“Remember the rule,” Mom said. “Don’t shout out the answer until time is up, so we can have time to think about it.”
“I know,” I replied. In our family, this was called the Malcolm X Rule. A few years ago, the answer to the Final Jeopardy! question was Malcolm X, and Dad shouted out the answer before Mom was even done reading the question. To this day, if Mom is watching Jeopardy! with other people in the room, she has to remind them of the Malcolm X Rule, and on those rare occasions when I am not alone while watching Jeopardy!, I tell people the rule as well.
“Did you still want to look at that apartment guide tonight?” Mom asked.
“Sure. I’ll go get it. We can look at it after Jeopardy! is off.”
I climbed the stairs to my room. It was spring break, and I was back at my parents’ house in Plumdale for the week. Tomorrow was the only day I had plans for, and I was a little nervous about that, but it would certainly make for an interesting day.
I ran down the stairs, holding the apartment guide, taking the stairs two at a time to make sure I got back to the TV before Jeopardy! came back from the commercial, but not running too loudly because Dad was asleep. I had no place to live for next year, and I learned too late that apartments in Jeromeville fill up quickly. Jeromeville is a fairly small city with a large university, so students dominate the rental market, and most leases run from September through August. Apartments are listed on March 1 to rent for the following September, and people had told me that most apartments are leased within the first few weeks of this process. By the time I figured out that everyone I knew was making living arrangements for next year, everyone I knew already had a roommate, and most of them had signed leases, so I was a little panicked about that. The Associated Students organization publishes an apartment guide every year, which is what I held in my hands now, so at least that would help narrow down where I could find an appropriately sized and priced apartment, once I know whom, if anyone, I would be living with.
“Let’s see what our contestants know about Colonial America,” Alex Trebek said on the TV. “Here is your clue: ‘President of the Continental Congress 1775-77, he was reelected in 1785 but didn’t serve due to illness.’” The music played as the three contestants, Mom, and I thought about who this early American was.
“I don’t know,” Mom said as the song stopped and time ran out. “I keep thinking George Washington, but I’m probably missing something.”
“I was going to say John Hancock. His signature was first, so maybe he was President in 1776, I was thinking.”
“I bet you’re right.”
Each of the contestants revealed their answer, and Alex told them if they were correct or not. John Hancock was correct, and two contestants got it right. Mom started looking through the apartment guide, as if to get a feel for what our options were.
“These are expensive!” she said. That was definitely not what I needed to hear. Of course, Mom hadn’t been in the market to rent an apartment since the early 1970s, so I don’t know if she had a good idea of how much rent was in a normal city. I had no idea either, so I didn’t know if apartments in Jeromeville were more expensive than apartments in a normal city.
“Look at this place,” Mom said, pointing to the listing for some ritzy-sounding apartment in West Jeromeville. “‘Includes access to Stone Park Country Club.’ You don’t need something like that.”
“So what can you tell me about any of these places?”
“Central and Downtown Jeromeville are closest to campus, so that’d be an advantage to living there, but those are mostly older areas. There’s one part of North Jeromeville with a whole lot of apartments and two grocery stores nearby, and easy bus access to campus, and those areas look pretty nice. I’m probably most interested in those areas; the other parts of Jeromeville are getting farther away from campus, and I don’t want to be too far away.”
Mom and I continued looking at apartments; I made a mark next to the ones I wanted to look at more closely. “How much money do we have to work with?” I asked. “What if I don’t find a roommate? Can we afford for me to live alone?”
“Don’t worry about it. If we can’t, then you can always look for a part time job. Or answer a roommate wanted ad.”
“You keep saying not to worry, and I appreciate it, but I need a number. How much money? I need to know, so I can decide which places to call first, and whether or not I’ll need to get a job or room with a stranger.”
“Hmm,” Mom said, flipping through the apartment guide again. “I think we can do $500 a month. We’ll make it work.”
