When looking back far enough to recall our teen years, it can be hard not to see them as a little mythic. It’s not just athletes forced into retirement upon their high school graduations who’ll do it. Adolescent psychology is marked by egocentric tropes like “personal fables” and “imaginary audiences.” To some degree, all kids believe they play a lead role in a Very Important drama staged before an audience of Everyone Ever. This was true even before kids could tally their tumblr followers and Instagram likes. I guess it was true for me too.
I went to two high schools. The first was a huge school in an urban centre on the east coast. While I was there, it made the national news for a racially motivated brawl. It wasn’t a place known for school spirit. We spent our days clustered in cliques, trying not to bother anyone, and then scuttled home.
My second high school was in a small prairie town founded by Christian farmer teetotalers. The school was an Archie comic. It came complete with pep rallies, junior prom, football players in lettered jackets, and a fight-song meant for sports events, not in-school race-riots.
The school culture was richer but it was also simpler. Unlike my eastern school which demanded a slate of all-around stellar achievements from the kids selected for valedictorians, my western school had only one criterion: grades. Ever since our class had been in elementary school, the contenders for valedictorian were clear. By grade twelve, the contest had been narrowed down to two very smart girls. In a closed system like an Archie comic, all the factors were familiar and easily tracked. It was as if the two smart girls were Betty and Veronica and the object of their affection was the role of valedictorian.
Things stayed that simple until a friend of mine – the high school’s valedictorian from the class senior to ours – told me, “You know, there’s no reason you couldn’t be valedictorian too.”
I scoffed. In grade eleven, I’d been a solid but lacklustre student. A combination of the harder, faster, stronger Alberta math curriculum along with that dang mandatory gym class had torpedoed my average. Archie didn’t even know I was alive.
Still, by the end of the first semester, the name at the top of the school’s honor roll was mine. If nothing changed, I was on track to unseat the hometown smart girls. The town’s competitive culture was closing in on me. I was getting called an underdog, a dark horse. Adults I didn’t even know personally were talking about me. I had hype. I had critics. I had rivals.
The idea of rivals would play well if my high school drama was nothing but a story someone made up. But it really happened. And in real life, Betty and Veronica were more my helpers than my rivals. If it wasn’t for Betty being my study partner in math, I never would have done well in the class. I spent the whole course turned around in my chair with my elbow on her desk while we worked together. The competition between the three of us was real but it was friendly and collegial. I took it as a compliment when I came through the door of our social studies class in time to hear Veronica complaining, “What do I have to do to get a decent mark on an essay around here? Pass it in with Jennifer MacKenzie’s name on it?”
Eventually, Archie ended up with me. No one likes it when a non-canonical character is tacked on to blast away the integrity and continuity of an old story-line. What made it worse was I didn’t deserve him – everyone knew that. I was proof that the valedictorian criterion was flawed. Betty and Veronica were much more accomplished and deserving than me. Veronica was elected the equivalent of Homecoming Queen and Betty played so hard on all the sports teams she broke her cute nose. All I could do was schoolwork.
I accepted the certificate, the cheque, the page in the yearbook, and the speaking gig at our graduation ceremony anyway. And truthfully, I’m still glad I did. There were grumbles in the crowd when I gave the speech at our graduation. I couldn’t hear them but my parents sitting in the audience could. I have a cousin-in-law who still talks about it to this day.
That was the last big drama of my teenaged years – the noisy, public finale. But, as they say, high school never ends – not completely.
A little over twenty years later, I made my first appearance at a book club. Because I’m such a slow reader, I’ve never belonged to a book club myself. My first experience with one was as the author of the book in question. I’d stepped out of turn again, just like I did in high school. And I did it in the same town where that school from the old Archie comic still stands. Hosting the club was my little sister’s best friend from our school days. One of the members was Veronica herself.
“You invited my Nemesis?” she joked when she heard I was coming. The rivalry was still just a myth – an exaggeration, a literary device working within the saga we and the people who still remember us tell about our teen years.
I’m always nervous when someone I know is reading my book. My writer friends say that feeling never goes away. It turns out I’m even more nervous when that person is the smart girl I spent a year chasing all over our high school. If I’m actually a phony and my writing career is just a stupid pretense, Veronica would be able to tell. If anyone in my history is justified in calling me out, it’s probably her.
Of course, this was all silly. I was very moved by the things Veronica said about my book. They were so gracious and thoughtful and earnest I can’t bring myself to repeat them but I will never forget them. The questions she posed were piercing. When she asked them, she cited the page numbers and read quotes directly, still the thorough, diligent student. And out of everything else I felt upon seeing her again for the first time this century, what struck me was her voice. It was pitched a little higher than I remembered it – prettier and kinder, not a Veronica’s voice anymore.