Title: Collection of School Awards
Provenance: Awarded to EAH in her senior year of high school
High school looms large in my memory, as I guess it does for many people. But aside from one tattered old t-shirt, a collection of five or six diaries that I kept religiously all through high school, and a box of old photographs, I don’t have many objects left to remind me of this time. I do, however, have a collection of some awards I won in my senior year of high school. I was so proud to be recognized for my accomplishments when I was eighteen, but that’s not why I’ve hung on to these awards. It’s more that they memorialize a time in my life when I felt genuinely at home for the first time in my life.
When my mom and sisters and I had moved to Decatur, Illinois, from the Soviet Union I had been a fish out of water. And I was sad, because my life had changed so definitively and so suddenly. But looking back, those were really some of the happiest years of my childhood. We had an extended network of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins living nearby. We would have Sunday dinners at my aunt‘s house, where we’d watch old movies. I had a cousin roughly my age, and we’d play endlessly in the alley behind her house, our imaginations running absolutely wild, our bare feet covered in dirt. It was really kind of idyllic. But I was too preoccupied with my parents’ recent divorce to appreciate it. Then we moved to the town next door so my mom could go to grad school. I felt newly uprooted. I never found a niche at my middle school. I missed my family. I felt at sea.
And so when we moved back to Decatur right as I was starting high school, it felt very much like I was returning home. I was once again the new girl at my high school, entering into a cohort of kids, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten or preschool. Some of them had been in the class I had joined midyear when we had moved back from Moscow. But I had quickly moved to a different school, so I didn’t really know any of them.
Somehow, though, it didn’t take long for me to settle in at my intimidating new high school and find friends. What’s more, these kids seemed to fully embrace me. I felt so accepted. They loved to share stories of their earlier childhoods together: shenanigans at sleepovers and funny episodes at junior-high dances and memories of funny soccer coaches and forgetful elder relatives. There was a mythology in the history of these kids. And somehow, even though I was the new girl—the odd-girl who hadn’t been there for any of it—they accepted me into their circle and let me take part in their inside jokes. It was almost as though I had shared their all-American childhoods with them. I was granted a kind of honorary retroactive inclusion.
They were a good group of kids, but I’m not sure that’s why I felt so at home all of the sudden. Maybe it was that I had a new appreciation for my hometown after the sting of my parents’ divorce had begun to wear off. Maybe I realized how much I appreciated being close to my family after moving to the neighboring town for two years. Maybe I was just really ready to immerse myself in a social culture and stop always being the new girl in town. Whatever it was, it felt wonderful. Given that it was high school, things of course changed over the years. I remained friends with these kids but was also pulled into other groups of friends. There was the inevitable drama. I joined the dance team. I found a boyfriend. I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school. Foolish me.
By the time college came around, I was one of just a few kids from my high school to go to a small, liberal arts college. I found myself in a tiny hilltop college campus, surrounded by kids who—it seemed to me—were raised in affluent, intellectual homes. They went to prep schools and were urbane. There was no trace of the small-town Midwestern culture I’d devoted myself to the previous four years. I didn’t know how to remain devoted to that culture I had loved while also forging ahead in my new life. I did not handle it gracefully. I hid away from my new environment and didn’t make many friends until college was nearly over.
I visited Decatur many times during and after college, and of course it wasn’t the same. Friends and their parents had moved away. My family didn’t have a home there anymore, and my grandfather (and personal idol) was very, very old and eventually moved into a retirement home. I would drive around town, remembering the absolute sense of security I felt with my friends and extended family. Saturday barbecues and Friday night football games. Nearly everyone I remember spending time with is gone. And that’s the way life goes, isn’t it?
My little collection of awards is pretty silly, and I’m puzzled as to why I still have them. Whatever am I going to do with them? But then again, how do you get rid of these kinds of objects? Throw them in the trash? And so they sit in a falling apart box in a closet in the downstairs of my house along with my collection of diaries and photographs.
I will no doubt continue to move them with me for years to come. Reminders of my youth and the feeling that really anything was possible. It’s a good feeling. Why would I want to forget it?