The first time I went to a nude beach was with my high school principal, Mr. N., during a competition for math excellence held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
I should clarify that he never meant to take us to a nude beach; we were exploring coastal trails during our lunch break and just happened to stumble onto the most notorious bathing locale in Point Grey (Wreck Beach). I should also say that I’ve never been good at math. My friends Pierre, Ryan, Jill, and Micah were good at math, and deserved their spot on that team. I was good at word puzzles, abstract problem solving, and trigonometry – which is math-adjacent, but not really math – which is why I never made the team again after Grade 9.
I don’t remember much of that competition, nor most of the members of my team. I don’t remember how we placed, or how we got to Vancouver, or even why our school principal was inexplicably our chaperone. I do remember that we never made it all the way down to the nude beach, because at one point Mr. N leaned out over the fence so he could see the surf below, then quickly turned our little group around and marched us back up to the university. He had a strange look on his face, as if he’d seen his life flash before his eyes – or perhaps it was a vision of the disciplinary committee he’d have faced if any of the minors in his care glimpsed the pale Vancouverite flesh below.
That’s an example of my memories of high school: vivid shards of recollection in a baffling absence of context. Yet the emotions attached to those shards, even years later, are still powerful enough to scare me out of a dead sleep, or cause me to embrace classmates who were strangers even then, as fellow survivors of the crucible that is secondary education.
The Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), on the corner of Clearbrook and Downes, is the epicentre of these memories. From 2003 until 2008, I attended MEI, completing Grades 8 through 12 as a continually taller, stronger, broodier version of myself. Due to the opening of MEI Middle School in 2004, I technically spent two years as a freshman in the high school, which is like being reincarnated as bacteria twice because of a statistical error in the karmic annals. In 2008, still utterly bewildered by the complex mysteries of society I graduated and was formally vomited into the real world – accompanied only by my $4000 in scholarship money (1/2 year of tuition at my first college), my torn labrums (“Ignore the pain,” coach told me), and my many scrapbooks of bad poetry (“I’ve been torn apart, in two; I don’t exist, because of you).
I’d like to share some of those shards of memory, if only to discover if they are actually authentic summaries of factual events, or my own whimsical exaggerations. Some don’t seem like they could possibly be real, and yet I can’t believe they’re not. Some events I wish had never happened, and yet they did.
The first years at MEI are less vivid, coloured by the sense that we, as freshmen, were like ants at the foot of Mt. Olympus, irrelevant to the dramas of the gods unfolding at higher elevations. I remember reading The Outsiders with Mr. Knoll, who gave out Jolly Ranchers to his favourite students, and made us write a letter to ourselves to be opened in our senior year. I remember telling A., who really liked D., that D was really into him, a lie I fabricated as revenge on A. for his constant mooning over D. I remember women so beautiful that they could break a man’s sanity with a single touch. Women with names that all seem to end in an “ah” sound, like “Alicia,” “Adrianna,” “Sarah,” “Mihaela,” “Marisa,” etc, which seems to be indicative of the mid-2000s. I remember Caleb watching one such “ah” woman prance across the gym, and remark to a group of us lads, almost wistfully, that she was the hottest babe he had ever seen. We knew he was right, and the fact that he made this comment about a woman clad in MEI unisex gym strip only proves that she must have been a goddess in disguise.
Yet, if I consult my yearbook, it is not Dianas and Aphrodites who stare back at me, but instead gangly teens, barely more than children.
What happened to them? What has happened to me?
I remember that the older grades were populated by tanned Olympians with names like “Noah” and “Kelly,” whose families jetted off to Hawaii or California for Spring Break, and who drove cars worth more than my lifetime earnings well into university. I remember the smell of formaldehyde in Mr. Blakely’s science lab, and the slicing wit of Mr. Opp as he eviscerated students he didn’t like during typing class (the year before MEI deemed such training obsolete). I remember Mr. Diakow forcing us to read a book called Speak, about a sexual assault, and an assignment which involved not talking to anybody, not our teachers, not our friends, not our parents, for two whole days. The fury that reigned down from Jason’s mom once she discovered why her son had clammed up is legendary; the purpose of the assignment is as confusing to me now as it was fifteen years ago.
