[This is part two of my article about the last day of Faith Center Christian School. Part one can be found at this link.]
Twenty years now
Where'd they go?
I don't know
I sit and I wonder sometimes
Where they've gone
And sometimes late at night
When I'm bathed in the firelight
The moon comes callin' a ghostly white
And I recall
-- Bob Seger, Like A Rock
Our date would be in two parts. First, my mother would take us to Shakey's pizza place for lunch, then she'd drop us off at the Mann Glendale theater where we'd see the movie.
Mother and I had recently started going to the Shakey's on Glendale Boulevard. It was only five or six blocks from the school, and not much farther than that from where we lived. When the three of us arrived this day, we decided what to eat and where to sit. Lisa and I stayed at the table talking while Mother went to order the food. Then she held down the spot while Lisa and I wandered off to the arcade.
We settled on Ms. Pac-Man. Lisa fumbled in her pants pocket for a quarter she probably didn't have, since she'd told Miss Hume earlier she didn't have any money. I watched her for a few moments before saying, "That's all right, here," and handed her a quarter. I put in a second quarter, we selected two players, and she told me to go first. With my first life, I went all the way to the third maze before getting munched by a ghost.
"Wow," said Lisa, "that's good!"
I faked humility. It was good, the best I'd ever done or would ever do, in fact. Boy was I glad I'd been able to pull that off in front of Lisa. I was, however, disappointed that my next two lives didn't get me any further.
Burning through my initial pac-life had taken so long that by the time we finished that single game, the food already waited for us at the table.
On the way to the theater, as we drove up Brand Boulevard, some police action caught our attention. Several police cars had descended on an older model sedan. The officers were struggling with an extremely uncooperative woman. Lisa and I pressed our faces against the side windows and craned our necks to watch as long as we could.
"They had her in handcuffs!" Lisa said.
"I know!" I said back.
That excitement quickly faded as we approached the Mann Glendale. Mother pulled up directly in front and let us out. "I'll pick you up at 3:15," she said. That all came down to the perfect timing of the perfect day. It meant we'd get Lisa back to school not long after we'd normally have gotten out anyway. Her grandfather would basically be sticking to his regular schedule in picking her up.
Doors leading to either of the Glendale's two theaters flanked the concession stand which dominated the lobby's far wall. As we headed toward the right hand theater, I gestured toward the piles of Peanut M&Ms and popcorn buckets waiting to be filled and asked Lisa, "Did you want anything?"
"No," she said, "I just ate."
Yeah, I was there. I just thought it would be impolite not to ask.
"Yeah," I mumbled, "that's right, okay."
And in we went.
We sat about half way down on the left hand side. I think we were the only people there.
My mind fairly raced. What should I do? What should I say? Should I do anything special? Should I just sit here like a bump on a log? A hundred different "movie dates" seen in various films and TV shows raced through my head, giving me neither comfort nor support.
At a certain point in Grease II a musical number breaks out in a sex education class, as the students sing a song called "Reproduction." So, here are two Christian kids on their first date, in a dark theater, listening to a song which has the chorus:
Put your pollen tube to work.
Make my stamen go berserk.
I don't think they even know what a pistil is!
I got your pistil right here...
Where does the pollen go?
I squirmed in my seat. It was like watching a Disney movie with your parents only to have a hardcore sex scene pop-up.
About the time one of the male students whips out a Playboy and lets the centerfold drop to leer at, Lisa leaned over to me.
"Did you see this before?" she whispered.
"No," I replied. "No, I didn't."
"Oh," she said, "I thought you did."
She leaned back into her chair.
In my mind I imagined Lisa trying to convince her mother to let her go. I saw her mother objecting about the appropriateness of the film, and Lisa insisting that I was a good guy and wouldn't take her to anything inappropriate. To this day, anytime I see that film, this whole little scenario replays in my head.
Mercifully the scene ended, but I had a replay later on when one of the T-Birds tries to trick a Pink Lady out of her virginity by taking her to a bomb shelter and faking a nuclear attack. I squirmed again. Lisa didn't say anything that time.
Mother was supposed to get off work that day around the same time the movie let out. "And I'm going to tell them I can't stay one minute longer," she'd told me, "because we have so much to do that day." I'd been concerned about how long Lisa and I might have to wait for her, but when we emerged back into the daylight, Mother was already parked down the street.
