A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


I had mixed feelings about graduating from high school 30 years ago this month.

For the most part, high school had been a good time for me. I worked hard in the classes that interested me, and cruised through the rest. I had good friends, and parents who gave me a lot of freedom and plenty of polyester. I had access to the 1962 Cadillac that was our familyís second car, and Dad usually let me use his credit card to fill it with gas (which wasnít as generous as it sounds, since gas was only 25 cents a gallon). While we werenít wealthy by any means, I donít remember being denied many opportunities or activities because we couldnít afford them.

Life was good in high school, and I figured that whatever I did next -- work, college or being drafted and sent to Vietnam -- had to be tougher. So why go?

Of course, staying in high school for another year or two wasnít an option. Not really. I had completed the required 12 years of public education, and so it was time to "step through the door" -- whatever that meant -- even though it actually felt more like stepping off a cliff. I dressed up in cap and gown (exactly who was it who decided that wearing a flat piece of cardboard on your head with a tassel dangling from it looks smart?) and I matriculated.

I worked hard that summer trying to earn the money I needed for college. But my heart wasnít in it. And not just because construction work turned out not to be my thing (on my first day I was assigned to use this dirt compactor thingy and nearly compacted my feet, the project footings and my work partnerís 1968 Malibu into oblivion). I missed the comfort and security of high school and was still uncertain about that door that I was supposed to step through.

So when I was invited back to the high school for a special assembly on the first day of the new school year, I jumped at the chance. Oh, sure, I acted properly coy about it. But inside, I was excited, and part of me hoped we could figure out a way for me to stay -- at least for a while.

Walking in those doors I felt like I was home until I saw my favorite teacher, Mr. B.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

His greeting wasnít nearly as warm and friendly as it sounds.

"Um, they asked me to come back for an assembly," I said. Then I ventured: "But I donít know -- maybe Iíll just . . . you know . . . stay!"

I was trying to make a joke. Sort of. But he wasnít laughing.

"Shouldnít you be in college?" he asked.

"Well, no," I stammered. Why was this so uncomfortable? "We start next week."

"Oh, I see," he said. "Youíre not going to hang around here all week, are you?"

Well, the possibility HAD occurred to me. But suddenly . . .

"No . . . are you kidding? Iíve got . . . you know . . . work and stuff. And Iíve got to get ready . . . you know . . . for school and everything . . ."

"Yes, you do," he said, his eyes firmly fixed on mine. "Good-bye, Mr. Walker."

Suddenly, I felt uneasy. Familiar halls felt unfamiliar. An entire class of students had no idea who I was, and those who did know me looked at me suspiciously. I began to regret my decision to come back, especially when the people who had invited me back explained that I was basically being used as a prop to say, "out with the old, in with the new." So when I walked across the stage everybody cheered -- not because I was THERE, but because I was LEAVING.

It was sort of humiliating, and I left as quickly as I could. On my way out I noticed my old teacher standing near the office. But this time I didnít stop to talk, and he made no effort to stop me. Finally I knew the first door I had to step through.

It was the one on the high school. The one marked "exit."

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--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through