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‘On the edge of destiny, you must test your strength.’: A story of my four years at one of the top high schools in America

  • 26 min to read
‘On the edge of destiny, you must test your strength.’: A story of my four years at one of the top high schools in America

I love being in the driver’s seat. Not because it’s more comfortable than a couch, or even a desk chair — I wouldn’t trade my writing couch for the world — but when I sit behind the wheel of my car, I feel in control of my existence in a world with no promises. I can go anywhere, do anything. Through mountains, along the coastline, even on crowded streets in suburbia, I drive — taking in every hill, curve and stoplight.

I drive a mom SUV, but as embarrassing as that sounds, I’m quite proud of it. I have comfortable seats, good gas mileage, a spacious interior — everything I could ask for in a car. It’s not always about appearances, but rather the underlying substance. While bells and whistles can be nice, as long as they get me from point A to B smoothly, most cars would make me happy.

It made me feel empty, in a way, when I came to Virginia Tech as a carless freshman. The new college-student high could only take me so far. For all the latitude I gained being on my own, I still longed for the freedom that driving afforded me. Still, I went about my life — walking to class, meeting people, staying in the college bubble. For a while, that was enough.

But one night, it hit me. I was sitting with a friend near the window of a dorm study lounge. Even though darkness had fallen, I could still see Dietrick Lawn and Pritchard Hall across the way. Maybe you see better in the dark when you know what’s there.

I don’t remember much about the conversation, but somehow, we ended up at this:

“Let’s go to Pittsburgh,” he said.

To that, I could say just one thing.

“No car.”

I knew, right then, I needed my car.

A few weeks later, I boarded the Megabus for home. Knowing that my car was waiting for me made the ride in this hard, backward-facing seat bearable, though it was not easy by any means. Watching the mountains and farms whizz by in the opposite direction for five hours was nauseating, to say the least.

I had a small table in front of me for my laptop, but with no Wi-Fi to speak of, I opened up a word document. It had been some time since I wrote for pleasure — after all, school, friends and devices eat up what would otherwise be creative time. Unless it was for class, it probably wasn’t getting written.

But, for the first time in awhile, I could work the creative juices. I knew what I wanted to write about, but with a story as comprehensive as the one I was about to tell, I didn’t know how to do it justice. But I figured that with these five hours, I wouldn’t have much else to occupy myself. And besides, sometimes in writing, you just have to dive in and pray that you discover a pearl. I guess that’s true for a lot of things in life.

Dive in and pray. So, that’s what I did.

I had cautiously looked forward to this day for months now. It was Sept. 4, 2012, my first day at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), a top public school in the nation. As soon as I finished my quick breakfast, I raced for the car. It was the first — and last — time I’d run to the car with that anticipation.

There was my dad in the driver’s seat, beaming. He was sure that this was the beginning of a wonderful journey for me, and that my life was about to drastically change for the better. But I was nervous walking into school without a tight group of friends. It was intimidating, and I felt vulnerable. It was only a few months earlier that my acceptance letter arrived in our mailbox. Leaving behind friends I had grown up with since elementary school felt unimaginable. But still, curiosity in my veins — I knew I had to go, if for nothing else to see if it lived up to its reputation. I figured that at least I’d be able to write about it someday.

There was my mom at the doorstep, waving as we pulled out of the driveway. I’ll never forget the look on her face — it was one of excitement and worry, but most of all one of hope. I guess that’s how I was feeling too: excited for a new experience, worried about the challenges I would face and hopeful that it would all turn out OK. Just then, my phone buzzed. It was a text from my mom with my afternoon bus number. She was always looking out for me.

I turned on the car radio, hoping for a good song — to take me away from the situation at hand, even for just a little while. That morning, “Some Nights” by Fun. blared through the speakers. It wasn’t my favorite song, but after hearing it on the radio so many times over the past summer, it had grown on me — and in that moment, it let me relax. It’s like that one comfort food we all have — we can’t always explain why we like it so much, yet every time it hits our tongue, our worries seem to dissipate. I sat back, took a deep breath, and let the music fill the air. Everything, in that moment, was OK.

As we pulled into the school, we were greeted by a scarlet-faced man with a loud raspy voice, a man who looked like he smoked too much and slept far too little. This was Mr. Security Guard, the first face of TJ we saw as we drove in, yelling at cars left and right. Perhaps an omen of things to come.

