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Graduation: the end of the beginning

The Piqua High School Senior Rock. All seniors are expected to sign their names on the rock. (Zurie Pope/YJI)

Piqua, Ohio, U.S.A. –  I told myself I wouldn’t cry. After years of quiet resentment, flippantly dismissing my high school and town as equal parts backward and reactionary, to weep for both seemed absurd.

Why would I feel anything except euphoric joy at the thought of leaving these dismal flatlands?

The Piqua High School coat of arms. (Zurie Pope/YJI)

Yet as I walked out of school for the last time, my brisk walk slowed, and a searing pain crawled from my stomach into my chest, as if I was going to be sick. I leaned against a nearby tree and looked back at my school.

All at once, every emotion which had been lying dormant within me raised to the surface, and in an instant I was sobbing, sheets of tears streaming down my face. I stood rigidly still for what felt like hours, hand clutching the tree as I sobbed, fortunate that since I finished school two hours earlier, no other students would see my despair.

A bulletin board celebrating seniors at Piqua High School. (Zurie Pope/YJI)

At the time, I didn’t understand my reaction. But upon reflection, the reason for my visceral response seems obvious.

What I saw when I looked back was more than Piqua High School. I saw every friend whose presence made life worth living. Every teacher who expanded the boundaries of my mind. Every striving overachiever and wayward delinquent. Every young couple, certain of nothing but their unconditional love. Every boisterous athlete and apprehensive nerd. All those wonderful, terrible, flawed people, whose lives – if only for this brief, fleeting moment in time – intersected with mine.

No two students were the same, with race, gender and sexual orientation, being just a few of their drastic differences. Many only knew each other faintly, most not at all. Some were scions of inherited wealth, others poor. Some had parents who doted on them, others would crumble, hands wrapped around their legs, dreading the moment they had to go home.

Nonetheless, in the brick confines of our school, we were all equal, silently working towards a common goal: creating for ourselves a foundation which we would use to build a successful life.

The author, Zurie Pope, at his high school graduation.

Camaraderie is the ingredient that lends youth its transcendence. Our best moments are spent at cafeteria tables, in the living rooms and bedrooms of our friends’ houses, at classroom desks.

We see things with more clarity because other people are there to wipe off the lens. Soon enough, those people disappear. They turn into memories, half-remembered anecdotes told in passing.

And like memories, our lenses become fuzzier, clouded by the troubles of adulthood, in a harsh and alienating world.

Every day was not perfect. No amount of analysis or self-reflection could rid me of the psychological scars created over the past four years.

The racism and homophobia I have experienced – both personally and through the accounts of my friends – will always remind me why I wanted to graduate and leave in the first place.

Still, I would not be who I am were it not for the provincial, close-knit, decaying American relic known as Piqua, Ohio. It is a location forever etched onto my soul, one that will live on in my subconscious long after the buildings and stores of my teenage years are reduced to rubble.

I have gone through high school hoping to remake myself after graduation – go to college in a place far away and forget everything about who I used to be.

Only now do I realize what a foolish idea that was. No matter how far I go, or what path I take, all roads invariably lead to home.

Zurie Pope is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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