Lightning in a Jar: Chapter 1

James at 16 – continued

MM in High School

It is said that when we grow up, we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture our youth. Each in our own way, we long to relive the best moments and hold on to them forever. Like a roll of bright, shiny pennies we keep in our pocket for safe keeping. Or the pouch of jacks your mom once bought you at the five and dime. These are the things we treasure, the mementos of our life.

But here’s the quandary: You can’t go home again. You can’t get it back, and thinking otherwise is like trying to capture lightning in a jar. For me, it’s the memory of James at 16.  When I think of him then, I feel an ache of a thousand dreams, for the choices we make in our youth can reverberate for a very long time.

By the time I met James, I was already dating Jake, a senior. I was a junior, and dating a senior carried a lot of cache, particularly if he had a car. Meanwhile, James was a lowly sophomore. Our high school only went from 10th to 12th grade, so you couldn’t get more bottom of the barrel than being a sophomore.

I was giddy, head over heels in love. Jake was an amazing guy who was so dazzling and over the top, he was like the host of his own game show, unabashedly greeting the rest of us as if we were the audience–his legions of fans. And perhaps, we were.

With his razzmatazz smile, he’d be pumping hands and doing his best game show host appeal. Guys loved hanging out with him. There were always a few around who didn’t seem to have girlfriends of their own, and, the fact that Jake had a car, while most of us relied on bikes was key, no doubt. But more importantly, Jake always had on hand a stash of pot, and he was happy to share. He’d look you in the eye, flash his best TV host grin and dare you to figure out your utmost desires–did you want what was behind door number one or door number two? I could never decide.

I was so crazy wild in love with Jake, I thought this was it (Read more about him in my post, First Love). That we’d marry one day, and have a slew of game host children. He told me what I wanted to hear, wrote me poetry, spent hours with me on the phone, and said we’d have a future together. I almost stopped breathing, holding all that joy inside. I was that happy.

James was in my geometry class. We called it remedial math because it was for slow learners who needed that “extra push”—a year and a half to learn about isosceles triangles and the like, when most everyone else could do it in just one year. I took the class because I didn’t have a choice. Math of any kind was definitely not my forte. Blame my guidance counselor, Mrs. W., who never really took me seriously as a student and was just trying to put me anywhere she could in order for me to stop pestering her. Mrs. W., with her teased, bouffant hairdo and a look that always made her appear dumbfounded.

“Mrs. W.,” I’d say. “I want to sign up for chorus.”

“Mrs. W., I have a note from home that excuses me from debating in debate class the rest of the semester.”

“Mrs. W, is there another English class I can take? Everyone says Mr. D is a tough grader.”

“Mrs. W, is it too late to sign up for music appreciation instead of home ec?”

Honestly, you’d think that someone who showed as much interest in my education as I did, would get a break from the guidance counselor. But she never did, which later proved to be a tricky thing when it came to my college apps.

Anyway, back to geometry. I spent at least two months, maybe more, without saying bupkis to James. I sat in the second to last seat, in the middle of the classroom and had a great view of the entire class, except the back row—and guess who sat right behind me? Yep, James, and next to him was his best friend from grade school, Sam.

Somewhere around the third month of class, our teacher, Mrs. C, had a brain fart. Mrs. C. was actually really nice. She only looked strict and scary. Inside her was one of those hearts of gold. Outside, she was painfully thin with pale, taut skin. Wait—who am I kidding? The woman was ghostly white. Practically skeletal, with a smear of red on her thin, veiny lips. Her stark black hair was cut off at the chin. If you ask me, she appeared almost like an aging Snow White. No make that Snow White as an addict. Addicted to what? I don’t know. Parallelograms, I suppose.

On this particular day, Mrs. C. decided we should break out into small groups to do some team assignment. Ugh. I hated group assignments. It usually meant you had to produce some work and actually participate, demonstrating that you understood how the problem was solved. And then someone had to be designated as the spokesperson for the group. And, you better believe, it wasn’t going to be me.

When it came time to break into groups, Mrs. C. assigned me to work with, you guessed it, James and Sam. Being in the class was bad enough, but now I had to team up with sophomores?

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends were sophomores. Like Barbara. She and I would sometimes hang out during lunch and sing duets of old tunes like, “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” We were so good, we could’ve taken our act on the road. Okay, maybe not.

