Grown Up / by Josh Guess

A friend of mine posted on Facebook a short while ago that someone we went to school with died. The name wasn't familiar, but I graduated twelve years ago, so that didn't surprise me. I looked up the person he was talking about, and thought I knew who it was. So for the first time in many, many years I broke out the yearbooks I could find--those from my Junior and Senior years.

He wasn't there.

I don't know why or how. He wasn't even listed among the people not pictured. The mystery will probably remain, but the experience of looking back over those images, single smiling slices of a life, stays with me.

I wasn't a popular guy. I was known, but that isn't the same thing. Popularity implies people like you. A lot of people didn't. I was smart but lazy, defensive of others and with a fuse so short it might as well not have existed in the first place. I was confident with women--very much so--but sought the approval of people who could barely stand me. I think I did that because I knew they didn't like me.

I wasn't hated, really. I got along with most people. I wasn't into trendy fashions or sports, and aside from acting I didn't get into school activities. The politics of high school did not appeal to me. That said, I looked back over two years of my life in pictures and remembered my entire experience in that place in flashes, and the man I remember as a boy, the one who passed away, was there.

He wasn't a friend. I knew him to speak to him but not much more. The modern age of technology allows me to reconnect and keep in touch with many people I barely knew in school, others I had deep friendships with but who stepped out of my life for years on end.

There was the guy whose friendship and respect I wanted badly, and twelve years later he's the same guy. Pretentious, talented, arrogant, and with every reason to be happy while rarely expressing anything but ironic scorn. He lives his dream job and seems to detest life.

The football star who did everything in his power to live up to the stereotype. A year after graduation--two years or better since he'd transferred to another school--he came into the restaurant I was working at and tipped me large. He apologized for the way he'd behaved. I did the same.

The prim honor student always so perfect and proper, her nervous state a constant as she ignored joy and being a kid in order to be the best. She's an artist now, a bohemian of the old school.

Boys and girls became men and women. The guy who called me a faggot and got in trouble for it--who apologized while both of us were waiting to see the Principal over it--is a happy adult, a married man and father who finds great purpose in being fair and honest.

I skipped the reunion. I was working at the nursing home, depressed and trying to make a go of my writing career. I had no desire to show up, the weird guy everyone knew but few really knew. I'd seen so many of them talk about their lives online that I couldn't bring myself to go there and tell everyone I was a CNA, though there's certainly no shame in that job, who was killing himself with the constant effort to write for a living. It sounded so sad to me, so deeply cliche. Most of the people I went to school with didn't treat me badly. If I'm being honest, I probably did worse to them on average than all of them together did to me.

Now I'm a full-time writer, at least for the foreseeable future. I'm living the dream. And I realize I still shouldn't have gone to that reunion. All of them have changed in so many ways, but I'm mostly the same. A little more mature, true, but as I looked back on those memories and who I was I realized I was always an old man in that young man's body. Maybe I'll go to the next reunion. Maybe not.

We are the story we tell ourselves. Our lives are books we write each day. They can (and will) take us to amazing places, to happy places, to dark and dangerous places. When the reunion came about, I was measuring my success and who I was against them. Now I only measure against myself.

If I could go back and do it all again, I'd change some things. Oh, you expected me to say I'd change nothing? Hell no. Sorry. No hackneyed trope here. I was a virgin until I was eighteen, people. No, I'd change a lot. Foremost I would have worked harder. In my classwork, sure, though I had no desire to be an honor student. But I'd do more even if just to make my mom happy. Beyond that I would take up two jobs and work myself to death all four of those years and save every penny.

To invest in Apple in 2002, when their stock was at the lowest point in the decade. I mean, what's the purpose of theorizing about time travel if we can't make a buck off it, right?

Most of all, I would have been kinder. I would try to impart some of the lessons I've learning in life. People need to go through hard times to learn lessons, no avoiding that. But I would have tried to show people that no matter how overcast the future looks, it's no reason not to show love and respect. That was something I learned late.

Since the first day of Freshman year, several people I went to school with died. One was a dear friend, in a car crash. That happened while I was enjoying a Halloween party. Another was a guy who hated my guts. That didn't make me special; he hated easily and often. There was the guy who died running back into his burning house to search for his mother.

It's easy to think you've got forever when you're young. I'm only thirty, but I've spent enough time caring for the elderly and seeing death to know on a visceral level how frail it all is. That is why I'd go back and preach kindness and understanding if I could, because our time on the mortal coil is limited and unpredictable. We should not treat it as a test or a trial run, no matter what our faith might tell us. How we treat others is a perfect model of chaos theory. Every wound we inflict adds up and ripples outward, as does every smile we inspire.

Need proof? I said all that, had all those thoughts and introspective realizations, because a boy I barely knew who became a man I didn't know passed away. I learned more about him tonight from his friends, his hidden struggle with illness, his positive spirit, than I ever would have known otherwise. He was a small wave in the water, gently pushing me to be a better person.

Think about it. When the situation comes up where someone is being mean or rude or hateful, you have a choice. You can return it to them, or ignore them, or maybe try throwing a little understanding at them. It's not easy, but someone has to start.

Just remember this when it happens. And from there it becomes easier to not just respond with kindness, but to create it without prompt.