One of the greatest things about the Internet is the ability to dive into your past, to try to clarify memories that have become hazy over time or reconnect with people who were once an integral part of your life.
I don’t do a whole lot of biographical scrolling these days. It’s been years since I’ve looked up an ex-girlfriend or classmate. The closest I’ve come is a couple years back when I spent a few winter nights in Google maps working to find the various houses of my youth.
That changed this Sunday. I was reading an appreciation for the legendary Eric B and Rakim album Paid in Full. As I read, I was reminded of how I came to know and love that album.
It was in the late summer/early fall of 1987, during my family’s year in California. There was a Sunday afternoon hip hop show on the Stanford student radio station, which I could just barely pick up from our suburb near Oakland. In fact, in order to record the show for re-listening, I had to use my stepdad’s 1970s radio and run a patch cord to my old-school cassette tape recorder. Thus, for the next week I would listen to a very hissy, low volume, MONO tape to review these new songs and artists. At some point, I heard an Eric B and Rakim song on that show, which led me to buy their album, and it became one of my favorites ever.
Along with that was the story of how a classmate borrowed my tape to make a copy and then kept forgetting to return it. Finally, during my final week at San Leandro High School, my friend got a delivery from the office. Moments later he handed me my tape.
It had been a long, long time since I thought of my year at SLHS. In some ways that time was incredibly influential on the next few years of my life. In others, it was just a year that was a quick pause from how the other 48 years have gone. After returning to Kansas City, I tried to write letters to a few of the people I had befriended out there, but I don’t think any ever wrote me back. Once, while on a business trip to the Bay Area in the early 2000s, I was staying a couple exits away from my old neighborhood. After a dinner with clients, I made a quick cruise down the street we lived on. But by the time things like Facebook came on the scene, it was far too late to attempt to track anyone from those days down.
Until yesterday. Reading the Paid in Full article and having those memories made me wonder what happened to the people I had struck brief friendships with. I did some searching for the one or two names I could definitively recall and eventually found a page dedicated to the SLHS graduating class of 1989. The site appears to have been put together at least 12 years ago, in preparation for the class’ 20th reunion. Three hundred and seventeen names were listed. I scrolled through them and was humbled by how few I could recall. I moved back to Missouri 33 years ago and was only at the school for 11 months, but it still felt like more names should jump out at me.
When I attempted to click on the profile of the few names I recognized, I was informed that I had to be a registered user to access profiles and contact information. For a moment I wondered if I could request access from the administrators, explaining that I had been a part of that class for a year, and see if they would allow me in. Although quite old, there are little signs that the site has been updated in recent years. I don’t know how many people still look at it, but might it be worth sending a message and saying, “Hey, I was with you from January through November 1987, anyone remember me?”
Beyond not recognizing very many names, what also jumped out at me was how 20 people in the class were listed as deceased. The class of 1989 is beginning to turn 50, so that number is probably right about where it should be. It still felt high to me. I checked with one of my friends from RHS and he said the latest total showed 17 of our 330-ish classmates have passed.
I clicked on the biographies of all the SLHS alums who were listed as deceased. For most there were recreations of obituaries, or at least comments that provided the cause of death. There were a lot of cancer victims. A couple car accidents, one just a few weeks after they had graduated. Two guys were stabbed to death. There were a lot of suicides, including one of the few people I remembered. It was a guy, Todd, who was in a couple of my classes. I remembered his name well because one day, in May of 1987, our teacher asked him why he looked so tired. He said a bunch of kids had quit at the golf course he worked at and he had to work late the previous night.
A lightbulb went off. We lived right around the corner from that golf course and my summer plan had been to get a job there. That afternoon, as soon as my parents were home, I ran over to the course, introduced myself at the pro shop, filled out some forms, and that night was helping to pick the range. That was my first job. I worked there until the week before we returned to the Midwest in November. Those six—ish months were filled with good times, eye opening experiences, and went a long way towards building my love of hip hop as my coworkers and I swapped tapes to listen to on our Walkmen while we cleared the range at night.
Todd killed himself in 1996. There were several comments under his name, but none gave any hint as to what he was going through that led him to take his own life. I tried not to think too much about that. Instead I recalled a night when we took two girls we worked with to the park that sat between the golf course and the San Francisco Bay. I was interested in one girl, and she flirted with me often. But she went off into the darkness of the park with Todd, and I was left with her friend who I had no particular attraction to and who seemed equally uninterested in me. If it had been 25 years later, we would have sat there staring at our phones. But it was 1987 so we sat on a park bench in awkward silence, wondering how long it would take our friends to go however far they were going to go in the trees.
It was very strange to jump into this little rabbit hole from my past. Strange not because of the memories it brought back, but because I felt like a stranger dropping in on someone else’s past. It’s not like I went to SLHS for several years, or grew up in middle school with this class and then left. I was there for less than a year, struggled to make friends, and the people I did know didn’t seem interested in staying in touch with me after I left. I was a blip in their high school years, buried by over 30 years of life. If I was able to connect with that group, I would feel like an outsider infringing on their private area. I had not earned the right, in my brief time there, to jump back into their community.
I wrote about this episode in the early days of the blog. I remembered a few more details about it back then. ↩