But, the verdict was out on these two yahoos. True, I had talked to Sam a few times and he was pretty funny. Acerbic and witty. My kind of humor. But, James on the other hand was shy. Super shy. I never really heard him talk. Perhaps he was thinking hard of what to say, but I didn’t have time to wait around and find out. On the few occasions that I had given him a nod in greeting, I always caught him gazing at me with some foolish grin on his face. Okay, maybe it was a cute grin. More like a half smile. But really, who smiles like that for no reason?

I turned my chair around and said, as I often did, as a result of watching too many late night Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies on TV, “Okay, you dirty rats. Let’s cut to the chase. Which one of you is going to do the assignment and which one is going to present?”

For a second, they blankly stared at each other. Then, James looked me square in the eye. Handing me a pencil, he replied, in his best Bogart impression, “Listen here, Sister, this is how it’s going to be, see? You’re gonna help us solve this problem, and Sam here, he’s gonna present. I’ll make sure of that. But, you’re in it for the long haul, see? Now, suppose we get to work.”

So, the kid could talk and hold his own, too. Feeling somewhat chastened, I took the pencil and moved my chair closer in. Maybe team work wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the High School Years page.

31 thoughts on “Lightning in a Jar: Chapter 1

  1. As always, I enjoy reading your work, Monica.
    “‘But, you’re in it for the long haul, see? Now, suppose we get to work.'” And you thought you were going to tell him what time it was. LOL
    A foreshadowing of sort? Hmmm…I like it. Catching up on your blog. Starting here.

    • I am so glad you’re reading my new series. I am totally getting a kick out of “reliving” these stories, these memories, although, as you will see, they weren’t all good. But somehow, writing this makes youth feel eternal. So, thanks for reading! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on future chapters!

  2. There is nothing richer than our past. It’s writer crack. Often we might think a memory isn’t worth remembering, but once we do, we’re knee deep in an amazing story such as this one. Bogart!? Be still my beating heart.

  3. Monica, just when we think it can’t get better, you give us Lightning in a Jar! I absolutely LOVE it! And really, who can resist a guy who does Bogart? Not me! He sounds endearing already! I am so glad you went ahead with this series. It is delightful! 🙂

    • I’m glad too, Bella. The memories, the stories, the words, they’re all just pouring out of me and somehow falling into place. It’s exciting and fun and also poignant to be reliving those days. To write this, I have to get into my high school “zone.” I listen to the music of the era, read all the letters I’ve kept, pour through my yearbooks. Bottom line is I’m so immersed the feels all feel raw and close to my heart all over again. Strange, isn’t it?

  4. I already like your James! He sounds witty and able to hold his own. Your group was a whole lot better than the ones I endured in high school — seemed like I always got the lion’s share of the work, then the blame when things didn’t go the way everybody expected, ha!

  5. My memories of high school are tinged with the awkwardness of those years — I was young (having skipped a grade), and caught in that nether world of wanting acceptance in a social order that would end up meaningless. Unlike you, I can’t say there’s anyone from those years who made me wish things had turned out differently, but I can say how wonderfully you capture that time and place.

    • Lisa, I was in love with the movies of the golden era. From the time I was two, my mother and an older cousin who lived with us, would take me to the movies. I got to see “Gigi” at least five times in the theatre. I was a toddler, but I watched in rapt attention. Loved the music. Growing up in New York, there was always an old movie on TV. I think I’ve seen them all!

  6. Nice post Monica.

    I went through three schools and liked no more than three or four other pupils out of the lot, I wanted to learn and most of the others sadly just wanted to be elsewhere.

    One thing I did learn was that the quiet ones were the ones who ended up surprising you. And the loud ones were just loud to mask a mass of insecurities that they had.

    • So we’re you one of the quiet ones? I moved around from school to school all through grade school. But once we moved to the suburbs, I was pretty much in the same school until graduation.

      • Yes I have always been one of the quiet ones! I am not one for loud things nor for that matter disturbing others. I often like my own company I suppose you could say. When I like somebody then I like them and will help them in any way I can, if I don’t like somebody then I tend to not get involved with them very much, but I am fiercely loyal towards friends.

        The three schools I went to were infant, junior and senior. Plus I lived in the same house for all of that time. I am not a great lover of moving about, I like roots!

        I have always loved to learn new things and increase my knowledge, but always felt frustrated at school by others who thought that life was a season ticket and they could get in free!

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