Everything is heightened in high school. Our emotions and hormones are in such a state of SOS that every decision, every milestone, and every word spoken to and about us are magnified as if by one of those giant telescopes that can make the rings of Saturn look like a delightful place to vacation. The outfit you wear on the first day of school matters. Your final exam grade matters. Your choir’s placement at UIL matters. It matters that David came out as gay but Jenny is in love with him but everyone knows Scott’s had a thing for Jenny since sophomore year. It’s all real and it’s all idling right there at the surface in an in-your-face sort of way and if one thing goes wrong, it’s the end of your world. Hindsight tells us most of this wasn’t true but when you’re in the moment and that moment happens to be yours, these things matter quite a bit.
Movies and television have been telling us since we were young there’s something magic about graduation. I imagined my graduation experience would mirror that of Saved By The Bell: a group of best friends swaying in their caps and gowns as they sang the school song, knowing they’d be friends forever and crying on each other’s shoulders. That’s not what happened for me.
I don’t even remember our school song. That’s a sad statement because I have such a Trapper Keeper of a brain when it comes to useless information and song lyrics, but my mind is completely blank on what our school song said or even sounded like. I do, however, remember our Senior Class Song.
“Senior Class this” and “Senior Class that” were all very important to us. It didn’t even matter what this or that was, it just mattered it was ours. We didn’t pay a lick of attention to what our predecessors chose for their this or that, but something happened when it was our turn. Suddenly, it mattered.
When it came time to select our Senior Class Song in the spring semester, there was a class-wide vote. Whittled down from what I’m sure was a collection of nonsense that likely included “The Thong Song” by Sisqo and “Blue (Da Be Dee) by Eiffel 65, we were given two songs from which to choose. For us, the class of 2001, the choices were “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack, the sappy crossover single of the moment, and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day. Their album had been out for a few years but the song was such a mega-hit, students were still gravitating toward it as a sort of melancholy milestone anthem.
The latter song choice made sense to me, especially when the lyrics it left you with were, “I hope you had the time of your life.” This was compounded by the fact most everyone in America was supremely tired of hearing “I Hope You Dance” played on repeat on every radio station and in every elevator bay and restaurant. From the jump, I was team Green Day.
I thought it was a clear-cut choice but I soon learned the race was becoming heated between the two songs. Probably because our staff was comprised of a bunch of seniors who weren’t shy about sharing their usually unsolicited opinions about anything, the yearbook room regularly turned into an open-floor debate, coopting the time we should’ve been working on the yearbook to instead dismantle and discuss the truly important things like the impact the Senior Class Song would have on us and our legacies going forward.
I loved that yearbook room. It was my safe space and I spent as much time as I could within its walls with my fellow staffers. We published yearbooks we were proud of but what I loved most was the freedom to talk about most anything and everything (and if we weren’t supposed to talk about something, we’d just go talk about it in the dark room). Conversation was the currency that bought your seat at the table and we were overly proud of our ability to spin words into quotes that could stand as mile markers of our year. We were so proud in fact, when funny things were said in the classroom, we, amused by our own adolescent observational humor, had one of the girls write the quotes on construction paper so we could add them to one of the bulletin boards along the back wall. It became a quote quilt of sorts, a patchwork of conversations and jokes and musings, and it gradually took over the room like the Little Shop of Horrors plant.
So when voting opened for the Senior Class Song, our quote-filled room turned into an open forum for debate.
“Time of your Life” is clearly the only choice.
That’s not a graduation song. The message of “I Hope You Dance” is better.
“I Hope You Dance” is about what’s to come. “Time of Your Life” is about what’s been.
“I Hope You Dance” is too sappy.
“Time of Your Life” is too negative.
Round-and-round the conversation spun. I heard people talking in the hallways about which song they were choosing and I remember thinking, even then, this was a lot of chatter over something rather insignificant. It’s not that I was immune to making things much larger and more dramatically important than they needed to be, I was a champ at doing so, but the choice of Senior Class Song didn’t really register with me as something worth spending any sort of concentrated time or effort worrying about. There were only two places where the Senior Class Song mattered beyond the single page in the yearbook where it was listed: graduation and our Senior Candlelight ceremony. Candlelight came first.