With this additional parameter, I narrowed the decision to five apartment complexes that I would call and visit as soon as I got back to Jeromeville. I had no idea if any of these apartment complexes still had vacancies. I didn’t have a timeline on how quickly Jeromeville runs out of apartments, so I didn’t know how likely these places were to have something still available.
I also felt guilty that my parents were spending that much money on me. Some parents don’t help their children with college at all. I could have saved a lot of money by finding a roommate earlier, like everyone else did, and even though I didn’t realize I had to do this, it felt like my fault that I didn’t. Getting my own apartment felt like a privilege I didn’t deserve, even though Mom seemed okay with it. Maybe I would look for a job for next year. I didn’t know what kind of job I was looking for, though. And this arrangement was only for one year; I’d do a better job of finding roommates for junior year when the time came.
“So what time are you meeting Melissa tomorrow?” Mom asked, changing the subject.
“At the school?”
“I think it’ll be fun to see all your old teachers. Which teachers are you going to see?”
“I don’t know. We’re going to see Mrs. Norton and Mr. Jackson for sure.”
“That’ll be fun.”
“I hope so.”
The next morning, I left the house in time to get to Plumdale High School at nine o’clock in the morning, just as I had planned. Melissa Holmes had sent me an email a week ago asking if I was going to be home for spring break. She was coming home from San Angelo University and wanted to visit Plumdale High and say hi to some of our old teachers. UJ and SAU had the same schedule, but our spring break was a different week from Plumdale High’s, so this was a regular school day for Plumdale High.
I saw Melissa’s little red Toyota Tercel in the parking lot. I wasn’t sure exactly where to look for her, if she expected me to go to the office or to Mrs. Norton’s room or Mr. Jackson’s room or what, but as I got closer I noticed that Melissa was still sitting in the car. I stepped outside. It was cold and overcast, with the marine fog layer hanging low overhead; I wore my sweatshirt that said JEROMEVILLE and had the university seal on it.
“Hey, Greg,” Melissa said, walking toward me and giving me a hug. “How’s it going? How was your break?”
“Good so far. I haven’t really done anything. Just hung out with family. How are you? Are you making any new friends at school? I remember we talked about that a while ago.”
“Yeah, I’ve started meeting people from classes, and from church. It gets kind of lonely not living in a dorm.”
“But it’s cheaper for you living with your grandmother,” I said. “And you probably also get more quiet study time than you would in a dorm.”
“So does anyone know we’re coming today?”
“I had my brother tell Mrs. Norton we were coming. Other than that, though, no.”
Melissa and I spent a few more minutes catching up in the parking lot, then we walked toward Mrs. Norton’s classroom. Back in 1995, school security wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. Students didn’t wear ID cards on lanyards, and neither did teachers. Visitors didn’t need passes, and many school campi didn’t even have fences around them. There was a chain link fence across the front of the PHS parking lot, with one of the full time campus supervisors stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, in a little booth, but that wasn’t an issue, because she knew me and she let me in. She did ask if I had permission to be there, though; I said I was home on spring break, and that Mrs. Norton knew I was coming. That was good enough.
“Hey there!” Mrs. Norton said, in her distinct voice and accent, after we walked into her classroom. Mrs. Norton was born and raised in Mississippi. “And Greg! You’re here too!” Mrs. Norton had been our teacher for AP Calculus last year, and she had been one of my favorite teachers at Plumdale High. I also had her for the second semester of Algebra II as a sophomore.
“Hi,” I said. “I hope that’s okay. It sounds like you didn’t know I was going to be here.”
“Sure!” Addressing the class, Mrs. Norton said, “Do y’all know Melissa and Greg? They both graduated from here last year.” Mrs. Norton turned to us and explained, “This is Algebra II, so it’s mostly juniors, with some sophomores and a few seniors.”
“Right,” I said.
“So what are y’all majoring in? Melissa, you’re pre-med, right?”
“Yes,” Melissa answered. “Majoring in biology, specifically.”
“I’m technically undeclared,” I said. “But right now I’m thinking I’m going to major in math. I still like math, and I’m still good at math.”
