It didn’t really hit me until I saw the desks in military ranks across the gym hardwood. Each would soon become an island of anxiety in the greater sea of scholastic ritual, a pencil-pocked, vertebrae-compressing receptacle for adolescent bottoms.

It was my first day on the job at my old high school, and I’d been assigned exam invigilation detail. Now it’s been more than six years since I graduated, but that didn’t stop the emotions from trickling back as I surveyed that old, cinder-brick gymnasium. I’d never walked into that place and not written an exam, and some deep part of me didn’t believe that this time would be any different.

I may have been wearing a collar and dress pants, I may have possessed a signed contract safe in some administrative filing cabinet, but I still believed that at any moment Mr. Balzer might come raging through the double-doors and order me into a desk. Someone was going to call my bluff, and that would sink me. After all, I don’t remember a darn thing about grade 10 math, and my graphing calculator gave up the ghost years ago.

When you leave high school, you get a reset, a restart, a chance to redefine yourself in an adult world. When you come back to visit (if you ever do), it’s to a shivery sense of impending doom. You feel as if you better leave quick, or someone will hit you over the head and lock you in a closet, and you’ll wake up as a zitty grade niner with self-esteem issues and an entire wardrobe of basketball camp t-shirts.

In retrospect, I guess the real question is why would I take a job at my old high school? Who wants to continually revisit the nexus of their teenage years as if they’ve nowhere better to go in the world?

Maybe someone with unfinished business; someone who wants to make the transition a little easier for the next generation.

My high school experience was mostly great, but there are moments, significant moments, that I wish I could relive. I remember brushing off my peers, occasionally humiliating them, scrabbling for scraps in the social hierarchy. Now returning as an employee to work among students with significant social or academic disadvantages, I want to help build lives rather than undermine them. My perception of value has changed since I was 17; I now play a longer game.

Still, it is strange to sit in the old classrooms and talk to the same teachers who once ruled my academic world. Some have evolved in the context of my six years of higher education, and I have found new appreciation for their ability. I sit in the back of the room, taking notes for my students, and absorbing the social and educational dynamics of (for example) grade nine science. I am relearning the properties of lithium, studying the curious courting habits of the 14-year-old females, and being reawakened to the (albeit rather dubious) wonders of Young Earth Creationism.

All of it is deliciously surreal.

I never though that, after university, I would once again sit in the classrooms of my youth, retaking (in essence) a class I completed a decade ago. I never thought I would again stretch out my hands in chapel towards an enthusiastic (but very young) worship band. I never thought I would need to re-read Romeo and Juliet, or study the juicier aspects of human anatomy alongside a child obsessed with dinosaurs.

On game-days the basketball teams slouch into ancient desks in their button-ups and ridiculous ties, baffled and bewildered by the doe-eyed maidens around them (and occasionally baffling in return). At lunch, squadrons of jabbering children create moving chains across narrow hallways, or fold themselves into stairwells or lounges in coagulating pools of silliness. I watch relationships form, rivalries develop, and study the occasional lone wolf dining alone in willful (or perhaps enforced) isolation.

I work with the kids I didn’t really know in high school. I work with the ones struggling through Earth Science or Math Essentials, the kids for whom words dance off the page and rearrange themselves in dazzling kaleidoscope complexities. My half-decade of university actively hinders my ability to teach them, and instead fills my language with meaningless abstraction and complexity. Education (ironically) has damaged my ability to connect with these kids, and it is only through a drastic purge of my vocabulary and habits that I begin to become useful as a tutor.

I laughed at these kids once. Not in an intentionally nasty way, but with the casual cruelty of ignorance. Reading and writing have always been my preferred method of connection with the world, and I didn’t understand why some of my classmates treated books with such disdain. Now, after having witnessed learning disabilities in action, seen one of my students reduced to tears by the challenge of writing a paragraph, I understand that what separated me from them was luck, not intelligence. The student in question can memorize numbers and trivia with uncanny accuracy, recite stats from the local NHL team down to players’ birthdays, and flawlessly name every country in the tangled skein that is Eastern Europe.

What she cannot do is compose a sentence. Her brain will simply not allow it.

It’s easy, in life, to focus on what we cannot do and do not have. Our relentless need for affirmation, both internal and external, motivates us to rank ourselves against our peers and fixate on the areas of weakness. At my former high school, I’ve been forced to understand how incredibly blessed I’ve been in my academic gifts, and how badly the communication revolution has impacted those with reading and writing disabilities.

I got ‘A’s in school. I did not work as hard as many of my students do now, who are scraping by in modified courses. I did not study as long, nor as intelligently, as they do. I did not suffer the frustration of being made fun of by my peers, nor the humiliation of not knowing the answer when I was called upon. I could read aloud in class without feeling self-conscious, and I was complimented again and again for being ‘promising’ and having a ‘bright future.’

I have returned to high school, only this time it is the students, not the teachers, from whom I am learning the most.

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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