My niece graduated from high school last Friday. So did my
nephew’s son and a lot of my friends’ children. What will they remember of that
day? The valedictorian’s speech? I doubt it. The number of bobby pins they used
to secure their cardboard hats? Possibly. Or will it be what they did
afterwards, in the hours following the ceremony, that they’ll keep with them in
Most people think of the day they graduated from high
school as the anniversary of the day they graduated from high school. I always
remember my graduation day – June 4, 1981 – as the anniversary of the day I slept
with Clayton Johnson.
Allow me to explain.
I moved to the suburbs of Minneapolis halfway through 9th
grade. I was a small-town girl with small-town clothes and a small-town haircut.
I was the Queen of Geek, a princess in the land of Everyone Who’s No One. Every
day, my stomach ached. I dreaded every class because I’d been dropped halfway into
a subject I knew nothing about. I my small town, I took Earth Science. In the
suburbs, I was in chemistry. In my small town, I took Civics. In the suburbs, I
was in Economics. In my small town I was one of two flute players in the band.
In the suburbs, I was last chair, and several of the girls ahead of me were in a
Twin Cities youth symphony. In my small town, I was in home ec. In the suburbs,
I was the only girl in shop class because home ec was full. When the counseling
center had us take a career exploration test, I had only one result: barge
Talk about a blow to the psyche.
I loved gym class in my small town. I’d left in the
middle of volleyball. In the suburbs, we were learning ballroom dancing. It was
bad enough that I didn’t know any of the boys in my class, worse that one of
the two boys left who could be my partner had bad breath and stared at my
chest. The other boy – a tall, handsome blond – was being begged by a tall, beautiful
blond girl to be her partner. Divine intervention is the only way I can explain
how he looked over at me, assessed my predicament, and left the tall, beautiful
girl and asked if I’d be his partner.
“Sure,” was all I managed to say. His name was Clayton
(not Clay) and together we learned the waltz, the polka, and the Texas two-step
over the course of the two-week dancing unit.
We didn’t become friends, exactly. For the next four
years, we said hello and exchanged sterile pleasantries every time we passed
each other in the hallway, and we had a math class together in which he
borrowed a pencil. We signed each other’s year books every year, always
mentioning how much we each enjoyed each other’s “sweet smile.”
For four years I pined, quietly and from afar, until
graduation night. Everyone who was anyone (and didn’t have a date with their
parents) was going to Greg M’s house for a party. And I mean EVERYONE. There
were at least 300 people in and around Greg’s parents’ suburban house, and the
beer was flowing. It wasn’t long before the paddy wagons showed up and kids
scattered in all directions. I’d not had anything to drink (the line was too
long and I’d shown up late), but I didn’t want to get swept up in the bust, so
I, too, ran towards my red Mustang parked on a side street near Northwood Park.
Of all the people at the party, Clayton was there, too, running next to me down
“Need a ride?” I asked.
“Yes!” he laughed.
We got in my car and drove up Boone Avenue, past the cops
and the mayhem. Clayton said he was spending the night with a few of his
friends in the woods in what is now a very large shopping development. At the
time, a mile from my house, it was the edge of the northwest suburbs of
Minneapolis. There was still a lot of natural real estate between Plymouth and
Maple Grove back in the early ‘80s.
“Wanna join us?” he asked.
It’s the first time I remember being truly spontaneous
all by myself, without the company and encouragement of a cluster of friends.
When I left graduation, I was a pack of one, with no other plans than to drink beer
at a party with people I’d probably never see again. Or at least, most of them.
(Of course, along came Facebook, and many of those people are back in my life,
at least virtually.) But fate changed that. Tall, blond, kind Clayton Johnson
was asking me to stay overnight in a make-shift camp in the woods. No thought
AT ALL went into my response.
We drove to the woods, parked the car, and walked about a
quarter mile in the dark (Clayton held my hand) to a clearing in which three
other guys I recognized, and might have talked to once or twice during my high
school career, had built a fire and laid out four sleeping bags. They had some
beer, a boom box, a few cigars, and a deck of cards. They greeted me like I was
expected and I proceeded to spend the night drinking, gambling, and laughing with
four boys I didn’t know well, but whom my gut knew I could trust. I shared a
sleeping bag with Clayton, fully clothed, and he kissed me a few times before
we fell asleep. When the sun came up, I slipped out of the sleeping bag without
waking Clayton, walked back through the woods, and drove home. My mother took a
photo of me standing next to my Mustang, disheveled, but so very happy. I never
saw Clayton again, but I can’t imagine a better way or a better person with
whom to jump-start my adult life.
Not sure too many parents want to share this story with
their recent graduates, but my hope is that the recent graduates I know and love
will trust themselves and forge ahead with their dreams without too much
consultation from the naysayers. You don’t have to spend the night in the woods
with a boy you danced with in 9th grade gym class, but I do hope you
begin your emancipation with fun and high hopes.