"How was it?" she asked, as we got in.
"It was good," I said.
Lisa concurred. "Yep," she said.
As we pulled up to the strangely deserted school, we saw Lisa's grandfather already parked and waiting in his little green Volkswagen Beetle.
"See you tonight," Lisa said, smiling and bounded out to join her grandfather. As mother and I pulled away, I smiled at him, and gave him a little two-fingered salute, the pretentious valediction I'd been using around that time. Oh no, I was too good for a simple wave. I needed something flashy, something unique, something that made me look like a cross between a pompous boy scout and a stiff-upper-lipped British WWI flying ace about to take off on a suicide mission.
Gus and Jules' assertions aside, no kissing took place. After "Reproduction," I figure I was on thin ice anyway.
Mother and I went to the Galleria, Glendale's large indoor mall, to search for something for me to wear to graduation. We hit most of the men's clothing stores before coming upon something that clicked with me. Back then I wore lots of velour. I liked that it looked like velvet. It made me feel as if I were outfitted as richly as a king or something. I had a whole collection of short sleeved velour shirts that comprised the bulk of my wardrobe. Now we'd found a long sleeve velour shirt, with some distinctive striping and trim. Cool. I was set. We rushed home for me to shower, dress, and rush back out to Faith Center before graduation began at seven.
I'd been at so many of these nighttime school events over the years. It always felt a little strange seeing the school in such a different context, even stranger seeing what was by day our playground turned into a parking lot at night.
My class split off from our families as we arrived and gathered in the kitchen at the rear of the auditorium/church sanctuary. Our purple robes and caps had been left here all day in boxes, stacked up on a counter against the farthest wall. They didn't trust us to take them home and remember to bring them back. Besides, they were rented. The only thing we got to keep was the gold colored tassels, with their little "'82" shaped gold charms, which hung from our caps.
Julius cornered me.
"Well," he said, "what happened?"
"What?" I asked, more than a little slow on the uptake.
"What happened!" he repeated, with exaggerated emphasis.
"Nothing," I said.
"Nope." I shook my head.
That was that.
When Lisa arrived, she huddled into a neutral corner with the other girls for gossip and giggles. It was a rare opportunity to see Lisa in a dress, she usually wore pants and Hawaiian shirts. Tonight she wore a green skirt, frilly white shirt, and a black vest.
After a last minute check to make sure everything was in order, Miss Hume herded us to our seats in the far left section of the auditorium. The rest of the students already occupied their usual places to the far right. Wow, something different, something almost weird. After all those years sitting on the other side....
With nearly ten years worth of these ceremonies behind me, they had taken on a monotonous sameness. The pre-school and pre-kindergarten kids would put on a performance -- I'm pretty sure the exact same one I'd participated in 9 years earlier. Then the kindergarteners had their graduation. Again, the exact same routine we'd put on so many years earlier, the only difference being the names of the kids grabbing diplomas and performing the schtick. I knew from experience, they'd be taken out along the left edge of the auditorium, through a back door, and up to the balcony. There they'd be allowed to watch the ceremonies for a while longer before leaving by way of a door next to our sixth grade classroom on the second floor. Once down the stairs and back to the underground level of their classrooms, they'd play and wait for their parents to pick them up after the whole thing had finished. Pity the poor parent there to support their pre-schooler who then had to sit through 8 more classes worth of nonsense before they could collect their kid.
And so it went. The school year reviewed, honors handed out, the whole well oiled routine. It felt tedious and old to me in a way it never had before. Maybe it was just the crushing finality of it for me. This was it. The last time for me. Sadness and anticipation still swished around in me, like a baking soda volcano waiting to spew.
At a predetermined point, my class rose, and filed out alongside the same route the pre-schoolers had followed. At the back, we diverged and circled back to the kitchen. Time for the main act to get into costume.
I suddenly hated my new shirt. It didn't have a collar, so unlike everyone else, nothing showed above the neckline of my robe. To me it looked like I didn't have a shirt on under my robe. Great, like I wasn't self-conscious enough! I want a collar, darn it! Um, could we put this whole thing on hold for a couple hours while I go buy a shirt with a collar? No? Okay.
