Tag Archives: high school

Greyhounds Reunited

15 Jul

After I finish this post, I’m going to put away the computer, grab a notebook, and start to write every memory I have from this past weekend. It’s something I’ve done on a handful of occasions before, a stream of consciousness for my eyes only, and a task undertaken only after events that left me with so many interactions I wanted to preserve that I couldn’t think of any other way to capture it all. The occasion of my Duluth East High School ten-year reunion was more than enough inspiration this time around.

A reunion for a public high school in northern Minnesota makes for a noticeable contrast with my Georgetown reunion last year, the last time I felt compelled to do this. The range of life experiences is much broader, the number of paths trodden more evident in what goes said and unsaid. This time there was no Ritz, no tents on lawns, no huge dose of patronage from another former class to those of us who were new to the reunion game. There was, however, an afternoon at a brewery, a range of after-parties, and some run-ins with the East Class of 1988 and the 2008 grads of the late, great Duluth Central, both of which had their reunions this weekend as well. Ten years allows for more changes than five, and while there’s been an increase in facial hair and piercings and some measure of maturity (sometimes), personalities haven’t moved all that much in a decade.

My Duluth East reunion was a healthy mix of people, old quirks and new insights all coming out, most carried by genuine desires to see one another, if only for a little while. Some came from across the country, some from down the street; some I hadn’t seen in ten years while others are regulars, and there really wasn’t much of a correlation between those two. It was a tidal wave of memories, all brought back. As an afternoon event turned into evening marathon, a few friends slipped off here and there, if only for a momentary escape, looking for their own little breath of freedom or reflection or chance to simply marvel in the perfection of a summer Duluth day. I pushed through until the inevitable end of the night at the Reef, and saved my own moment of solitude for a hike back to my own cathedral, that spot I’ve been escaping to since my days as Greyhound when I need it, on the following day. It’s not what it once was: a recent windstorm decimated its more frail pillars, and the trail, such as it is, now avoids the tall grass and loops around it. But that is no loss. It is only the way of things, as this hometown evolves and as the march of time makes short work of us all.

As I hiked, I stopped to marvel at how much a part of me my city has become, as the kid who spent his childhood memorizing the minutiae of world geography has become a staunch defender of tradition and local culture from the little pocket of a city where he grew up. Not a new thought, but still one that can strike me in its more defining moments. Culture can mean high culture, such as literature or the classical music many of us participated in, but it can also mean the shared rituals of sports teams or even the adventures into questionable activities that, in those formative years, take on an added edge that one starts to lose as one moves through one’s twenties. That culture is mine, and mine to defend and tend to going forward. I’ve become a Duluthian through and through.

While my perception of my Georgetown days has undergone some evolution since my graduation, my thoughts on my time at East are basically unchanged from a 2014 reflection on those four years. High school remains one of the more formative eras in my life, even as someone marked by other places and events, and it now seems only natural that I settle in here and look forward to raising some of my own little Greyhounds. Perhaps a curious evolution for someone with no shortage of ambition, but sometimes the most ambitious pushes we can make don’t follow conventional paths. Our stories, wherever they have taken us since, all have their roots here, and the initial participants in that drama, no matter where they may be now, are forever seared into the script. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, something untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall–that of our consciousness–between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question…

The vision of the adolescent as a solitary figure, closed up within himself and consumed by desire or timidity, almost always resolves into a crowd of young people dancing, singing or marching as a group, or into a young couple strolling under the arched green branches in a park. The adolescent opens himself up to the world: to love, action, friendship, sports, heroic adventures.

May these weekends help us to never lose that openness to the world. Time for me to write, and hold on to another dose of that ever-so-powerful nostalgia.

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Why High School Hockey?

19 Nov

Some people who read this blog know me first and foremost as a commentator on high school hockey. Others, who come for the other stuff, tend to skip over it, with reactions ranging from bemusement to downright incomprehension. I don’t blame them; I know this place is eclectic, and a high school sport may seem a strange obsession for someone whose other interests include local politics and intellectual musing. So why do you do it, Karl?