It was mostly a blur, that first day, but I do remember a few moments. In my second period biology class, I grabbed a seat at a table with three other guys. I remember them being quiet, but maybe that’s because we didn’t have time to acquaint ourselves. Two of them were in the wrong class period — typical freshman mistake. They’ve probably forgotten it by now.

But once they left, only the student across from me remained. During the year, he fell ill with mono, and was out of school for months at a time. For most of that year, I sat alone — with three empty seats around me.

Our seats weren’t assigned, but that didn’t make them any less permanent. Everyone gets comfortable in their chair. They get used to the sightlines, their tablemates, even a particular wobble that lets you rock back and forth to pass the time. I never got comfortable in that chair.

I didn’t talk much in the afternoon. Though I picked up a few conversations, none stand out. I just went quietly about my day. I’ve been told that when I find myself in new situations I tend to look overwhelmed. Another editor told me the same thing when I showed up to my first Collegiate Times editor meeting. Looking back on it, I probably had the same look on my face that September day.

As classes ended, we all poured outside to find our buses for the first time. I checked my phone for my mom’s text with my bus number. After going through every row and column of buses, I found Mr. Security Guard. I couldn’t find my bus. When I showed him my mom’s text, he looked dumbfounded at first. Then, he realized my mom had sent me the black-painted number on the side of my bus, which apparently does no one any good.  

By this time, it was too late, the buses had already revved their engines. After I watched the buses clear out, I sat on a curb under the beating sun — staring at an empty parking lot, alone.

Thankfully, the second day went a bit better. I met one of my best friends to this day after I overheard him brag (read: lie) about his sex life. I even met some interesting people in homeroom. But most importantly, at the end of that day, I found Bus 12 for the first time.

I grew to love that bus over the years. There were never more than 15 of us on there at a time — usually it was closer to seven. We were the kids who came from middle schools that didn’t send 70 kids to TJ. In a way, we were the leftovers — the kids who didn’t live along any of the normal TJ bus routes. With each passing year, more nervous freshmen would walk onto Bus 12, just like I did, and be welcomed into our little family. We would even have our own potlucks on the bus, where one of my best friends would bring his famous seven-layer dip — somehow, we never spilled anything. There weren’t any leftovers either.

Just before my class graduated, even though most of the seniors had started driving to school, a few of us rode the bus one last time to tell the kids to keep the tradition. Keep using the group chat, don’t stop having potlucks and most importantly, make this bus a family. So far, they have.

I said something else that day — that Bus 12 was my first real home at TJ and the first place where I could come out of my shell, and that this bus was a family to me and I was forever grateful that I could share 20 great minutes at the end of the day with everyone on board. Some days, especially during my freshman year, I would look forward to riding the bus as soon as the day started.

(Opinion) Union station

The entrance to one of the side halls at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

If there’s one thing I could do better than that Megabus, it was make good time. It took close to five hours to get to Union Station. By the time we arrived, my stomach was in a knot, I had a headache from staring at my screen and I was the worst kind of exhausted: tired, but not sleepy.  

I kind of owed it to my dad to be awake though, so I went to grab some coffee before meeting him. He came out late to pick me up and he was seeing his son for the first time in weeks. It wasn’t like high school, where I could mostly blow off the “How was your day?” questions and keep to myself. This time it meant more, especially since I’d be leaving again in just a few days. Besides, I kind of missed that old man.

As soon as I got back to the house, I took my car for a spin. I was nervous that after all this time, I would forget what it felt like to put my hand on the wheel. But it was like summer again. Driving through the woods near my house, out onto the highway, music filling the air. There’s no better feeling.

At the end of the weekend, I waved goodbye to my family and pulled out of the driveway, beginning the long journey back to Blacksburg. I’m more used to goodbyes now. They don’t feel as significant anymore. I guess that’s what happens when more people come and go in your life, when you see new places and experience new things. Yet in that moment, I still didn’t want to leave — longing for what was familiar. Though, it wasn’t like leaving for college the first time. This was more muted — part of me had moved on from that house. But I know that I can never fully leave it behind.