I remember Justin’s dad helping us make an amateur music video in which he circled us in his van while we sang in French about brushing our teeth, and jerked unhappily to the music. Why were we always forced to make music videos, which highlighted the difference between those students who had access to video cameras and editing software, and those of us who did not? I hated video projects almost as much as French class itself, which I only passed in Grade 11 by pleading with Maria for help on multiple assignments, and leaving positive comments on my teacher’s album of wedding photography from her recent nuptials. I will swear to the day I die that she manipulated my grade because of those compliments – allowing me to complete my language requirement without destroying my GPA.
I remember skipping the legendary MEI Christmas Banquet in Grade 9 and 10, partially because I hated ties, and partially because I had no earthly idea how to ask a girl to go with me. I remember the harassment Tal was subjected to when it was discovered that he had written a list of potential partners to ask (his real mistake was revealing he had such a list). I remember the staggering humiliation of attending my first Christmas banquet in 2005, and realizing that I was both underdressed and relegated to a table of other solo, male incompetents – a captive audience for better men onstage, who performed feats of skill and comedy for female applause. I remember feeling especially bitter the years that Justin unleashed his guitar prowess to a thundering ovation, and the year Alec and Trevor sang The Flight of the Concord’s “Jenny” with impeccable comedic timing. Mostly, I just remember being jealous and anxious and clueless, which is how I felt during most of high school.
As an aside, I should mention that the closest I ever came to a Christmas Banquet performance was in 2006, when my friend’s band, Archipelago, absolutely bombed a performance of a song that I had co-written. The song was called the “Math Rap,” and it included many memorable verses like:
“Take logic as your master!
Sine the cosine!
Coefficient, atomic reactor!
Sharpen the angle of your protractor!”
Anyway, it was at that 2005 Christmas Banquet that I experienced one of the most pivotal events of my young life. Somehow, I slipped away from my table of male misfits and scored a seat next to the glamorous S. Esau, a girl to whom I don’ think I’d ever spoken before. I should mention that one of the quirks of going to a Mennonite school was that many of us shared last names and/or were related. Happily, despite sharing a last name, S. and I were NOT related, which explains why, over the course of the evening, I developed a budding infatuation. The pivotal moment of the night occurred between the main course and dessert, when S. declared that she wanted a piece of cake, but didn’t have a fork to eat it with. Sensing an opening, I declared that I would get her a fork, whatever the cost, and, feeling like a cross between Jason Bourne and Clark Kent, I set off to find a server.
I got out into the hallway next to the men’s change room before I froze, immediately breaking into a cold sweat. This isn’t just a fork, I thought to myself, I’m basically proposing marriage if I do this. I came very close to dashing out the double doors towards the portables and giving up on ever seeing S., or MEI, again, when my friend Clayton appeared around a corner.
I explained my dilemma to Clayton, who was appreciative (at least in my memory) of the solemn commitment I was initiating, but also made it clear that my masculinity was on the line. I owed the woman a fork, and, unless I provided one, every woman I met from that day forward would view me as an endearing little brother with zero romantic potential. Therefore, I wasn’t just choosing between inevitable marriage to S. Esau and changing schools, I was actually choosing between marriage and a life of eternal solitude punctuated with endless female mockery!
If you’ve ever been 15 years old at a high school formal, then you understand this kind of logic. I admit that it is very clearly insane, but who would ever contend that their high school self was operating within the normal parameters of human sanity?
The rest of that night is a daze. Somehow I found I fork, and brought it to S. I don’t believe I said another coherent sentence all night. I just stared at S., awestruck, unable to comprehend the heroics I had orchestrated by retrieving that utensil. Thankfully, S. didn’t seem totally disgusted by my attention, but she also didn’t yet understand that I was totally and completely incapable of asking a human female on a date.
For the next several months, I worshipped the ground S. walked on. When Mr. D changed his seating plan in Social Studies and happened to put S. and I next to each other, I thanked God for his benevolence. When other male students talked to her, or so much as looked at her, it was like I was being dragged through the lower circles of hell by a team of inferi. I loitered around her locker and chatted up her friends in an effort to get drawn into her circle. One day she came to basketball practice, and I had the indescribably joy of being on the “skins” team – meaning that the object of my infatuation got to see me hurl my sweaty self around the same gymnasium in which the fork incident had occured.. but this time I was nearly naked! I think she had actually come to see her friend K, but, in my ignorance, I was ecstatic.
Later, in an act of herculean bravery I asked her what her favourite CD was (In Between Dreams – Jack Johnson), and immediately went out and bought it. When she politely reciprocated the question, I sent her a link to Depeche Mode’s People Are People, the first of many times I would fail to seduce women via Depeche (“There’s play between the sheets?” Yeah right, Dave Gahan).