The easiest explanation is that it’s just an accident of history: I grew up on the east side of Duluth during a time when that part of the city put out plenty of hockey talent. I went to a high school blessed with a strong hockey legacy, and even the kids who didn’t much care for the sport would come to a few games and join the party in the stands. The juicy storylines surrounding our coach—Mike Randolph was headline news my eighth grade year when he temporarily lost his job—added to the intrigue when I went to Duluth East. Those stories only got crazier my freshman year, as a tumultuous season on and off the ice resulted in a surprise playoff run. The Hounds missed the Tourney my last three years in high school, but those section losses, each more excruciating than the last, left a feeling of unfinished business. Those years also aligned with the peak of the East’s rivalry with Cloquet, a legitimate war that was on par with any high school sports clash in the country. The program seemed bigger than life, and came to define the East experience.

East has made the State Tournament every year since my graduation, which has made it easy to stay in touch. Even when I lived on the East Coast, I’d fly back for the Tourney, and it was always an impromptu reunion, a way to keep those old ties going as I crashed on friends’ couches, bumped into them in the upper deck, or joined them for drinks after the games. That tradition now has a life of its own, and I expect it to endure no matter the Hounds’ fortunes in the coming years. It’s a ritual that keeps me true to my roots.

And so I’ve been sucked in. I’m not the sort who can half-ass anything, and so I couldn’t just be a casual fan; I had to learn everything I could about every team, and before long I was posting about it on an internet forum, and one thing led to another. I now moonlight as a high school hockey talking head, putting in many hours, compensated only with the occasional beer and some nasty anonymous comments. Those internet ties kept me in touch when I moved away, and are even more important as my own time at East fades into the rear view mirror. There are moments where the madness of it all wears me down, but they never last long, and I’ve built some real connections with people through my work, too.

Still, hockey goes deeper than a mere childhood backstory. It has quirks that are downright fun, from hockey hair to public-private rivalries to opportunities to remind Edina that they’re still cakeaters. Hockey is also a marker of regional identity, and an eternal point of pride for those of us who hail from the North. American hockey was born here, and while the tropes of hard-working northern boys can wear thin, there’s still enough truth to it that we take this mantel seriously, and there’s always that air of allure when an entire town heads south and shocks St. Paul in March.

On another level, the allure is aesthetic. Hockey is a beautiful sport. This will baffle anyone who immediately associates it with fights and lost teeth, but where else can one find such consistently smooth play? It has much longer stretches of action than football or baseball; scoring is neither as incessant as in basketball nor as sparse as in soccer. Two minutes on the clock actually take about two minutes. To even begin, hockey players must master movement on two thin blades of metal and glide easily across a rink. Next come the soft hands and slick passing, the ability to wield a stick and flip a puck across the ice on instinct. Add a layer of strategy, and you have units of players floating about in forty-second spurts, making extreme exertion look seamless. High school skills on all these fronts run the gamut, making it that much easier to enjoy the best of them.

And then, yes, there is the violent side. Hockey combines its grace with some punishing body blows, though unlike other contact sports, it’s possible to play it well without the brutality. While there are obvious limits—no kid with repeated head trauma should stay on the ice—I also think there’s an unfortunate, growing societal stigma around raw, physical activities, as the parental sheltering becomes ever more oppressive. Sports like this are not for everyone, but they are wonderful releases of pent-up forces, particularly young men with an excess of testosterone. It taps into that primal urge without putting it center stage, and channels it toward a greater goal.

So why high school, in particular? College and NHL hockey are also big in Minnesota, and my loyalties could have progressed with my own added years. High school is cleaner in a number of respects, but there’s no shortage of things to decry about the state of youth hockey today, from exorbitant costs to some unseemly searches for greener grass. (Note that I certainly don’t lump all transfers or early departures into that category.) Defenders of the sport, including a famed Sports Illustrated piece from a few years back, point to its purity. To an extent, this is true, though as I’ve noted before, few things are less pure than the minds of teenage boys. But if purity isn’t quite the right word, it does hint at something: the sheer, unbridled joy of doing what one loves. High school hockey has a special panache to it; a combination of raw force and light artistry that fuels a fire on the ice, and taps into a restless hunger that I hope I never lose. At the high school level it spills over into the stands, where student sections let loose and feed an atmosphere that can sweep up an entire community. All of the petty divides that often define high school fall away behind a common mission, if only for a few hours. It helped turn an often awkward stage in life into something I now recollect with nothing but fondness.