After donning our robes and caps, we lined up in alphabetical order, ready to make our entrance for the grand finale. I stood directly behind Lisa. "Pomp and Circumstance" started playing. It's show time, baby! We emerged slowly through the kitchen door -- step, pause, step, pause, just like we'd rehearsed -- and made our way down the center aisle, up the stairs to the stage, and lined up across the back of the platform.
I went into some sort of weird zone where I was aware of what was happening but none of it registered. I remember the bright lights and seeing the audience. My mother and the Brazilian sisters' parents sat in the center left section, almost directly in front of Lisa and me. Her family sat off to the side in the same section where we'd been stationed earlier. I remember the red lights on the TV cameras (they broadcast everything over their mini-TV and radio network in those days, including graduations). The extra lighting necessary for television made the stage uncomfortably warm. Do me a favor, Gene, just don't faint!
I know basically what happened because we'd rehearsed it so many times, but I have very little recollection of it actually happening. Julius gave a valedictorian speech. A woman named Teri, who I guess was the church's artistic director and was responsible for staging these events, read brief, supposedly humorous paragraphs about each of us.
This was the first time we'd heard her comments. Though we'd rehearsed this, she wanted to keep the actual readings a surprise. She would say our names in turn, we'd step forward, she'd deliver her spiel, then we'd step back so the next one could get their roasting. I have absolutely no clue what she said about most of us. I may have noticed the comments were in rhymed couplets. I vaguely heard her say something about Danny being chased by all the girls and thought, What am I, chopped liver? After all, which one of us has the girlfriend? That was the only line I heard clearly of all nine of us. I especially didn't hear what she said about me. With the lights and the heat and the stress, by that time Teri sounded to me like one of Charlie Brown's teachers. "Gene Nash." Step forward. "Waaa waaa waa waa waa WAAA." Step backward. If not my own paragraph, you'd think I would have paid attention to Lisa's. Nope. Noda. I'd completely zoned out. Later on I asked my mother what Teri had said about me. She was as clueless as I was.
Finally the principle, came up with a bucket full of diplomas. He read out our names. We stepped forward, took the diploma with one hand, shook his hand with the other, then returned to our positions. Again, all carefully choreographed and rehearsed. Couldn't look bad on national TV, you know. Lastly, the announcement we were graduates. "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 1982 graduating class of Faith Center Christian School!" On cue we reached up, moved our tassels from one side of our caps to the other and basked in the applause of our achievement. "Yea! Congratulations! You didn't flunk!"
And I'd somehow managed not to faint.
We moved off the stage to the right of the auditorium to take our place in the lobby, where, as by tradition, we would stand in whatever the opposite of a receiving line is (a receding line, perhaps?) while the audience filed out past us and we shook hands with them one by one. Oddly enough, the only one I really remember shaking hands with was Jun's father. I vaguely recall shaking hands with some of Lisa's family, but not clearly enough to comment on it.
After a seemingly endless time (not unlike reading this article) no-one remained but my class, Miss Hume, and our families. Some of the kids asked Miss Hume for her phone number so they could stay in touch. I decided to as well, though I knew I'd never call. Maybe I just didn't want to look bad, as if I didn't care. Miss Hume felt a little overwhelmed by it.
"What am I doing?" she laughed. "Now I'm going to have all these kids calling me in the middle of the night!" Gee, thanks, we love you too.
My mother took some final parting pictures with her Kodak instant camera, including one on the main stage which the sisters weren't too happy about having to pose for, seemingly just wanting to leave at that point, then we headed back to the kitchen area to return our robes and caps to their boxes.
Lisa and I were the last ones remaining in the kitchen. It was almost as if she had been hanging around, waiting for me to say something. I looked back over my shoulder at her as she packed her robe away. I'd wanted her for years, finally gotten her, but now the world we existed in wouldn't exist anymore, at least not for us. It had prayed on my mind all night. Now what?
No more seeing her every day. No more opportunities of proximity. What would happen to "us?"
I'd been thinking about it, I'd been rehearsing it, I felt as if my whole life depended on one question. Here goes.