“That’s great!” Mrs. Norton said. “You’ll do great in math.”
Mrs. Norton finished the example she was working on, and when she gave the class a few minutes to work, she talked to us for a few more minutes, asking how we liked being away from home and things like that. She eventually asked if we were going to visit anyone else while we were here, and Melissa said that we were going to see Mr. Jackson.
After the current period ended and the next one started, Melissa and I left for Mr. Jackson’s class, waiting until the end of the passing period in order to avoid the crowds trying to get to class on time. Mr. Jackson was our teacher for AP English last year. He was tall and thin with curly gray hair, and he looked like he had been involved with theater at some point in his life. My mom told me once in the car on the way home that she thought he was gay, except that she used some much more inappropriate words in her description. I didn’t care if he was or not, and it made me a little uncomfortable the way Mom talked about people behind their backs that way. I had to see and interact with Mr. Jackson every day of senior year with Mom’s inappropriate comment in the back of my head all the time.
“Melissa!” Mr. Jackson shouted enthusiastically as she walked into the classroom, with me right behind. “Greg! You’re here too!” Mr. Jackson turned to his class of freshmen and added, “This is Melissa and Greg. They graduated from Plumdale High last year. Melissa is at San Angelo University, and Greg is at… sorry, remind me?”
“Jeromeville! That’s right. You’re wearing the sweatshirt and everything, I just noticed. How do you guys like it?”
“I’m doing well in my classes,” Melissa said. “And I live off campus, so it’s nice and quiet.”
“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program,” I explained. “I have some classes specifically for students in that program, so I know the people in my building better than if I had just been assigned a dorm randomly. I’ve made some really good friends. And I’m still getting good grades. I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.”
“You were always good at math,” Mr. Jackson said. “I could see that.”
Mr. Jackson got his class started on an assignment, and in between giving instructions to students, he continued catching up with us. Melissa told him about how her family was doing, and mentioned that her brother was a sophomore at PHS currently and would probably have Mr. Jackson as a senior. Mr. Jackson asked me more about the IHP, how it worked, and why I decided on math for my major.
After about fifteen minutes, we said our goodbyes to Mr. Jackson and his class and walked into the hallway. “I need to get home,” Melissa told me. “I have something I need to get to. But it was good to see you, Greg.”
“You too!” I said. “I think I’m going to stick around for a bit and say hi to a few other teachers.”
“You should! Have a great day, and let me know who else you see.”
“Are there any students here who you still talk to?”
“Rachel Copeland is the only one who has really kept in touch at all. I don’t know where she is right now, though. She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“I don’t know either. I’m sure you could ask.”
“Have a good one, Greg. Take care.”
Melissa walked back toward the parking lot. I walked to Mr. Peterson’s classroom. He taught economics to seniors all day, and he had also attended the University of Jeromeville, in the 1960s when it was much smaller. His door was open, and I could hear him lecturing as I approached and quietly poked my head in the door.
“Jeromeville! Go Colts!” he said upon seeing me and my sweatshirt, without missing a beat in his lecture at all. “How’re you doing, Greg? It’s good to see you!”
“You too,” I said. “I’m doing well. I really like my classes, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”
“Do you have a few minutes? We can talk a little more after I finish this up.”
“Sure,” I said, as my eyes scanned the room and I became more aware of my surroundings. This was a class of exclusively seniors, as I said, and many of the honor students appeared to be in this class. I recognized over half of them, including the girl with straight light brown hair who was now waving at me and beckoning me to sit in the empty seat next to her.
“Hi, Rachel!” I whispered as I sat in this empty seat.
“You didn’t tell me you were coming here!” Rachel whispered back.
“It was kind of last minute,” I replied; I wanted to explain about Melissa inviting me, but Mr. Peterson was talking at this point, and I also didn’t want to interrupt his class. A few minutes later, I felt something under my desk; it was Rachel, passing me a note. I quietly unfolded it and read. Come sit with us at lunch, same spot as last year, Rachel wrote. I replied Ok and slyly passed it back to her.