A few years ago, construction that would connect the north and south parts of Fairfax County Parkway with a shiny, new interchange began to take place. Many of the trees that used to shield our neighborhood from the outside vanished. I give it credit for reducing traffic, but our little stretch of road lost something that year. The latest part of the old Springfield had been destroyed.

I used to joke with friends that I lived in the woods, but that isn’t really true anymore. The road that leads to my neighborhood, Hooes Road, used to stretch all across the county. Now new highways and interchanges, like the one they just built, have cut it up into pieces. If you ever drive in my area, and you notice several Hooes Roads, know that they were cut from the same cloth.

As I turn out of my community, I think of when I used to stare into the trees and see nothing but darkness. Now I see Franconia-Springfield Parkway. I see traffic lights. I hear the humming of engines. Newer, nicer, more convenient. Just maybe not better.

My middle school had just been renovated as I arrived in 2010, so my classmates and I were treated to two years of a brand-new school. Truthfully, when I first walked into TJ, my first thought was, “Wow, so this is the number one high school in the country? My elementary school was nicer!” I guess it was fitting that karma reared its ugly head.

During senior year, I attended a speech from an author who graduated from TJ in the ‘90s. He reminisced about what his TJ looked like — dilapidated, sure, but beautiful in its own way. People used to joke about the short bathroom stalls and the rats they would see crawling in the hallways, among other things. It’s kind of funny, how a supposedly perfect student body bonded over such flaws.

But then he shifted his tone. He began talking about the renovation and how the construction of a new school building closed the book on part of TJ history and opened another. Some of what made this place special was lost. The paintings on the ceiling tiles were gone. The writing in the bathrooms was met with the same fate. The place was sanitized now, too clean for its own good.

My class, the class of 2016, was the last to see the old building intact. The renovation began during our freshman year. We watched old walls come down, hallways blocked off, new common spaces opened and research labs built. But the prize of all would be the main entry: a glorious dome that would dazzle Thomas Jefferson himself, while being used for absolutely nothing.  

There was a lot of turnover in the administration during my four years there. This past year, TJ welcomed a new principal, Ann Bonitatibus. I remember someone told me that, in making these hires, the school was trying to become more corporate. Corporations, at their core, depend on two things: image and efficiency. In the ‘90s, no one would drive by TJ and think of anything spectacular. The students were always the reason TJ could boast of sterling SAT scores and prestigious college destinations. They brought the school their good press. That, and the subsequent word of mouth, crafted their image.

But as the years have gone by, more and more students have left TJ feeling burnt out — regretful, even — not reaping the benefits promised to them at the start. Some of them have been speaking up. Last year, Angela Ma’s blog post “I Have A Problem With The Nation’s #1 High School” sparked considerable discussion in the TJ community — and while it wasn’t exactly nuanced, many of her points resonated.

My cynical, albeit realistic, side disagreed with her on one thing: There’s nothing wrong with being a “slapper,” as she put it. According to her, a slapper is someone who takes courses purely to “slap” on a transcript. Life, and this early part especially, is a game whether we like it or not. We have to play our cards in the best way we can, because we’ve only got one shot.

Maybe that’s what TJ is doing with this renovation. Maybe they see that people are less content with the school than in years past. They can’t get by on community and education alone anymore. It was time to play the shiniest card, and build the most extravagant dome.

Is this postulate a bit reckless on my part? Who knows — maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. But one thing is for certain: When TJ loses the word of mouth, it loses everything.

(Opinion) TJ dome

A view of the renovated school front, with the dome in the foreground.

Truthfully, if it weren’t for the guidance of my wildly unpopular sophomore year history teacher — we’ll call her Ms. History — I doubt I would have stayed all four years. I never truly excelled at TJ until her class, nor did I ever feel more comfortable talking to a teacher. I guess those two went hand in hand.

Many of the negative comments people made about Ms. History were probably valid — it wouldn’t have been the prevailing opinion if none of them were true. But even the greatest skeptics will believe what they hear hundreds of times. Did everyone in my ear telling me how unreasonable Ms. History was affect my opinion? It probably did, as it did everyone else’s.

But given my predicament, having not done as well as I hoped my freshman year, I didn’t want to feel as if an impossible situation had already gotten worse. So, I went in positive, hopeful more than anything. Looking back on it, maybe if I hadn’t been in such a place, I wouldn’t have given Ms. History the chance to get through to me. What a shame that would’ve been.