"Lisa," I said, and I walked over to her. She stopped and looked up at me. "I was wondering if maybe you'd like to go see more movies, over the summer?"
That was one of the boldest things I ever did in my life. That took just about everything I had.
"Sure!" she said. "Just call me."
That's called relief, my friends, and it's not spelled R-O-L-A-I-D-S.
I smiled back.
"Will you still be at your grandparent's number?"
"Yeah," she said, almost as if it was a given.
"Okay. I'll call you."
Now that I'd finally talked to her, it was as if she felt free to leave. She stacked her box up against the wall with the others and left.
I took a little longer. I finished packing my box, took the time to take one last, sad look around, then added my box to the pile. Mother and Miss Hume were still in the lobby, talking.
I'm not sure who, if anybody, locked up the auditorium. The three of us went back upstairs to the sixth grade classroom. I looked out across the almost deserted parking lot. My heart skipped a beat. Heading toward the gate was Lisa's grandmother's large white ocean liner of a car. It seemed to be speeding, almost as if she was speeding away from me, out of my life.
As Miss Hume unlocked the door, Lisa's voice pierced the night air.
"Miss Hume!" She suddenly popped halfway out a passenger side window. "I get to go! I'll see you at summer school!"
Miss Hume yelled back, "That's great!" Then she looked at me and smiled.
Lisa grinned wildly and pulled herself back into the car. I watched it zip through the gate and disappear into the night.
That was for my benefit,
I thought, smiling to myself. Little did I know I'd only see her one more time.
We went inside the room. While Miss Hume and Mother continued to talk I sat at my desk, turning in a circle, taking everything in. I began saying goodbye to everything I could see.
"Goodbye, books," I said. "Goodbye, bookcase. Goodbye, chalk board." Everything that caught my eye, I said goodbye to. "Goodbye, floor."
I was melodramatically over emphasizing for effect, but only to lessen the weight on my heart.
"Would you listen to him?" said Miss Hume. "You're going to see it all again next year!"
But I wasn't kidding around. I was serious, because even as she said that, I didn't believe it. I didn't think there would
be a next year. Somehow I knew this was it.
Miss Hume finished up whatever she'd needed to do and we all left. I may have been the last student to ever be in that room. I'm glad I took the opportunity to say goodbye. It's more than I ever did for Lisa.
Miss Hume headed for her small orange two door, and Mother and I headed for our old white Ford Falcon.
As we drove home I was strangely elated, and somehow sad. Sad for what had ended, elated for what suddenly seemed could still come. It looked as if Lisa and I could still manage to find a way to go on anyway.
It had been a long day, and in some ways the best day of my life. Even now, it may stand as the best day of my life. It was the day I got to spend with the girl it looks like I'm going to end up having loved more than any other.
A few weeks later we received a letter from Faith Center saying they had decided to close the school and were sorry for any inconvenience that might cause.
"What does that mean?" I asked my mother. "Does that mean they're not going to have a seventh grade or does that mean the whole school is gone?"
The letter wasn't quite clear on that. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with anyone at the school, we finally broke through and were informed the school was indeed shutting down for good. Wow. I'd rode out the last of it. I was part of the last graduating class of Faith Center Christian School of Glendale, California.
Whether I was ready or not, whether I wanted it or not, my life entered a whole different phase.
While the school shuttering its doors had little impact on me directly, as I'd probably have gone to a new school anyway, the thought still overwhelmed me. Not only had a part of my life ended, the entire thing shriveled up and went poof, like a leaf burned under a magnifying glass. I felt sorry for the others who now had to find a new school mid-stream instead of at a natural changing point such as elementary to middle school.
I only saw Lisa one more time.
One day a letter of application for summer school arrived addressed to me from Miss Hume. At the top, she had hand written a note: "Lisa has already sent her's in." I wanted to go, I really did, but my mother wouldn't go for it. Money had been tighter that past year. I'd even stopped staying in the after school program. Anyone still on campus at about 3:15 was automatically charged for after school care. I'd started either walking up to Mother's work several miles away, walking home (also several miles away), or sometimes just journeying as far as the nearest corner to wait for her to pick me up. Now she balked at paying for the summer school, even though it was ridiculously low priced. I've often wondered if I could have pressed the case and convinced her to send me. I've blamed myself, as if I didn't try hard enough, but I doubt it would have made a difference.
