thomas wolfe was wrong

you can go home again

During 1964 and 1965, my years at Central Junior High School in Glencoe, Illinois, I was a nerd — hell, I was the nerd. I’m not sure how it came about, but I got picked on a lot. I’m not complaining after all these years, just stating a fact.

I was bad at sports and was not enough of a brainiac to invite respect from my peers on that basis. I had no real friends — no one I could confide in, no one I could count on to take my back. And there were a few boys who never passed up an opportunity to make me miserable.

And girls? Sheesh! I was the definition of tongue-tied, flatfooted and clumsy around girls. Different planets, indeed.

Moving on to New Trier East High School helped. I went from being one among 250 eighth-graders, to being one in 5,000 students at New Trier. The anonymity was a blessed relief — I caught some flak in gym classes because I’ve got very poor hand-eye coordination, but that was only an hour a day.

So four years at NTE passed, I graduated in June 1969 — 25 more years passed — and the passage of time was a balm.

I’m at my 25th high school reunion: a Friday night in September 1994 at a downtown Chicago hotel. Everyone there looks happy and healthy. The women look, if anything, prettier and are far less intimidating to me than they were in high school. I note that I’ve retained more of my hair than many of the other guys.

Standing around, knocking back Heinekens, I’m nodding and shaking hands and chit-chatting with a few people I recognize from my home room who also recognize me.

Then someone I remember from Central nervously steps up to me, sticks out his hand and says “Hi, Corey — remember me?”

“Sure B, I remember you — how are ya? Whaddaya been doing?” I shake his hand. A few fleeting thoughts of decades-old unpleasantness flicker through my head.

B is plainly ill-at-ease, and introduces me to his wife. He and I start to exchange thumbnail biographies covering the past 25 years.

Suddenly B turns to me, and blurts, “Corey, remember how I was one of the ones always picking on you at Central School? — I want to apologize for my part in all that — I felt really bad — you didn't deserve it.”

“Aw, B, that was a looooong time ago — don't worry about it,” I said, as close to speechless as I’ve ever been.

With a rueful smile, the guy’s wife chimes in, “Corey, B has worried about it for a loooong time. You have to understand, B has wanted to do this for years. He looked for you at the 5th reunion, the 10th reunion and 20th reunion, because he wanted to talk to you and apologize.”

“Aw, c’mon — really?

“Yeah, really,” B’s wife said — they both nod and smile. (Gawd, I think, what do I do now?)

I shook his hand again, put my other arm around his shoulders.

“Well — okay — apology accepted.”

The three of us spent the rest of the reunion talking and laughing — we parted as friends, and I was in shock in the most pleasant sense imaginable.

Fifteen hours later, I was walking north on Halsted Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood heading to Tower Records, recharging myself with the sounds, sights and smells of the city I love so much. Suddenly, a Mercedes-Benz station wagon pulls to the curb by a fire hydrant ahead of me.

B pops out, smiling, and says, “Hey, Corey, where ya headed? Can I give you a ride?”

Twenty-five years since graduation — I hadn’t seen B even once in all those years, and now I encounter him twice in 24 hours? — I think: there is some amazing karma going on here.

I climbed in the back seat of the car behind B’s young daughter. As we drove, he explained to her that we went to high school together, and I had been at the party the night before.

“Yeah, your Dad and I have been friends for a looooooong time,” I said, as the very last vestiges of pain held too long dropped away.

B was watching me in the rearview mirror. The crinkling around B’s eyes told me he was smiling.