Despite the struggles, freshman year was never as bad academically as I made it out to be back then. My lowest grade was a B, which in this case stood for Biology. My teacher would let students who were struggling send her their assignments early to receive feedback before turning it in for a grade. I remember when we were assigned the liver lab report — infamous for its difficulty — I was home sick for two days at the end of the week (Yes, I was actually sick). With my long weekend, I told myself I would make that report perfect.

And perfect it was not the first time around. I must’ve sent it back to her at least two or three times. But after receiving all her comments, and redoing parts of it a few times, I finally felt I was ready to submit a final copy. I got an A on the assignment, and while looking back on it, I did get a lot of help. But that report was really my first true success at TJ — the first thing that made me feel I hadn’t made a colossal mistake in coming to this school.

But at the end of it all, I just felt tired. I wasn’t beaming, like I thought I should be. I was still in the middle school mindset of expecting an A on all my assignments. I had finally done once what I was supposed to do every time. A small victory, sure, but it didn’t prevent the year as a whole from being a huge disappointment.

Freshman and sophomore year were gut punches. TJ took over my life — losing confidence in school and in myself became one and the same. I started to have doubts everywhere. I became more reserved, spending most days just going through the motions.

It didn’t help that I still looked like a middle schooler. I went to school every day sporting an awful mustache and a bowl haircut. I even thought it was cool to wear shorts in the dead of winter. I guess they went well with the tees I got on vacation and high-top shoes.

I gradually grew out of most of those questionable fashion choices. I even began to shave. Though, the bowl cut stayed for a while — it was the one thing I couldn’t muster up the courage to change. Not because I thought it looked good, but because I was afraid of the unknown.

When you lack confidence, the importance of every little decision you make is magnified. What would’ve just been a haircut to someone else would’ve amounted to a seismic, life changing event for me.

(Opinion) TJ drop off lane

The lane where parents drop their students off for school at Thomas Jefferson High School.

I’m on the highway now, and there, everything blends together. There isn’t much interesting to look at — maybe a funny license plate every so often or some poor car stuck on the side of the road. It’s easy to let your mind wander. I guess that’s why all these thoughts are running through my head.

I turn up the stereo. I’m a shameless car singer. The mom SUV is a safe place for that sort of thing. No one’s watching, the beat is just right, so I belt out the melody. I might’ve gotten better over the years, though it’s possible I’ve just thrown away all shame. I’ll even sing in the car with friends sometimes.

I think of my parents. What are they up to when I’m gone? I guess it’s weird to think that life at home goes on without me there. I get a similar feeling when I pass through small towns along the highway. Life in places like Strasburg, Virginia, has gone on since before I passed through, and will continue well after I depart. It’s a place that’s in my world without being a part of it. It’s just strange to put my own home in that category.  

For all four years, my dad would usually drive me to school in the morning, so I could sleep a precious extra hour. Even when I got my own car senior year and found my love for driving, I still chose to ride most of the time. It was a relaxing 20 minutes before what promised to be a rough day. I never talked too much — I just sat there thinking of what was ahead. My dad would usually be too stressed to make me speak up. We were racing every morning to get to school on time. There was nothing he hated more than being late.

On rare occasions, my mom would drive me in. She is neither a fan of driving, nor of needing to get somewhere quickly. My mom is the visible kind of stressed, while my dad is the calm on the outside, burning on the inside kind of stressed. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is worse.

One morning, when my mom was driving, we got to the drop-off area. Mr. Security Guard was always planted at the beginning of the line, directing traffic to either side of the lane to drop kids off. He had garnered a reputation for being … abrasive. Every morning he would yell at some poor kid or parent who didn’t follow his directions.

When my mom began to pull into the drop-off lane, Mr. Security Guard raised his hand telling us to stop, but there was still space behind the last car in line. Not noticing his hand and not knowing how the process worked in general, she pulled right on ahead. After that, the guard came to the side of the car and started yelling at my mom to open the window. I hightailed out of there as fast as I could, but I was still close enough to hear the subsequent exchange.

