IF YOU DID an MRI of any of our brains, there would be a tiny little part way, way deep in the cerebral cortex that shows a picture of each one of us back in high school. We all have bad hair, are wearing bad pants, and have no idea what to do with our hands. We’re waiting for something to happen but we’re not sure what. That little part of us has never completely left. You would need a lobotomy to get rid of it, and I don’t think they do lobotomies much anymore.
My thirtieth high school reunion is coming up, and my seventeen-year-old self seems to be hovering around a lot lately. I keep getting email invitations to the reunion but I’m not going, mostly because I have no family left in Pittsburgh, where I grew up, and it’s too long of a drive to go there just for a reunion. Besides, my high school was a mess, in the middle of a crime-ridden area and a botched urban-revitalization project. At a certain point the school got tired of fixing all the broken windows, so they just bricked over the whole building, windows and all. Why would kids need natural light, anyway?
At the same time that these reunion reminders keep flying at me, I’m re-watching what I think is the best TV show ever about high school: Freaks and Geeks, from back in 1999. One reason I think this is the best show about high school is because it is set in my era, the early ’80s, and so it is both awkwardly and comfortingly familiar. It was a crime that they cancelled Freaks and Geeks after one remarkable season. The show got so many things right. It was full of so many perfect references—food scientists, streaking, and laser shows set to Southern rock, for instance—that you knew you were watching something that wasn’t just the usual thrown-together show about the popular and unpopular kids at school. And it got almost all of the types right without making cartoons of them, like the guidance counselor who tries hard to be down with the kids. (My school had one. His name was Otto Graf. No one ever knew if that was his real name or if he just made it up to be cool.) There was also the catastrophically cute bad boy (Daniel, played by James Franco); the stoned, gawky aspiring drummer obsessed with Jon Bonham who plays a 29-piece drum kit (Nick, played by Jason Segel); the pretty, smart, cool girl in an army jacket (Lindsay, played by Linda Cardellini); and the sarcastic, defensive guy who finally mellows when he gets a girlfriend (Seth Rogen). The show spawned major stars. It was also where Judd Apatow and Paul Feig made their first real mark.
When I look at Kim Kelly—she’s the girlfriend of Nick, played by Busy Philipps—and the way her hair is flipped so perfectly back and away from her face, I see myself standing at the bathroom mirror every morning before school, frying the ends of my hair with a curling iron. There’s a purple ball-shaped transistor radio on the windowsill, playing Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.” In the medicine cabinet behind me is a bottle of pills from 1964 and an unused douche circa 1973 (my mom’s, I assume). I remember these items because they were still there three years ago when we finally cleared out the house. In fact, most things were still there three years ago when we cleared out the house.
At the time, “Fool in the Rain” is fused in my mind with thoughts of the guy I am currently enamored with at school. He is a future Harvard Law graduate and D.A. in Philadelphia. I vacillate between liking guys like him or else bad-news Italian-Americans like James Franco’s character. My tactic for snagging the future D.A. is to completely ignore him and make him think he doesn’t have a chance in hell with me. I don’t know why I think this is the best approach to take, and in fact, it turns out it is not the best approach to take. He thinks I hate him, and we never go out.
So instead of having my first kiss with Mr. Harvard Law, I secure my first kiss during a party with some guy from another school whose name I didn’t quite catch before we started fumbling around. At a certain point during the nonsense on the couch I pass out from having hit the keg too many times. I come to and he is still sloppily kissing me. Apparently he didn’t notice that I had passed out. Or maybe he did and didn’t care. The whole experience is so disappointingly different from what I had imagined for myself after reading Sylvia Plath’s journals. I had thought I would see a dashing figure across the room, go into the coat room with him, and he would kiss me “bang smash on the mouth” and then I would bite his cheek and make him bleed the way Sylvia did upon first meeting Ted Hughes. I wanted to make a guy bleed. It was so literary. Instead I passed out with someone whose name I didn’t know. (But as it turns out he was a nice guy and I’m pretty sure he now lives in Cleveland.)
As Freaks and Geeks developed throughout that one season, the characters deepened and some of the storylines became so touching they could make you teary. When Lindsay kisses Nick because she feels bad about his quickly failing drumming career, it’s sweet and painful and entirely believable, and you know she doesn’t really want to be his girlfriend. And when Neil (one of the geeks) confirms that his father is indeed having an affair, your heart sinks along with his. For a show about teenagers, who can tend to be self-protective and sarcastic, Freaks and Geeks was often surprisingly openhearted and without irony. That didn’t necessarily mean sentimental (although it sometimes was), but it had a sincerity that doesn’t show up that often on TV. (Parks and Recreation is another show that often bypasses snark and irony for something sweeter).
In the season’s finale, Lindsay is pining to go to a Grateful Dead show with some other freaks, in a VW bus, of course. She’s not allowed, but she’s going to do it anyway. I’m no Deadhead and never was, but when she’s twirling around in her room listening to “Box of Rain” (I do love that song), the scene epitomizes something so basic and real about those last days of high school, when you’re waiting to bust out into something new and different. I remember that feeling. I was already reading the books my brother was bringing home on break from Oberlin. I had had my share of epiphanies reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had my Dylan T-shirt on (my best friend and I got matching ones) and I was ready to bust out of Pittsburgh. But I had years of missteps still to make, just like Lindsay probably did, if we could’ve seen her down the road. And I’m still sometimes waiting for something to happen, having no idea what to do with my hands.