As with the school closing, we tried repeatedly to contact Miss Hume, but unsuccessfully. I had lost her number, but we called the church. Unlike with the school, we never got through. I wonder if maybe that
would have made a difference, if maybe Miss Hume could have gotten through to her.
The last time I saw Lisa was at the multi-plex inside the Eagle Rock mall. I'd just come out from watching Rocky III
and was passing through the lobby, headed for the doors, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked left, no-one, I looked right... OH MY GOD, LISA!!!!!
"Hi," she said.
"You here to see Rocky?" She probably just saw me come out, but what was she supposed to say? I'd said we'd still go out, I said I'd call, and so far, nothing. She'd even called me once, but it was at a really bad time -- my father was making sure to listen intently to every word I said no matter how quietly I spoke -- and it hadn't gone well.
"Yeah," I said. "It's a good movie."
The conversation, such as it was, ended quickly.
"Well, bye," she said.
And I continued on my way.
I was elated, I was overjoyed, my heart pounded so hard I'm surprised everyone couldn't hear it. Lisa! I'd been thinking about her so much. It was so good to see her. But I didn't show any of that. I didn't show anything.
I went straight from the theater up to the toy store on the second floor at the opposite end of the mall. I was still so elated, that as I passed down an aisle by myself, I pumped my fist in the air and as quietly as I could said, "Yeah!" Then I noticed a security mirror, and looking at me reflected in it from another aisle, a little Hispanic man. He stared at me apprehensively, as if trying to discern from which mental ward I'd just escaped. I averted my eyes and kept moving.
That was the last time I ever saw Lisa. That was the last time I ever spoke to her. That was the last time I ever heard her voice. And if you asked me to tell you the last time life was worth living, that moment would be in strong contention.
You know that scene in A Christmas Carol
where Scrooge's fiance is calling off their engagement and his elderly self is yelling at his younger self to go after her, to talk to her, to do something?
Looking back now, I'm like Scrooge. Now I can think of a hundred things to do, in all the situations where I blew it, whether it involves summer school, or that disastrous phone call, or seeing her that last time. Looking back now, it's as if my present self is standing there yelling at the ghost of my younger self, Go buy another ticket and go back in! Tell her you lost her number (by that time I had)! Get her number again! Go home and call her!
But I didn't do any of that. I just did nothing... and let the most important part of my life slip away.
We can yell back at our younger selves all we want, but they never seem to hear us, do they?
And the years rolled slowly past
And I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way
There were oh so many roads
-- Bob Seger, Against the Wind
I don't know what happened to Miss Hume or the Brazilian sisters, Erika, Rosangela, and Adriana. I never saw them again or heard anything about them.
The last time I saw Julius, he and Gus had been walking up my street (I guess Gus lived further up the street somewhere, but I never knew where). I looked out the kitchen window and saw them about a block away talking to my father who had just pulled up and parked. When he got upstairs he said a couple of guys had stopped him and told him to say hi to me.
I saw Gus one last time. A Summer or two later, I went with my father to pick up his paycheck. Gus came out and talked to me. It seems he was working there now, too. He said I'd changed a lot.
The last I heard of Danny was in 1988. Word got to me that he was married, had a baby, and was working for some car manufacturing plant, or something like that. Great. With the exception of the car manufacturing, he was living the life I wanted, while I toiled at writing and sundry other artistic activities.
Sometime in the early '90s, Jun started working at Sears, but in a different department and on a different floor from my mother. His supervisor once told my mother, not realizing she knew him, that he was the stupidest person she'd ever had work for her. So, things were normal there. That's the last I ever heard of him.
Lisa is now married to someone other than me and still living (hopefully happily) in Southern California. (You didn't expect her to wait for me to come to my senses did you?)
And me? Well, we all know what I'm up to. I'm sitting on the back side of the Mohave Desert with one small cat, blogging my life away.
[I'd intended to put in a little more commentary about Lisa and me, but since it's not really germane to the topic of these articles -- which are supposed to be about the end of Faith Center Christian School, and this article appears to be even longer than the previous, we'll save that for another article -- not really a part 3, but definitely an afterward. See you in another week or two.]