I liked – nay, I loved – my high school experience, and Sanborn Regional High School set the stage for my 20s.
When my parents divorced in 2005, the court ordered us to sell our house in Pelham, New Hampshire. My Mom recently met a man named Frank and they fell in love. When we sold our house, he sold his house, and we bought my Aunt’s old house in the Town of Newton.
I remember being overwhelmed by our new house. It was big, a grey colonial with green shutters, a pool, and a yard in a wealthy neighborhood. Our previous house in Pelham was a small ranch in the woods. At the old house there was an ant problem, a mold problem, a mouse problem, water damage, and the like. I have a memory of a hole in my parents’ bedroom wall that was pouring out a stream of little black carpenter ants. Of course, I loved our first house because it was my home. I just didn’t think we would ever have a really nice house, and then one day we did.
At the same time, I found myself in a new school system called Sanborn, named after a man who made part of his fortune with a brothel… or so the legend goes. My first day of school I remember my mom yelled at me because my hair was dripping wet. At the time my hair must have been eight inches or so. It was the longest my hair had ever been. I was growing it out to donate. My morning wasn’t off to a good start, but at school things changed quick. There’s a common narrative for a new kid in school, namely that he doesn’t fit in. I, however, never felt more welcomed. Everyone wanted to talk to me. Everyone loved my name. It felt like people wanted to be my friend. Katie Hamor, wearing a cowrie shell necklace, quizzed me everyday. “Tavish, what’s my name?” she asked. She was determined that I remember her and her best friend Jordann Johnson.
Jordann, I later learned, was the funniest person to ever walk the halls of Sanborn. A year later, in Miss Britt’s class I realized, “She’s funnier than Amy Poehler.”
Emily Fitzgerald was in my science class with Miss Shrinjana. I met her on my first day, when I was dissecting an owl pellet with Jed Magnuson, and she became my first crush, although Cassandra Clark was my first dance.
At my old school, I was one of the nerdy kids: chess club and science club were my jam. I didn’t feel unliked, but I didn’t feel cool. I felt quite strongly that I was one of the weirdos. At my new school, not only did I feel cool, but it seemed like everyone was cool and everyone genuinely liked each other. There were friend groups, but it didn’t feel statically cliquish.
One big difference in Sanborn’s culture was the celebrations. Sanborn had school dances twice a month. They had spirit weeks and days when everyone would dress up in crazy costumes. In eighth grade, thirty of us went to see Happy Feet as an unofficial field trip. I was invited to people’s birthday parties and pool parties. Looking back, it was very Hollywood. Feel good high school drama’s like Netflix’s Sex Education don’t feel escapist for me, they feel accurate, if not nostalgic.
My Aunt Becky, who lived down the street, told me that her friend’s nephew was moving to the neighborhood and that we should be friends. I remember thinking, “Thanks Becky, but I’ll make my own decisions on who will and won’t be my friend.”
When I met John, I remember thinking, “I hate this guy.” I thought he was disrespectful. I thought he was mean spirited. I thought he shouldn’t have said that thing he said in Spanish class.
I don’t know what changed or why. Maybe it was realizing that he was also a mega-nerd and that we shared an affinity for superheroes. Maybe I took the stick out of my ass and realized he was actually kind of funny. I don’t know what it was, but before you knew it, he was my best friend.
He would come over my house everyday after school. The bus stop became a sacred place where me, John, and Katie Manuel would dick around, gossip, and giggle something stupid.
I fell in love with John, but I never voiced it. I couldn’t. I was deeply repressed. I wouldn’t even say I was in the closet because I refused to admit the closet existed, for me anyway. I believed gay people were sick, that they suffered from a genetic defect that prevented them from doing what is natural, procreating and starting a family. For me, it had nothing to do with sin, and I supported everyone’s right to freedom because even sick people deserve to be free. The thing about John was… I thought about him all the time.
He made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe. He was fearlessly irreverent. He was an artist. He could draw comic book quality sketches. He played the guitar and wrote his own music. Plus, he was very good looking. We went camping together. We stole liquor together. I smoked my first joint with him. Waterparks, beaches, family dinners, movie nights, bike rides, sleepovers, you name it.
