to change. But we just wanted to study the arts and help people and have a lot of goofy fun along the way.
Our friend Terrie became a lifelong public servant, too. After high school I lost track of her until many years later when I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle and her name suddenly appeared. I don’t remember what the story was about, but I learned that Terrie was a police officer in Morgan Hill. Eventually she would become Commander. Remember that in the 1970s there were very few female police officers anywhere, and Terrie was the only woman on the Morgan Hill force for a long time. To this day she says she didn’t think about it much. If she faced any biases, she never let them get under her skin. And she truly loved her job. In Ventura she talked about how people she’d arrested had come back to thank her because she listened so openly to them and, if they were willing, she helped them find their way towards becoming productive members of society. “It’s how you handle yourself,” she once said. “That goes across the board. If you have the ability to talk to people, to respect them, you can accomplish a lot. You always aim for diffusing a situation, not using force.” Terrie is probably one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and when she retired after serving for 26 years, the whole community felt the loss. A 2006 Letter to the Editor in the Morgan Hill Times said, “We have never met a more kind, generous, hard-working and professional public servant in our lives. Morgan Hill has been blessed. The force will be without her, but we know that she will only redirect her many talents in other community aspects. The quality of our community is so much better because of Terrie. May the force continue to be with you Terrie.”
Our friend Mary is the one who keeps everyone laughing, and she increases the hilarity quotient of any gathering by 1,000 percent. I mean, spend 5 minutes with the woman and you need to take Advil to soothe your stretched-out-from-laughing jaw muscles. I love her stories of our high school days, like the time she found an entire unopened jug of Spañada wine in the orchard and considered it to be the greatest treasure find of her young life. From what I gather, she dipped into that thing any number of times during the school year. My favorite family anecdote of hers is that she “started a campaign around Christmas time one year to convince my two younger sisters that Santa was indeed watching them – even in the bathroom. I constructed little paper cameras and colored them black, then placed them on top of the light so they could just see enough to be nervous!”
Mary left her home in northern California a number of years ago so that she could care for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She gave up a lot, but that’s who she is, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing things differently. She’s currently thinking about starting a humor blog, and we couldn’t be more encouraging about that. Start it now, Mary. It’s never too late.
When I really think about it, there weren’t all that many things that our group had in common. But we didn’t judge each other. We weren’t snarky. We were never arrogant. We never thought that we were the most interesting creatures on the planet.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s what we had in common.
Half of us turned out to be gay, proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my longtime contention that something sketchy was going on with the drinking water in the East San Jose foothills. Half of us ended up caring for parents with Alzheimer’s. Half of us had kids and grandchildren. And all of us have been successful. It really rankles me that the term “successful” means, to many people, earning a lot of money. You never hear people say that someone is “a successful preschool teacher” or “a successful police officer” or “a successful court clerk.” Well, in my book we’re successful if we pay our taxes and behave like responsible citizens. We’re successful if we raise our children with all the selflessness that that role demands. We’re successful if we keep our commitments to friends and family. Really, we’re successful if we manage to navigate our way gracefully through life’s challenges.
Being with these old classmates, despite the years and the miles, was easy. We don’t have to get to know each other all over again. It’s like the comfort of being bandmates or teammates or lovers. You may move on, but you can’t dismiss the times you spent together and the influences you had on each other’s lives.
As Sue summed it up later, “I just can’t put into words how precious every moment, every laugh, every tear is to my heart.”
A few days after I returned from Ventura, my family got together in San Jose to bestow our Gerald and Beverly Bocciardi scholarships on four remarkable seniors. All of them have specific goals and majors in mind, but the truth is, some of them will end up in places, and enjoying accomplishments, that they cannot even imagine now. We shook their hands and asked them about their college choices and their chosen fields, but if I’d had the time I would have said a lot more than that.
Don’t short-change yourself. Every so often, say hello to someone you don’t know. Be grateful for fresh produce. If someone you love wants to run away from home, or from life, talk them through it. Make others laugh. Consider public service. If you venture into the business world, keep your integrity; they’ll take your soul if you let them, ah, but don’t you let them. Take care of your parents, and learn about their lives; they are far more interesting than you think. Most importantly, hang on to your friends with character – the ones who count. If they call out your name, come running.
And for God’s sake, don’t be upset by fluoride.
Write your own life’s music. Learn the chords and the rudiments from the people who came before you, but then make the score your own. Play it loudly and then eventually teach it to others. That’s the reason you’re here.
That’s what we were doing, back in 1968. We were just trying to figure out our songs.