I think I finally gave up in March, when, like a man awaking from a dream, I realized that, besides sharing last names, S. and I had literally nothing in common. In fact, I had infinitely more romantic chemistry with one of her friends, Melody, than with S. herself, although I would have the courage to ask Mel out for several more years.
I’d spent three months of my life obsessing over a woman because she’d needed a fork at an awkward Christmas banquet. This is what happens when you read Gone with the Wind cover-to-cover before ever kissing an actual person; when you believe quoting the Lay of Luthien is the most romantic act a man could ever commit; when you cry during The Phantom of the Opera because you can’t imagine a more complex relationship…
A lot of other memories involve sports. In Grade 8, I remember being asked by a coach to choose between playing soccer and basketball, since it was impossible to continue both sports at a competitive level. I chose basketball. It was the only choice to make; my father had played basketball in university, and I, as the oldest son, was being groomed to carry on that tradition. To be honest, I think my primary motivation (after my familial obligation) was to play an indoor sport which didn’t require me to stand in the rain and watch a succession of coach’s sons (all strikers) commit offside after offside at Rotary Stadium.
I never made any friends on these teams -basketball or soccer- which should have indicated something about my personality. Yet, looking back, I can’t blame my teammates. I was morally rigid, intellectually uncompromising, and blatantly passive aggressive. Arrogance is not quality desired in a teammate, unless it is packaged with more skill than I will ever possess.
What do I say about the MEI basketball team? We fell in line behind Alec and Trevor, who were the most promising players on our squad of mediocre athletes. We were cruel to Brad and his sports goggles, for reason that escaped me even then. Geoff was the best shooter on the team in practice, and the worst in games. Matt could have been serious offensive threat, but his first love was volleyball and he barely weighed more than the ball itself. I was big and angry and utterly unable to put the ball into the hoop with any sort of finesse. In our senior year, we were the first basketball team in a long while to be thoroughly unremarkable, a sign that the school was transitioning to a focus on volleyball as a means of extending the row of championship banners hanging in the gymnasium.
I got my first serious injury in Grade 11, when the team was still a promising contender for a provincial title. My right hip shifted upwards, tilting my pelvis and realigning my vertebrae in a strange, scoliotic curve. Enabled by my injury, ashamed by my inability to match my teammates, and feeling alienated by the street-smart seniors, I quit the team. To this day I still have the jacket – a blue and white Letterman that smells strongly of skunk. I heard a rumour that as the team wandered through the Palm Spring airport during March break, the smell preceded them like a breaking wave, causing revulsion and bewilderment wherever they went. I’m glad I missed that trip; I’ve never been more intimidated by my own teammates.
In grade 12 the scariest of those teammates were gone, but so was any chance at greatness. The year before, the coach of the rival Yale Secondary Lions, had tried to get MEI kicked out of the league because of a perceived recruiting violation, souring relations between the two schools. In 2008 he knew his team (eventual provincial champions) were going to destroy us, so he made every effort to pack the Yale gym with as many witnesses as possible during our first meeting. He actually invited the MEI marching band to come perform at his school during the game, which even then, was a bizarrely petty display from a grown man.
We scored 12 points in the first half that night. I pretended to be mad, but I’d known the rout was coming, and I didn’t feel particularly responsible. I felt sorry for Alec and Trevor, who had been given one of those Remember the Titans speeches about their leadership duties and responsibility during halftime. I can still remember Alec, an enigmatic, charismatic entity who I both feared and envied, looking utterly baffled by the magnitude of the task before him as we stepped back on the court.
In the second half the other coach threw in his bench, having proved his point. I’m pretty sure even the bench would have beaten us, but I didn’t really care. I knew the other coach personally; I’d worshipped beside him in church, and I’d played garbage ball with his brother for years at the Yale gym. I’d seen him scream at his players relentlessly, bullying them into the most formidable basketball force in the Lower Mainland, and I knew in my gut that this stupid hoop-and-ball game wasn’t worth the pain of playing for such a coach.
Of course, knowing what I know now, it might have been. Joel F. has spent the last five years playing professionally in Canada and Europe, and has moonlighted for the national team. Jasper, Josh, and Nathan never went pro, but they did score full-ride scholarships to various Canadian universities. The Yale-to-UFV pipeline made the Cascades a national contender for a few years, and catapulted Friesen’s son into the position of Cascades head coach. In sports, success and emotional abuse often go hand-in-hand.