I visited a little more with Mr. Peterson when he got the chance to come talk to me; we made the usual small talk about college and classes and future plans. Now that I had committed to being on campus at least until lunch, since I had to go sit with Rachel and her friends, I had to find things to do for another period and a half. After I was done talking to Mr. Peterson, I walked around campus and said hi to as many teachers, administrators, and staff members as I had time to see. I had a wonderful time catching up with everyone. Mrs. Carter, the college and career counselor who helps students with applications and scholarships and the like, asked me to fix her computer, just as she had done multiple times during my senior year. My English teacher from sophomore year, Ms. Woolery, was teaching a class of freshman with reading skills below grade level, and she asked if I had a few minutes to talk a little bit about college and answer their questions. I wasn’t at all prepared to do something like that, but I did anyway. It is always nice to feel like I have useful knowledge and experiences to share with others; additionally, Ms. Woolery’s students, many from families in which no one has ever attended college, got an opportunity to hear about college from a peer.
I figured out at some point during my visit to Plumdale High that it was Spirit Week, and today was Beach Day. I wasn’t wearing anything beach-appropriate, but some students had Hawaiian shirts, surfing-related t-shirts, flip-flops, things like that. There was a giant pile of sand on the grass in front of the school, which I suspected was probably going to be used for a class competition. Several school clubs had food booths at lunch; I walked in the direction of the food, since I was hungry and Rachel wasn’t yet in the spot where she asked me to meet her. “Hey, Will,” I said, recognizing a guy from the Computer Graphics and Video Production class I took the year before. Will was a sophomore now.
“Greg! What’s up? I haven’t seen you all year!”
“I’m home on spring break. My friend and I came back to visit all of our teachers.”
Will looked confused for a second. “Oh, yeah!” he said. “You graduated! Where are you now?”
“North. Near Capital City.”
“Oh, ok. It was good seeing you! Have a good one!”
I got in line for curly fries, being sold by the marching band, to raise money for a trip to Disneyland. I thought it was funny that Will had forgotten that I had graduated last year.
“Greg?” someone said next to me in line. I turned and saw a sophomore named Jamie Halloran; I was friends with her older sister, Jessica, who had been in my graduating class.
“Hey, Jamie,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m great! Are you on your spring break?”
“Yeah. Melissa wanted to come say hi to some teachers, and she invited me along, but she had to leave already.”
“Did you hear Jess is in Guatemala?”
“I heard,” I said. “Volunteering at an orphanage, something like that?”
“Yeah. Did she write you? I gave her your address.”
“No, not yet.” Two weeks before I left for Jeromeville, I saw Jamie at a Plumdale High football game. I had just learned my mailing address at the time, so I gave it to Jamie and told her to give it to Jessica, but neither of them had written me yet. I didn’t know at the time that Jessica was going to end up in Guatemala. I don’t know if Jamie or even Jessica knew at that time yet either.
“She says it’s so different from here, but she loves it! My mom is putting together a package to send her; I’ll write her a note and remind her to write to you.”
As I walked with my curly fries to where I expected Rachel to be, I noticed that the class competition had begun; two students from each class were competing to build the tallest sandcastle in a certain time limit. One of the sandcastle-builders for the junior class was Annie Gambrell; I paused to watch for a few minutes, hoping that Annie would notice me, but she didn’t. This was not a good time to try to talk to her, of course, since she was in the middle of making a sandcastle. I walked back over to where Rachel had told me to meet her; she was there now, with a few of her friends whom I didn’t know as well.
“So you just woke up and decided to come visit your high school?” Rachel asked.
“Not exactly,” I explained, telling her about Melissa’s invitation and earlier departure.
“Jeromeville is on quarters, so you’ll have new classes when you go back next week, is that right?”
“Yes. I’m taking math, physics, chemistry, and a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law.”
“That sounds interesting. What’s that last one about?”