Understand that my mother does not like to be told what to do. She was seething that this man would have the audacity to cross her. She rolled down the window and told him, calmly I might add, “Don’t yell at me.” He replied with “Well if you just used your brain, I wouldn’t have to yell!”

“Buddy,” she said, “if I didn’t use my brain, I’d be standing right where you are.”

She rolled up the window and drove away.

While that was just one moment, no story I tell about TJ would be complete without it. It might’ve been the funniest moment of my four years. But beyond my mom exerting her incredible will, I think she was expressing some of her frustrations with the school as a whole here.

In the beginning, my parents were varying degrees of excited about TJ. My mom was just happy that I had this opportunity, but my dad took it a bit further. He’s always been less of a skeptic than the rest of the family. Sometimes it felt like he wanted to take in the experience with me. My dad truly believed it could be a transformative experience, so he wanted me to make the most of everything as best I could.

Fast forward to now, and my parents wonder why I even want to go back and visit. My mom legitimately hates the school, the culture, the administration, everything. But my dad so badly didn’t want me to throw away an opportunity — even when he wasn’t blind to the school’s flaws. It took him a long time to let go of that sentiment, but when he finally realized how the school had affected my psyche, it almost broke him.

My parents are very different. My dad taught me to respect authority. My mom taught me to question it. You need both.

(Opinion) I-81

I-81 is a slog. Even with my playlist, the beautiful mountains rolling in the distance and a nighttime sky unbridled by urban light, it’s still hundreds of miles on one road.

As I’m perusing the guide signs, looking for the best pit stop, I’ll see one for attractions at a given exit. But every so often, I’ll come across one that’s blank. Does this place really have no attractions? No food? Was there once something worthwhile here that’s gone now? What’s it like to live somewhere with absolutely nothing?

I’m being facetious of course. But it is kind of sad how we can judge a place so quickly — how we develop intricate and often steadfast views based only on what’s at the surface.

When I look back at everything that changed about my school over my tenure there, it comes down to one main point — TJ became less human. The image the school wants to create for itself has come at the expense of its students. We had to fight for another senior lounge after it was taken away for not being “professional” enough. The school equipped our common spaces with block shaped furniture, rather normal chairs and tables. Even if you prefer style over substance, they weren’t cool looking enough to overcome the lack of back support.

The administration could never look deep enough. The senior lounge wasn’t just a place where kids got in trouble. No one really cared about the blocky furniture. We cared about each other, about community. I’m not sure the administration did — or does.

Nowadays, we alumni can’t even visit the school without an appointment with a teacher. People used to come back to the school to feel part of the community again. Now, it feels like we’re being shut out.

(Opinion) Kingstowne walmart

The Walmart on Kingstowne Blvd. in Alexandria, Virginia.

It wasn’t long before my first visit back as a graduate, however — the All-Night Grad Party began just after our graduation ceremony ended. At the end of the party, there were a few of us left in the gym, just shooting hoops. I don’t know why I hadn’t left yet. The fun ended once the hypnotist show started, and all of us were forced to watch this poor man completely bomb. Maybe a part of me was sad it was all over. Maybe I was holding onto one last thread of my high school experience.

But eventually I got tired — it was close to 5:30 a.m., after all. Before I left the building, I went and picked up the gift bag the school had put together for us, then I was off to Walmart. It was Father’s Day, and with all the graduation festivities, I forgot to buy a card.

I’ll never forget that 20-minute drive to Walmart. The sun was just beginning to rise, I had finally finished the long four-year journey and I got to spend my first post-graduate moments with myself and my music — on the road with not another car in sight. I even took the long way home after, to enjoy the last moments of dawn.

After I bought my card, I sat in the parking lot and opened the gift bag. Inside was a plush blanket, an audio splitter and a small toolkit. I stared at that kit and couldn’t help but chuckle. If there’s one thing I didn’t learn at TJ, it was manual labor.

Maybe it was a message from the administration. That even though we’ve accomplished something great, there’s still far more work and greater challenges ahead.

But more likely than not, someone just came up with the idea and no one could think of anything better. I would’ve liked to be there for that brainstorming session.

Lane Stadium

Lane Stadium, June 11, 2017

None of those gifts went with me to school, and they aren’t in the car with me now. They were just trinkets, meaning very little in reality. I don’t know where I put those either, but maybe they’re in the same place as my diploma — imagine the irony of that.

