Long ago, in a high school far, far away, I was one of a few freshmen cast in my school’s production of Grease. It was awesome. Playing the role of a Pink Lady – even a lesser one like Jan – let me live out fantasies of being part of the mean girl, cool chick pack, without actually having to be mean or cool. And I got to do it all while eating Twinkies and wearing a rosy satin bomber jacket. Lick your pointer finger and tap it on your butt, ‘cuz I sizzled like that.
On a suburban, high school stage, I learned to dance the Lindy in the authentic 1950’s, Brooklyn way, and, although my mom and aunt will tell you that my technique has a touch more 1984 than it should, I still break out those moves with pride on every bar mitzvah dance floor. Life skills, people. The theater taught me life skills.
Not only that. When I auditioned for the role, the director asked if I was willing to gain 10 pounds, to more authentically replicate the pudgy Jan character, but I said no. And then I ate a ton of Twinkies backstage during three months of rehearsals and did it anyway. That’s what thespians call dedication to the craft.
In my actual high school life offstage, the payoff was also pretty fantastic. Why? One word: Markus. Who is he, you ask? Two more words: Danny Zuko. You had to see that coming, right? That the freshman playing Jan would fall in love from afar with the incredibly tall, incredibly handsome, and super smart senior boy cast as Danny Zuko? Being who I was and seeing who he was, I knew that we were destined to Just Be Friends, so I didn’t even try to flirt with him. No matter, our relationship was already way more real than anything I had with John Travolta. Markus said hello to me in the cafeteria three times and waved once on his way to the parking lot. We were in the chorus together, like, harmonizing. We even attended the same parties! He was over there laughing with his friends the whole night and I was over here staring blankly at mine, but still. I was fourteen years old and I was just so damned content to exist in the same orbit as this stellar senior and his posse.
Yes, posse. Markus came with a bonus: a sister, Kitty, who was a junior. Equally tall, good-looking, and talented, Kitty played Marty, the sophisticated Pink Lady with a pen pal in every port. I wanted to live that sleepover scene in real life, without the ear piercing and vomit, and have these older girls teach me how to be them. I developed girl-crushes on each and every one of them for a whole host of reasons, from Rizzo’s spiky hairstyle to Frenchy’s pretty, open smile. These were the upperclassmen who led me into the fold, welcomed me to high school, and made me feel like I belonged.
Although my relationship with them was fleeting – I’ve since learned that, after the cast party, it’s just never the same – I cherished that moment in time, when I was the newbie and some great upperclassmen took me under their wing.
My son, Andrew, is now a freshman in high school. Cast in Barrington High School’s Stagemaster’s spring play, he hangs out with upperclassmen in a way that seems – to me, anyway – to be nothing less than super fun. In fact, his entire freshman year has been marked by this type of camaraderie, in which upperclassmen take an interest in a new kid and show him the ropes, or give him a job to do.
I think about what it means to be a senior in high school. There is the tremendous stress of applying to college, followed by a lull, and then the big reveal (Where will I go? Who will I become?) with a final push to hurry up and…slow down. Does that make sense? You’re so busy looking forward to the next thing, and then you remember that you also need to enjoy the here and now before it’s gone. You spend that year looking backwards and ahead simultaneously.
How can you possibly accomplish all that you had set out to do before graduation when you are being pulled in a million directions? By passing on some of that self to a freshman. Intentionally or not, I think these older kids have reached out to the underclassmen around them as a way to stay connected to high school just a little bit longer. For example, when you say to a freshman on your team that you want him to be a captain in his senior year, you are wishful-thinking someone else’s bright future by sharing your past success with them. How extraordinary. You are saying, this was important to me, and I hope you love it as much as I do and continue on with the club/team/activity long after I’ve moved on. And, by doing that, you are creating a legacy for yourself, in a current that ripples out behind you like a powerboat’s wake. Me. And then you, and then him, and her, and her too.
And, if that’s the case, then Markus and Kitty reached out to me, and I reached out to my friend Julie and she reached out to a girl named Lisa and we all reached out, eventually, to Andrew. In this same spirit, one can only hope that, when Andrew is a senior, he will in turn reach out to some underclassmen, including his sister, Zoe, who will be a freshman at Barrington High that same year. (One can only hope, I said.)
So, best of luck to the senior class, wherever life leads you next. If that’s straight off to your freshman year in college, may you find an upperclassman to put an arm around you and say, Welcome, dude. We’re glad you’re here. Now get on stage and project that voice!