“I’m not really sure, except that it’s about psychology, and the law,” I explained. Rachel laughed. “It’s the heaviest course load I’ve had so far, but math and chemistry are pretty easy to me, and physics was always easy in high school, so I should be okay.” (I wasn’t as okay as I thought I would be in terms of my classes, but that’s a story for later.)
“Do you need physics and chemistry for a math major?”
“Physics, yes, one year. I was also thinking about majoring in physics, which would need chemistry; I haven’t decided for sure yet. Chemistry, not for math, but I would if I majored in physics. Physics for science and engineering majors doesn’t start until spring quarter, so I haven’t had physics at all yet. I’ll see how that goes before I decide for sure.”
“That makes sense,” Rachel said, nodding. “So what does it feel like being back?”
“It’s good to see everyone. But it’s a little weird too. It’s like, class competitions, flyers all over the place advertising the dance, those people making out behind us, all that stuff is high school stuff, and I’m not in high school anymore.”
“That makes sense. I certainly won’t miss all that stuff when I get out of here next year.”
“Do you know where you’re going yet? The last time we talked about it, I think you wanted to go to St. Elizabeth’s.”
“That’s still my first choice. They should start sending out acceptance letters in about a week, they said.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“It’s such a beautiful campus. And it’s a small school. And I’m not Catholic, but there’s something spiritual about that campus that I liked when I visited,” Rachel said. I wasn’t sure what she meant by spiritual, her tone sounded kind of New Age-ish, but hey, whatever works.
A while later, just after the bell rang to end lunch, Rachel said, “I’m glad I got to see you today, Greg. Will you be here the rest of the day?”
“I think I’m just going to go home. I’ve seen everyone I wanted to say hi to, pretty much, and I’m getting tired. But I’m glad we got to hang out.”
“Okay. Call me any time. And I’ll write you soon.”
“Bye, Greg.” Rachel hugged me.
“Have a good day,” I said, turning around toward the parking lot. I took a few steps, then turned back toward campus. I considered for a few seconds trying to figure out what class Annie Gambrell had, so I could say hi to her, since she was busy earlier. I gave her my address at Homecoming, and she hadn’t written me; maybe she lost it. No, probably not; people just don’t write like they say they will. And she had a boyfriend, so I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up anyway. Then again, maybe they broke up; it had been almost six months since I’d last seen Annie. No, I told myself, forget it. I kept walking toward the car.
I turned on the classic rock radio station as I drove home, listening to music of the 1960s and 1970s. Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones. Supertramp. High school was over. Sometimes I wished it wasn’t. I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business in high school. I stepped pretty far out of my comfort zone during my senior year, and I made some great new friends, but then all of a sudden I graduated and lost touch with most of them, so that part of my life story never got to reach a natural conclusion. I felt torn, wanting closure, yet also knowing that this part of my life was over, and that I was moving on. And today was the first time I started to feel like I really had moved past high school. When I was still around in the fall going to PHS football games, and when I came back for Homecoming, I felt like I still belonged at PHS. Today, not so much.
Fittingly, this day was the last time I ever set foot on the Plumdale High campus. I went to Mark’s graduation in 2000, but it was at the gym at Santa Lucia Community College, not at PHS. I’ve driven past Plumdale High several times when I’ve come back home to Santa Lucia County, and I’ve taken pictures of it, but I haven’t actually gotten out of the car. I’ve thought about going back for Homecoming at some point to see what it’s like, especially after the football field was remodeled in 2017, but it hasn’t ever been a high priority. Also, I don’t know anyone there anymore. The school has changed, and so has the neighborhood, and so have I. Staying connected to the past is important, but not at the expense of the present.
Plumdale High School, June 2019, and the little booth at the entrance to the parking lot where the campus supervisor watches everyone who enters. The athletic fields are in the background; the school itself is to the right, off camera. This was the best picture I could take from the car on that day.
And thanks to j-archive.com for allowing me to look up what the Final Jeopardy! clue was on March 28, 1995. I didn’t remember off the top of my head, of course.