I end up stopping at a gas station in Staunton. There’s a Starbucks across the street, where I got my pick-me-up for the last half of the drive. It’s a nice combination. Gas, pee, snack, coffee. Being a creature of habit, I’ll probably come here a lot over the years.

Today, I fit in with the Starbucks crowd. I’m wearing a white, star-patterned button-down and black jeans. They aren’t quite skinny jeans, but they’re cut well enough to be form fitting.

I wear my hair short on the sides now. On top, it’s combed over to the side with paste, with a shaved-in line part at the base of the long top-hair. It took me a while to find this look. I kept tinkering with it, never truly satisfied, but still happier than I was with the old bowl.

It wasn’t until my stylist down in Blacksburg convinced me to shave the line in that I felt content. I was hesitant at first, but she was persistent, and I didn’t regret it. I doubt I’d have taken that leap in the years prior.

The day after junior year at TJ ended, I went to the barber shop. The last day of the bowl cut had finally arrived.

I had decided around February of that year that I was ready for a change, but I wanted to wait until after the year was over. If it was awful, at least I’d have the summer to experiment.

I sat in my seat not really knowing what to do. Before that day, I had never asked for anything other than “just a little shorter.”

It’s really weird looking back on it — how much I had built up that day in my head. The bowl cut came to symbolize more than just hair for me — it was a piece of my identity. I guess the main thing holding me back all these years was that I didn’t know how I’d be me without it.

But at this point in my life, I was starting to gain more confidence in myself. Junior year, the toughest year of high school for most, actually went pretty well for me. I was ready for more changes.

When I left the shop with a brand-new undercut, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. That bowl cut was really heavy! I probably lost a pound of hair that day.

But really, that bowl cut was the last vestige of a younger me who didn’t always know what he was doing. And now it was gone, spread all over a poor barbershop floor, never to be seen again.

Looking in the mirror, it was probably for the best.

I remember toward the end of my sophomore year, I seriously considered leaving TJ, and my family was completely behind me. My grades were at a low point and I wasn’t getting more than five hours of sleep a night — usually closer to three or four. And not that I was in an awful place socially, but it wasn’t enough to outweigh the struggle.

I really connected with my history class, and even though Ms. History was known for being difficult, I got an A first quarter. I developed a friendship with her unlike any I had with another teacher. And it wasn’t because I agreed with everything she said; I didn’t. But I always knew that Ms. History believed in me.

Sometimes during lunch periods, I would go to her classroom and talk about the class, or other random things. One of those times, I even told her I was considering leaving TJ. I could tell she was surprised, but to that point, her class was the only academic class I had a solid A in.

As the year went on, even that grade began to slip, from an A, to an A-minus second quarter, to a B-plus third. By the time fourth quarter came around, my confidence was shot. I was finished with TJ, and was ready for everything to come to a messy conclusion.

But I decided to try something.

Around this time, I began to have a recurring dream over the course of three weeks. I would walk through what seemed like a hotel, with long hallways and doors on either side, occasionally coming to a larger open area. I would be among people from time to time, but I felt alone in this world I had created.

One of those nights, I broke off from the group of people I was with in the dream, and walked into an elevator for some reason. The elevator started going up, but then I heard a snap. I began to fall.

I woke up in a sweat, just before certain death. I physically felt the fall as it happened in the dream. I took a few deep breaths, drank some water and, when I finally calmed down, went back to sleep.

The next day, I went online to see if there was any meaning to it all. Everywhere said roughly the same thing — that walking around in a dream symbolizes being lost but dying signals a new beginning.

I had a realization soon after: I never really studied for my own good. Fear was what drove me. The only reason I would hit the books was a fear of failure, not a drive to succeed. But no matter how hard I would study, I never walked into a testing room any less scared than when I first opened my textbook the night before.

I had the luxury no one really wants until second semester of senior year. Since I was intent on leaving the school, it really didn’t matter how this last quarter of sophomore year went. I was done and I had nothing left to give. I was ready to close one chapter of life and open another.

I told myself that for the rest of the year in history, my textbook would stay closed. I would pay attention in class and leave the rest to my brain on the exams. If I bombed the last few tests, who cared? I’d be out of there anyway. I wouldn’t let fear push me around anymore.

