My Grade 8 graduation took place inside my elementary school’s gymnasium. It was so hot in there you could’ve cooked an egg on a projector. I wore a suit for the occasion, of course. A photo taken moments before the ceremony shows me already sweating. If the photo was a GIF, you’d probably see the sweat dripping down my face.
I was a puddle and I hadn’t even entered the pool yet.
There were three measly fans set up around the gym to keep everyone cool. They failed with flying colours.
Afterward, I heard stories of parents getting up to move a fan closer to them, only for other parents to return it to its rightful spot – closer to them. Passive aggressive chaos. And here I thought it was only kids who would do such a thing.
On the walls in the gym were pictures of all the graduates. No, it wasn’t like WrestleMania 22, where they had banners of all the wrestlers hanging from the rafters.
These were self-portraits of our younger selves. You say, “uh-dorable”, I say, “Uh, can’t we just hang the real photo?”
I believe I was about 2 or 3 years old in mine. I looked like a chunky bag of flour, wearing colourful clothes and shoes. The classic 90s look.
Once we had all officially graduated, taken our self-portraits down, and found our families, we were taken to a banquet hall. At the end of the night, everyone started hugging each other.
I didn’t expect that part of the evening – the goodbyes and farewells. Eight years later, on my final day of university, it finally made sense to me. Because there I was, scheduling meet-ups with friends until 2AM, just so I could say goodbye and give one last hug.
It was the end. Life will never be as it was, ever again.
Most of us went to the same high school, but many did not. And I was caught off-guard by that when I got to Grade 9 and realized some of my friends weren’t there. You could say, “How could you not know?” Well, we never really talked about it. I knew some were going to a school closer to where they lived, but I guess I made too many assumptions with others.
There wasn’t social media, I didn’t have MSN Messenger yet. Some of those goodbyes at graduation were more permanent than I thought they were at the time.
That was 17 years ago.
Last week, it was Election Day in the province of Ontario. My polling station was my elementary school’s gymnasium. That’s right, I’d be returning to the sauna of the crime.
This was my third time back inside the school, since 2005. The last time was in 2018, to vote.
Both voting experiences were vastly different.
In 2018, the gym was crowded. My neighbours were also in line. The tape on the floor, telling us where to stand, wasn’t very visible because there were so many people. I knew I was back in the gym for the first time since I graduated, but I didn’t have a chance to take anything in.
It was a blur.
But last week was something else.
I walk in and the place is empty. It’s only my mom and I, and about six volunteers waiting to tell us where to go and what to do. That was it. The white tape on the white floor was highly visible.
Is this real? Am I getting preferential treatment as an alumnus? Is this an attempt at irony? An empty gym with good air flow? This is a joke meant for me, surely. Only I would connect the dots.
It felt like I had arrived extremely early for my own surprise party and the only people there were waiters handing out hors d’oeuvres.
I tried to take it in as much as I could, but you could only spend so much time putting an ‘X’ next to someone’s name without people thinking you’re up to something.
The gym felt so much smaller than I remembered. It baffled me that we would play 5-on-5 sport in there. Where is the space?
As I looked around, I thought about how the basketball nets always felt so high up. I thought about taking a soccer ball right off the face on a penalty kick. I thought about floor hockey and the line chemistry I had with a classmate, who I always knew would be in front of the net to tap it in if I sent a blind pass from the corner.
I exited the gym and stood in the front foyer. That’s where all the parents stood (and probably still stand) at lunch time with McDonald’s, or something that didn’t involve sharing french fries with 20 other kids.
That’s where my mom stood on a rainy day in Grade 5. She was running late and the only option was to go to a grocery store and bring a bun to the deli counter and ask them to put prosciutto in it. To this day, it’s one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. We still talk about it and the events leading up to how and why it happened.
I looked at the Main Office and thought about being brought there on my first day of Kindergarten, after I tripped over a hula hoop and scraped both my knees. Two large, square bandages, just for me. Welcome to the world, Paul.
I stared down the hall and knew the library was to the left and my old Grade 6 classroom was to the right. Just like the gym, the hallway looked a lot smaller. Maybe this is why when kids asked to go to the washroom, the teacher gave, seemingly, impossible time limits like, “two minutes”.
Because as an adult, you could go, do your business, and be back at your desk, easily. When you’re a kid, everything is bigger – everything is further. You immediately admit defeat to the “two minutes” because the washroom is “so far away”, it’ll take you that long to just get there and back. You dilly dally down the hall, tracing your finger in the bricks on the wall, slowly passing other classes so you can get a long look in. You and your short strides are not in any hurry; any faster and you’d be running. Can’t do that. You get back in four minutes and are treated as if you flew to a different country to find a toilet.
I hear they flush counterclockwise in Australia. My source is The Simpsons.
I stood there and figured an adult could probably traverse the entire school in about 90 seconds. As a kid, that would seem impossible, even if you ran.
All of a sudden, I was back at the car and the year was 2022 again. My voyage back in time didn’t feel like it lasted long enough.
Later that night, it was revealed that this was the lowest voter turnout in history. Although that explained why no one else was there, it still didn’t make my experience feel any less surreal.
I’ve been on a cloud of nostalgia ever since. Not by choice. The flood of memories that came rushing back have filled the sewers in my brain and the maintenance crews are on vacation, so I’m out of luck.
Is this what adulthood actually is? We’re slowly forced to relive our younger years, but from the perspective of someone who is older?
Is life just a big game of “spot the difference”? Because if I were to spot the differences, there wouldn’t be that many to circle. It didn’t look like much had changed and yet, it felt completely different.
And I think it’s because the school is no longer mine. The sense of ownership I feel is purely in the form of memories and nostalgia. The current teachers and students, especially the Grade 8s – it’s their school.
They own it, today.
We all get our time – we all get our today – but then we pass it on.
“You carry the baton, I’ll carry the memories.”
And then the day comes when we, once again, walk through those front doors, like a stranger in our old home, and unpack those memories, all in the time it takes to fill out a ballot.
Because that is what adults (who vote at their old elementary school) do.
And that is who you are today.