A few days before graduation, the seniors and their families gathered in the gym for one of the many events made to make we seniors feel self-important for having not failed our classes. The ceremony took place a couple hours after school and each senior was given a white candle as we found our seat on the basketball court.
Sitting alphabetically with our families watching from above in the bleachers, specially-chosen seniors waxed poetic about our time in high school and how we would never be the same. They thanked our families and teachers for supporting us and we lit our candles to signify something. Maybe hope? Maybe remembrance? I had/have no clue. I didn’t really know why we were there.
I actually love formal candlelight situations though. Rooted in Christmas and Easter services at church when we’d be given small candles to light at a specific point, I found it thrilling because my brother and I were told repeatedly we were not to play with fire. Burgeoning pyros from a very young age, we ignited matches and prodded at the fireplace any chance we got but were routinely told to stop or we’d burn down the house. Yet here we were, in God’s house, being handed a candle of our very own, and because it was about Jesus, we couldn’t be reprimanded for it.
Yet, this Senior Candlelight was starkly different from the lush, purple and blue lit candlelight services underscored by our sweetly singing choir. Beyond the differing subject matter and the endless muddy echo of the microphone in the rafters, the gym never actually went dark. The Texas sun was setting and while doing so, it was projecting white hot sunlight through the windows during the entire hourlong service. As such, the gym remained well-lit and extremely overheated, making the effect of the candles, to put it plainly, meh.
But even though the desired metaphoric effect of our candlelight didn’t exactly land, there wasn’t time to dwell on it because it was time for our chosen Senior Class Song to be sung. As was tradition, the choir would sing a choral arrangement of the song at both the Candlelight ceremony and again at graduation, so as they began to sing, we heard, “Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road.”
Green Day had won.
Sitting on the basketball court, we listened as the choir sang a very proper choral arrangement of the Green Day hit and to say it sounded a bit off would be incredibly generous. It’s not a song meant to be sung by a choir and that became resoundingly clear as they, with their much-rehearsed diction and open-chested tonality, sang a very straight-forward, very non-angsty rendition of a song called “Good Riddance.”
Here’s the rub: I love choral arrangements of pop songs, especially if they’re sung by children’s choirs, but this version was, to put it mildly, far too proper to be effective. It was actually quite hysterical. So much so, I had to purse my lips in an attempt to be respectful. After all, I voted for this and not the more chorally-conducive “I Hope You Dance,” but I made the mistake of looking down the row and catching the eyes of the senior girls from my yearbook staff. Tears streamed down their contorted faces as they tried not to cackle at the ridiculousness of the moment and though I did my best to keep it together, my shoulders started shaking. Before I knew it, I was covering my mouth to suppress the giggles that wouldn’t stop.
I don’t remember a single thing beyond that point at my Senior Candlelight. I kept reliving that odd choral moment over-and-over, laughing in fits that came over me like waves until I walked out into the hot setting sun once again. When we got to graduation (a far less emotional event than what Saved By The Bell said it would be), I was more prepared for the choir. Still, under the shadow of my mortarboard, I chuckled to myself. I heard a girl in the row behind me say aloud, “It should’ve been ‘I Hope You Dance’” and then I chuckled more. I didn’t give a crap about any of this anymore and I just wanted to get home. There was a cake with my name written in icing there.
The only two things I truly remember about the end of my high school experience are my flat tire on the way to graduation and the choir singing a ridiculous arrangement of a Green Day song. All the pomp and circumstance in the world didn’t add up to anything lasting in the end. All the Senior Class this and that didn’t wind up changing the trajectory of my life or shaping my thinking as a man. It was all fluff.
As teenagers, we spent a lot of time and energy debating what matters-but-doesn’t-really-matter. Nearly twenty years later, our generation is still doing it. We place value in “likes” and follower counts, in maintaining communication with people who aren’t good for us out of fear of what they’ll say about us, and in making sure we’re at every event, birthday, and get-together until we’ve run ourselves ragged. We’re still expending energy on things that don’t matter. The Green Day song really was a ridiculous choice but what was more ridiculous was wasting time going back-and-forth about it. I’m going to use that as a reminder to not do the same today.