I was asked to speak at the West Branch Graduation nearly a year ago. A year later, I am flying back to Hollywood, California after a beautiful and memorable week in Central Pennsylvania.
The week began with meeting my family at the airport, catching up with old friends around a bonfire at night, and remembering a young man who left much too soon. The week ended after parting from my family in a rush to catch my flight, reconnecting with old spaces and loving faces, and meeting a new baby boy full of life named Hank.
I was beyond honored and excited to be asked to speak at my beloved alma mater, West Branch High School, but then to also be asked to speak at my favorite movie theater, The Rowland Theatre, was very much a surprising honor and personal treat. They are probably the two establishments in my life that I am most proud of and most changed by, and where I learned who I was and what I wanted to be in the world.
I have already reflected about the experience of speaking in front of a crowd for the first time in nearly a decade at the Rowland Centennial Celebration earlier in the week. And now, I am reflecting on what transpired the night of the West Branch High School Class of 2017 Graduation Ceremony.
I think everyone is incomprehensibly shaped in their formative years by the childhood friends, experiences, and relationships children experience. It is hard for a child to form thoughts or opinions about what took place before they were called “adults.” Honestly, from what I have heard about psychology, the brain needs time to properly categorize and make sense of all of these earliest events.
In my 9 years since graduating from West Branch, I can already tell you what a profound effect this school had on me. To attend West Branch, or any public school in a small town is a unique upbringing, and West Branch is probably one of the smaller public schools in the country. Our graduating class was a bit less than a hundred, and we mostly stayed together from kindergarten until senior year for 13 years. What makes West Branch all the more unique is that the entire school is still under one roof.
The students that we shared life with, grew up with, matured with, know us better than I would dare to say that even our future families we would want to know us. Our classmates, in such a small and intimate setting, see our worst warts, our red pocked faces, our odd phases… and yet we couldn’t escape each other and were almost a forced extended family for over a decade.
Personally, to be in one place for so long is quite significant to my life. My family moved from Orlando, Florida to Grassflat, Pennsylvania the summer before I started my career at West Branch, and I moved away the summer after I graduated. Since leaving school, I have not stayed anywhere for more than a couple of years, and likely my new home in California, will be my first long-standing residence.
But, it wasn’t only my classmates which shaped me so much, but it was also the building itself. This singular school for all grades is mostly antiquated with many modern updates for learning. The building itself remains much the same as it was when it was built in the 70s. The most significant change happened while I was in High School. We had significant renovations and instead of having classes in the janitor’s closet in the basement, affectionally called “The Dungeon”, we had a new science lab, and instead of having our school plays and public events in the “Cafe-Atorium” we had a brand new state-of-the-art auditorium built. I was incredibly fortunate to spend such a long time in the same building. Even though I may yet live in one area longer, I cannot ever imagine spending more time in one building.
I have come to realize the profound and immeasurable effect my teachers had on me during my time while at West Branch. When I entered “high school” which for West Branch was 7th Grade, our administration and school board was in constant change. Our class barely had a chance to remember our principal or superintendent’s name, before they were gone and replaced with a new face and a new agenda. Our school board became the town’s too-real reality show when the president at that time wanted to get rid of all of the computers in the school in the early 2000s, because she said they were “the devil!” But the thing that remained constant through every classroom, and every subject, were the teachers.
When I entered the auditorium doors on the graduation night, 9 years older, maybe wiser but definitely humbled, I was greeted by so many loving faces from the community and even some of my own teachers that had such a profound effect on me. I had been nervous and doubting all that day leading up to this event about the quality of my speech, my speaking, and the uniqueness of my words, but all of my fears melted away as soon as my family pulled up and parked in the back of the auditorium stage doors.
So many beautiful and happy memories fluttered into my mind, like an old favorite childhood movie that I forgot I used to love to watch so often. Walking through the halls, entering the beautiful auditorium, and even using the bathroom all felt so surreal that night. I was no longer writing essays, cramming for tests, or making YouTube videos with friends to get out of homework… but now I was here as the invited “guest” to speak to the next graduating class’ ceremony.
It is still hard to categorize and fully appreciate all of the warm hugs from the community, shaking hands with old teachers as now equals, and seeing the anticipating faces of the soon to be alum. But I know that this night at West Branch was beautiful. I will speak at other places, hopefully get some awards for this or that, and continue to explore, travel, work, and make new friends and have new teachers, but I am so very grateful for the community of Central Pennsylvania and all that you gave to me and continue to teach me since I lived at home.