Last Thursday, William, Gabrielle and I walked down the hallways of Pulaski County High School. It was freshman orientation and William had Gabrielle’s schedule in his hands.
“A205,” he said. “OK, that should be … this way.”
Having been born without a sense of direction, I followed dutifully behind him. But Gabrielle wasn’t convinced this was the right way to her geography classroom.
“Isn’t it down those stairs?” she asked.
I knew we were in trouble when even William, who flawlessly navigated the streets of Venice, looked doubtful and checked the schedule again. And then took a picture of a map of the school that hung on the wall.
The thought of not only finding the geography but five more classrooms in one day started to make me feel a little nauseated. How was this little 14-year-old going to be able to do it? How was she going to avoid getting lost? Because this building? Big. Massive, even. With half floors, courtyards, dozens of stairways and hundreds of identical doors. Looking down one particularly long hallway, I knew this was the stuff repeat bad dreams are made of: Looking for your locker and not being to find it. Walking in desperately late for a test because you got lost.
Luckily, the 14-year-old didn’t look fazed and bounded up the stairway.
“This way,” her pretty voice rang out cheerfully.
In every way possible, Gabrielle Baker is excited for high school to start. With every back-to-school shopping trip, she seems to be building a new freshman identity. She has shed her old school and the social compartment she was put in there. No longer will she judged by who she was when she was 9 and had a bad haircut. No longer will there be a mere 40-kid pool from which to make best friends. To her, Pulaski County High School is a sea of possibility.
I so admire the way she is facing this transition. Because, boy, was I the opposite. I was terrified of getting lost. I clutched on to my existing friends as if life preservers. I was worried I’d forget my locker combination. I stressed over social status and pimples. Every morning, the contents of my closet and drawers would find themselves on the floor in harried attempts to figure out what to wear.
Even when she bounded up those stairs, I fought the urge to warn Gabrielle what can happen. All I could think of was the time I tripped on steps just like those during class change. So bad was my recovery that students started forming a wake around me. No Casanova offered me a hand. Several girls laughed meanly. And weeks of wincing followed as I relived the moment.
But I didn’t tell her about it. Maybe she’ll never trip. Maybe Gabrielle Baker will have a great high school experience. Her attitude is certainly different. She is strong and confident. She made the volleyball team and is forming new friendships. She is gorgeous and wickedly smart. And since she’s been a very little girl, her dad has drilled the saying “Nerds rule the world” into her so she seems to have few illusions about seeing the popular crowd as the be-all, end-all.
Still, tomorrow is the first day of high school for her. No matter how fantastic you are, the reality of that enormity doesn’t escape anyone. When I picked her up from volleyball practice this morning, I asked her how she was feeling and she shrugged.
“Not as excited anymore?” I queried.
“Well, the way I look at it, tomorrow morning is coming no matter what I do. I just hope I have someone to sit with at lunch. We’ll see how it goes.”
Again, the vision of the cafeteria and its complicated politics blew up in my mind and my instinct was to commiserate with her. But, again, I refrained. My horror stories should only be told if she’s accumulated a few of her own — and needs to know we all have them.
So we drove in silence and this little kid, chin up, eyes clear, looked firmly at the road in front of her.