Although queerness wasn’t in my vocabulary, or consciously in my mind for that matter, he was that friend who I first opened up to about sexuality in general, co-processing puberty. He would tell me about his experiences, desires, hopes, and dreams. I would tell him about mine. It was not a romance, but as far as romanticizing the past goes, it was what it was.
In high school, I became my class president. Now, I was responsible for organizing the spirit weeks, the dances, and the fundraisers that enamored me to my new home. Vice President Rachel Leblanc and I worked with the school-wide council, and our cabinet of class representatives to make it happen. It was the first time I felt like a leader and felt responsible for a community larger than my family. At the beginning of Freshmen year, I saw the school play. It was 12 Angry Jurors and I was blown away. It was really good. I auditioned to be a minor character in the spring musical. I continued with some small roles until my junior year, when I was cast in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 as the lead character. It was a comedy, if you couldn’t tell by the name. I never felt so alive onstage before. I never felt like I could express, freely, such a range of emotions, unashamed. If there was a turning point in my life, when I realized that I was powerful and, perhaps, capable of excellence, that was it.
Oh yeah, and I did sports. Me! Sports! Cross country, track, and tennis. I had a brief stint as a mathlete too. My unfinished basement had a That 70's Show vibe and became a kind of man-cave where I would hang the relics of my high school experience. It was where me and my friends laughed and conspired. Outside of school, many of my most cherished memories were in that basement. I suspect most of the people I knew and loved had at lease one memory there - a movie, a game night, a spirit week shenanigan.
Now, here’s the part where I tell you it wasn’t all peaches and cream. For starters Sanborn was pretty racist. Our “mascot” was the “Sanborn Indian,” and at the time I loved that. It was so American. I did and said all the wrong things, defending and taking pride in how “cool” it was, using a lot of the same arguments that are employed by those waving the confederate flag. Oh, and the skater boys? They started something called “white power Wednesday.” They would wear white t-shirts and if you happened to be wearing a white t-shirt on Wednesday they would say, “thanks for supporting the cause.” It was gross, and the response was a mixture of eye rolls and taboo laughter. It was normalized, viewed as something of a South Park-esque “joke.”
I was a stupid teenager too. I participated in the bullying that so often gets labelled as “just a joke” and “gossip.” Of course, every version of oppression in a society replicates itself in the school system. Besides the racism, the homophobia and transphobia was abundantly evident. I’m ashamed to say that I participated in that circus act too. The irony is not lost on me.
Some people get this idea in their head, myself included, that because New England is a north and has left-leaning politics that it is therefore an inclusive place to grow up. Not so much. Sadly, realizing the bigotry in retrospect makes me reluctant to “move back home.” For me, a home is a place of belonging. I didn’t realize the depth and scope to which I was made to feel that I did not belong at Sanborn, or in New Hampshire more generally, nor did I realize the ways in which I othered and shamed those who were not white and “straight” like me. To any of my classmates who may have felt mistreated by me, I am sorry. Your lived experience is not a punch line, and your difference is not gossip, it is what makes you beautiful. I am no longer that person and am committed to welcoming all people as they are, without shame for who they happen to be.
I am thankful that I lost my rose-tinted glasses. And I am thankful that Sanborn, amidst the toxicity of teenagers, was a fertile ground for me to blossom, or at least begin to blossom, into myself. The struggles Sanborn offered me continue to bring me clarity and shape the person I am becoming. Here’s a taste of some of the harder moments:
I dated Ari Docolla for a few months and she became one of my closest friends. When we broke up because I was in love Shayla Santos, our friendship grew distant… as these things happen, though in truth I never stopped loving her.
Towards the end of my Sophomore year, Mom caught me smoking weed with John and Billy. By this point they had become my two best friends. I was grounded for the summer, and I was no longer allowed to hang out with either of them unsupervised. This extended to my wider circle of friends too, who were, in my mind, constellated around the two. Then, John got kicked out school. He left his Aunt’s house and moved back in with his Dad. Our friendship remained, but our quality time grew limited. We were never again as close as we used to be, but we kept in touch for most of our 20s. (I never actually told him how I felt, but I suspect maybe he knew? I told him I loved him plenty of times, but I never told him how. John, if you’re reading this, now you know.)