A few people are weirded out by the fixation on high school kids, but hockey in Minnesota is cross-generational, something that ropes in parents and grandparents as much as the kids. I also think it’s a healthy thing to take an interest in people outside of one’s often myopic age group, and high school is a particularly formative time. The experiences many of these kids have here are some of the most important forces in shaping a life, and hockey can push them to achieve things they never could have before. Readers of my Tournament reflections will know that some of the most crystallizing moments for me have been those press conferences after losses where I see kids contemplate life beyond high school for the first time, now that a run for one of their greatest passions has come to an end. It’s an essential part of a coming-of-age story, and the commitment and work ethic and sense of camaraderie many of these boys build do indeed serve them well in whatever comes next. The attention we heap on high school students can go far; I’ll admit to some squeamishness about media outlets that fixate pre-high school hockey (especially if they try to rate or hype up individuals), and take my role on the Forum as a defender of high schoolers from slander or libel more seriously than anything else I do in the hockey world. But this is also a time to begin that transition into life in the public eye, and once again, I’m skeptical of anything that shelters anyone for too long.

Hockey intertwines with my own story, too: it can’t be a coincidence that my two greatest sports loyalties crystallized immediately after the two most disruptive incidents in my personal life. For a little while, it was both a release and a distraction, and those bright spots endure. No doubt sports obsessions can grow unhealthy; people make dumb decisions that prioritize sports over life, or fall victim to a broader athletic culture that doesn’t always have its priorities right. But for every skipped test or Twitter dust-up, my hockey work has become one of the healthiest things I do: it puts it all into perspective. Just as it pushes us out into the world, it also lets us retreat from it, if only for a few moments. It’s an entirely different realm from school and work life, and it’s a blessed relief to come down from weighty real world affairs and watch a bunch of kids scoot around in pursuit of a piece of rubber. Anyone wanna join me at a rink this winter?

Red and Grey Till the Day I Die

4 Jun

The Duluth East Class of 2014 made its plodding way across the DECC stage tonight, the students’ last names butchered one last time before they are released out into the world. Six years out from my own graduation, despite a new building and a maze of budgetary travails, my love affair with that school burns as much as it ever has.

East’s strengths are nothing otherworldly. Like any school it has its cliques, both exclusionary to those on the outside and giving rise to tunnel vision for those on the inside. Teenagers still do normal teenage things, and East couldn’t save a number of them from some truly damaging situations. (Anyone who expects a school to be the primary line of defense against these things has a rather disordered view of how these things come about.) Some will no doubt look back on their time there and remember the requisite high school awkwardness and ignorance, blaming the school for those bad memories. No doubt East can do better, as any school can.

East is also fairly homogenous, and many of its comforts stem from the good fortune of being situated on the wealthy, old money side of a town that values education. And that dominant culture can indeed be problematic for those who don’t naturally slide into it: witness Duluth’s brutal achievement gap, along with some of the concerns about diversity voiced in this recent video. (I could mount a nuanced critique of all of this if I wanted, but I’ll save that for another day and say simply that East has its issues. The school supports the troublesome Robert Putnam study that says that, traditionally, a relative lack of diversity correlates with social cohesion.)

And yet, even as it produces plenty of kids who are entrenched in that comfortable majority, East manages to be more than a factory of bourgeois culture. There’s enough questioning of that culture, both from the children of the east side elite free to ask Big Questions and the salt of the earth folks who don’t quite see the point of the whole rat race. (Interactions with the latter are one of the real merits of public education, reminding us relatively pampered kids that there are entirely different worlds out there that we can’t ignore.) It manages to blend the dominant culture necessary for success (under its standard American middle class definition) with allowances for some individual dalliance. There are people actively fighting the isolation felt by those who don’t quite fit in. When I was a Hound, the cliques came down without too much trouble, and the best of the teachers really were transformative. When I went off to college and talked about my high school experience with college friends—some of whom attended some of the country’s most “prestigious” high schools—I still came away with the sense that there was something different about East. Without trying very hard, it put out kids who were ready for most anything to come after, from elite colleges to the local schools to the armed forces to jobs straight out of school. It breeds that success with minimal pretension or self-satisfied claims of greatness, and does not cater to vogue tests or metrics of success while doing so. It doesn’t need to sell itself. As a school, it simply works, and anything that works that well ought to be preserved.