I ended up with a high A that quarter, far higher than my first quarter A, and I got around a 97 percent on the final. It was, academically, the most eye-opening experience of my life. I finally had grounds to believe that I could make it through the next two years. Maybe I’d even do well.

(Opinion) TJ renovation

An outside view of the performing arts wing during the renovation.

By this time, it’s completely dark outside. I pass by Lexington, then Roanoke, until I finally reach Christiansburg. I take Exit 118B, U.S. 460 West toward Blacksburg, and I’m on the home stretch. I turn right onto Southgate Drive and park in the Lane Stadium lot.

Lane is magnificent. It’s well-lit at night, so I can see the castle-like facade as I walk by. It’s made of the same limestone as all of the buildings around campus. We call it Hokie Stone. Others wouldn’t understand, but it’s a big part of what makes this place so special. Hokie Stone is cut from a few quarries that the school owns in the region. I guess, in a way, it has literally and figuratively built our community.

I get back to East Ambler Johnston Hall, my home away from home. I walk into my dorm room, jump on my bed, open my laptop and read what I wrote when I was on the Megabus. It was all of 500 words, which probably should’ve been expected, given how uncomfortable that setup was. But now, I have a clear head and a comfortable dorm mattress. I guess I had better get writing.

Sometime near the end of my senior year, I forgot something mildly important in the school building. I can’t remember what it was, nor do I remember it causing me a true panic. But it did give me an excuse to try to sneak into the school on the weekend.

Unfortunately, Mr. Security Guard did his job that Sunday, and all the doors were locked. But as I walked around the perimeter of the school, I came across part of the old performance arts wing. They were knocking down all the walls, so you could see inside from the sidewalk. I saw where the old orchestra room was, a place I held near and dear to my heart.

But I saw something else there. It was a large room with the outer wall torn down, so you could see inside. I noticed some writing on the walls. When I walked closer, I could see the largest phrase in red paint.

Someone I tell you will remember us.

As I moved closer I could see a few more:

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Do I dare disturb the universe?

On the edge of destiny, you must test your strength.

In the end, there are three things which remain: faith, hope and love — the greatest of these is love.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. It felt like a spiritual experience. In this tiny corner of the school that I had never come across before, even amid all this chaos and stress, anxiety and ugliness, there was this. It reminded me to never lose faith in the kids who pass through those doors. No matter how much the school might change, the students will always be extraordinary.

“On the edge of destiny, you must test your strength.” That quote really hit me for some reason. When I looked it up, I found that it was from Air Marshal Billy Bishop, a World War I hero for the Allies. And while I can’t in good faith compare high school to the Great War, I really did wage my own battle.

Even with all the cuts and bruises that came from it, in a perverse way, I’m kind of thankful. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that experience. The destination has been great — the work ethic TJ gave me, and the confidence that getting through it instilled in me, have given me indispensable tools to help me navigate through life. I just don’t know how I felt about the journey.

Epilogue

I know that seemed like a perfect ending, and between you and me, it was for most of the writing process. But I had a thought recently, and I felt this piece would be incomplete without it.

Remember my lone tablemate from freshman year, the one who got mono and had to leave the school? Until I started writing this piece, I had mostly forgotten about him too — I doubt he remembers much of me these days either.

Back then, I only thought of my own problems and hardships. But looking back, I was really the lucky one. He had mono and was bedridden for weeks at a time. He didn’t even have the choice to continue his TJ education. It’s a reminder of how luck plays a role in our greatest triumphs. I could’ve just as easily gotten mono and had to switch schools. I wouldn’t be able to call myself a TJ graduate. I wouldn’t be able to tell this story.

I know life is tough sometimes. I’ve spent pages upon pages telling you about all the hardships I faced, but I realize that I’m fortunate to be in the position I’m in. Obstacles — some surmountable, others not — could pop up any second. So, enjoy every moment you can. Even when things get really tough, don’t just look for light at the end of the tunnel. Look around you. I promise, even if it’s just small or fleeting, something amazing will appear.

That being said, I should probably end things here. I’m well into college now — high school is squarely in the rearview mirror, and while it was quite the journey, I’m off on an even greater one now. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll write about it someday.

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