Junior year was immensely challenging. I started dating a co-worker from Dunkin Donuts, but our friendship ended suddenly after a traumatic event that I don’t feel comfortable writing about. At home, there was some conflict. Between feeling that I had lost my friends and struggling to find a sense of peace, I had a nervous breakdown. Furiously, I scribbled the reasons why I hated everybody as I hyperventilated, screaming at my parents, and sobbing. I threatened my mom. My stepdad threatened me. It was ugly. I remember losing sensation in my hands. They felt like they were vibrating. I could almost hear them humming. For years, anytime I cried that feeling returned, even on stage when it was all pretend.
Junior year started to turn around. I grew closer with the members of student council, and I resolved to study film in college, convinced that our ability to tell story is all that matters, inspired by my lived experience, drama club, and teachers like Sandy Miles and Evan Czyzowski. Speaking of Evan, that summer he invited me to go to Poland with him as a member of the Polish-American Society to teach English. I went with my friend Katie Hamor, whose name I never forgot, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, to experience a culture so different from my own, to appreciate a history that I had not been taught, and to feel a sense of independence that I had not known.
As senior year began, I felt more even keeled. I grew close with Sonja Pietrasz and Sean Dolan. Not to equivocate, but they were the new John and Billy. We hung out all the time. We went bowling together. They made me watch Lord of the Rings back to back to back. We could all drive at this point, so we went out to eat a lot and did “adult” things. Towards the end of senior year though, this friendship also destabilized, and I ended up punching Sean in the face. (Sean, I am sorry.)
Senior week came. We all went to the beach. I got so sunburnt that I turned purple. There were awards. There were speeches. Prom, and then we graduated. I made sure that everyone signed my yearbook.
When I look back at Sanborn, gratitude is easy to find. Moving to Sanborn was one of the single greatest turning points in my life. 11 years later, I don’t talk to everyone on a regular basis, but when I do it feels like diving into a happy memory. When we talk about
Sanborn, there’s a general consensus that what happened there was special. When we talk to other people who went to different schools about their high school experiences, and our experiences are put into stark relief, we cannot help but to be thankful.
Sanborn was weird in a way that was really good for me.
On the intercom, our school would offer Sanborn salutes, recognitions for community members who did something beautiful. I would like to offer these Sanborn salutes to my friends:
Mom: Thank you for being my Dumbledore. Frank: Thank you believing in me. Shea: Thank you for being an ally and lifelong friend. John: I never new what friendship could be before I met you. Billy: Philosophy is a net that could never hold the joy I caught talking to you. Lauren: I have a middle school notebook with your name scribbled across the pages. I’ve always loved you. I auditioned for Treasure Island because I knew you were in it. Cecilia: If aliens ever needed a terrestrial ambassador to show them how compassionate and thoughtful us humans can be, top of my list. Shelby: Kindness, intuition and curiosity defined every laughter filled exchanged, beginning with the muffins. Tristan: I can still hear your laughter and excitement as we hiked those mountains. Sean: I still use the wand you made me in woodshop. I still smile thinking about how damn goofy you were, and I hope you still are. Jordann: You just get it. You always get it. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Katie Hamor: Favorite person to gossip with about school, music, and politics. Can you believe Evan and Karen finally got together? Allison: I’ve never had a job more fun than working at Camp Fremont with you. Rachel: We did that! I don’t know why we didn’t win every Winter Carnival and Homecoming though. It must’ve been rigged. Sonja: There’s nothing you can’t do or create. You’re cunning. You’re hilarious. You are so loved. Seth: You’re a true friend with a big heart and a pensive nature spirit. Evan: Dude, you changed my life. Katie Manuel: Of all the neighbors I’ve had, you and your family were my favorite. Mr: Sockwell: Star Trek, algebra, Paul Simon and the Beatles could not collectively write enough episodes, formulate enough equations, or sing enough songs to express my gratitude for everything that you gave to me and the Sanborn community. Sandy: Language never felt so accessible, words never felt so delightful, story never felt so quirky and delicious as it did in your class. Teachers: Honestly, y’all made Sanborn, Sanborn. I have two degrees now, and I’ve never had a team of teachers as committed and fun as you were, 2007-2011. I left high school ready and wiser because of you. Classmates: Thank you for making me feel welcomed. Thank you for inviting me into a community that felt like a home away from home.
At graduation I made a speech where I compared Sanborn to Hogwarts. I still hold it such high regard.
My speech starts at timecode 5:00 with an intro from Evan at timecode 1:00.