All else held steady, East allows its students to age at their own pace. Sure, some will be living lives of hedonism as freshmen, and most will make gradual forays down that path as the years go by. But it was possible to live another way and not suffer any serious social repercussions if one so chose. Any East alum from my generation will recognize the phrase from the daily announcements—and I do hope they still use it, much as it all drove us all to roll our eyes at the time—“make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” The message sank in. East grads were subject to the same social pressures as kids all across the country, but we Hounds always seemed to have an intimate awareness of our own agency. And for those of us who were a bit too aware of our own uniqueness, it helped bring us back to reality.

In some ways, East does its job too well. I know plenty of my classmates left with everything they needed to succeed anywhere; as a result, East is now just some source of distant nostalgia, with many of its brightest farmed out far beyond Duluth. It’s something to remember, fondly but not worthy of a second thought; something to acknowledge from afar, but not something worth repeated return visits or donations to its foundation. I was very close to heading down that same path, and the painfully earnest quotes from some old high school diaries prove it. I had to go away to realize how lucky I was.

My fervor is that of a convert. When I wandered into its doors as a freshman, I scoffed at all of the “school spirit” pageantry, and was content with fairly insular group of friends. Sure, I had some public school pride after touring Marshall and coming away unimpressed, but East was just a means to an end, four years to get over with as quickly as possible so that I could get out and do what I really thought I wanted to do. By the last day of senior year, I was crying buckets as I walked out its doors, leaving behind the first place I’d genuinely called home.  I’d decided I might as well befriend everyone, branching out enough to try to be that kid who went to every single grad party. I didn’t always fit seamlessly into its culture, but I found that level of comfort necessary for asking bigger questions and pushing my limits. East fed my relentless ambition and got me into Georgetown, but at the same time, the education I got there was complex enough that I was unconsciously starting to question everything about my world while at the same time acknowledging that it had made me who I was. The searching, probing, and frustration of the next five years makes no sense without East at its starting point, and in the end, that journey led a kid who’d been so eager to study international affairs straight back to the east side of Duluth.

Was I a sellout? I suppose I was, after a fashion. I neglected an old friend or two in my rush to climb the ladder, and at times spread myself far too thin. I abandoned a few morals, which left an overly uptight kid with no lack of inner conflict. I’m now more likely to spend a cold winter night watching an amateur hockey game than I am to be tracking election polls in South America. The long journey that began and ended with East led me to back away from earlier grandiose dreams of saving the world and settle for living fully within my own world. And yet I couldn’t be happier. I still ask those big questions and follow those world affairs, but I no longer let them consume me. Everything has its proper place.

Things started falling into place over the second half of my senior year. From academics to extracurriculars to following the exploits of the hockey team, I was at home. As Stuff happened in life beyond school, I began to understand the real power of a community, and what a support it can provide—a lesson doubly important for a kid who was consumed by the solitary pursuit of success. I am forever indebted. In a dream world I’d settle down here and raise a few more little Hounds while working for the betterment of Duluth, but I’m not sure quite what life will throw at me yet, and it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. No matter what, East’s presence will endure. As I wrote in a good-bye note some time after graduation:

No reason it has to be an abrupt good bye to East—because what is East, really? Some reified, odd concept—in a way, it’s the building, but building didn’t make any memories for us. Of course it’s the people, but they’re not static either—some will change, some will drift away, some will die. All we’re left with is a pile of memories. Little snapshots frozen in time, immutable, unforgettable. How can we miss something we never let go of? We can’t. And so long as we let life change with us, and hold on to what we can, we can always go back.

To all of my fellow Hounds who made those memories possible, no matter how large of a role they played: thanks again.