I joined cross country for a couple years, basically to hang out with Paul, Micah, and Sarah in the long gaps between races. As an asthmatic, the actual running was a tedious hindrance to the time we spent playing Advance Wars on my trusty Game Boy.
I also played volleyball for one glorious season in grade 10. I was on the “B team,” because my 6’5’’ frame only possessed 12’’ of jumping ability. I found volleyball to be a profoundly silly game, but it was fun and there was very little pressure on the B team boys to perform.
I remember one match vividly. We were playing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary (a memorable acronym when written across the butts of the school’s cheerleaders), near the end of a close match. A spike from an opposing player brushed my fingertips before landing out of bounds – one of those impossible calls that referees in all sports are required to make. Yet instead of blowing his whistle and point in either direction, he looked directly at me and asked if I had touched the ball. Caught between losing a point and telling a lie, I admitted that I had.
It’s funny to me how quickly the ethics were taught in MEI’s chapel mutated once they reached the Athletics offices. The next day, both the Junior A and B volleyball teams were given a special presentation by the A team coach (who also happened to be a school principal). We were delicately informed that an incident had occurred that needed to be dealt with, and that in the future, no MEI Eagle would ever disclose to a referee that he had touched a ball unless it was in the direct interest of victory. This was news to me, since I’d been under the impression that we were Christians first and athletes second, and that lying created a poor reflection on both our theology and our sportsmanship. However, after further clarification, the coach revealed that we were NOT lying, but instead affecting sudden-onset amnesia…of a selective sort which only occurred when the truth disadvantaged MEI.
Which made it all okay, of course.
What is is about sports that turns people into venomous little caricatures of themselves? In other words, was Michael Jordan the GOAT or a troubled sociopath? It depends, I guess, on whether you see sport as a socio-cultural construct mimicking the ceremonial function of warfare in peacetime, or a key builder of maturity, character, and life-long relationships among impressionable youth.
My last sport, tennis, is the only sport I still play, and the only one that I regret not taking more seriously. I joined the team in grade 11, when, boosted by an impressive cadre of South African ringers, we won a provincial championship. I really only joined because of Marisa, another one of those tempestuous goddesses of the “ah,” and the one around whom my my junior and senior years revolved. But that is a story for another time.
I was gloriously bad at tennis. I once lost to a boy wearing a Twisted Sister hat, who looked like he’d arrive at the court fresh from a marathon 24-hour D&D session. I once lost to a boy who did not have a left hand, and yet was still a better player than I will ever be. I once hit my partner, Colin, in the ear, almost rupturing his eardrum, and then proceeded to mock him for falling to the ground and screaming, because it embarrassed me.
I wielded an old knock-off racquet I’d bought from Ben’s brother, since neither I nor my family could afford to buy me a competitive stick. I still have it. In fact, it’s currently tucked under my wife and my bed like some kind of fertility totem – a relic of high school glory.
Other memories I watch as if through a glass darkly. Did I really once chase Matt around the school for acknowledging my sister was pretty? Did I really break up with Marisa on Anvil Island during our graduation retreat, and then, immediately, tears still streaming down my face, get into a boxing match with Clayton at our own MEI “fight club?” Did I once break Mr. Z’s finger while roughhousing in the dark during a power outage? Did I once cross-dress in a graveyard while recreating a music video for The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black?” Or was that Jason?
I could write a similar essay of other stories, positive stories, from my days at MEI. Yet it is not the positive memories that wake me out of a dead sleep, or that I daydream about during the eternal afternoons of the COVID-quarantined. High school is thirteen years and 4,000 kms away, I go months without remember any part of it…
Yet when I do, it’s because I’m still angry with Kamal for stealing my shoes in history class, or because I’m ashamed that I didn’t stand up for Ryan during that confrontation beside the portable. Or I’m jealous that N. went out with M., or that Andrew could do magic tricks, or that Dieta could draw like a dream, or that Joel could fly a plane.
In 2008, I graduated from high school at MEI on the corner of Clearbrook and Downes. It was the best school and the worst school. I was a sensitive soul and yet occasionally also an insecure jackass. My fellow students were the cream of humanity and the epitome of depravity. Every year, I wonder how I/you/we/ survived the experience.