Jubilation erupts on the El Modena High School football field across the street from the Starbucks I’m in. I wonder what the commotion is all about, look down at my iPhone, and see that it says June 15th. It must be high school graduation season.
That’s cool, I guess. Just like every June prior to this one, all the students in attendance are happily enduring the SoCal summer heat. They are punctuating the school year and moving on with the rest of their lives.
The bleachers are packed to the brim. Friends and family join in on the fun by bringing balloons bigger than their heads. They sport giant golf umbrellas that could shade an entire village from the sun.
It’s time to celebrate, and celebrate they shall.
No wonder the Starbucks parking lot had a new sign today: "No Event Parking".
My Own High School Graduation
I grab my coffee and open up my laptop. That’s when it suddenly hits me: holy $#%@! (insert your swear word(s) of choice here).
I graduated on that exact same field 21 years ago.
Amidst this obvious revelation, all I could muster in my head was “WOW, that was a long ass time ago.” It’s not like I knew anyone at Starbucks. Openly declaring “I graduated there 21 years ago!!” would have creeped everyone out at best, so I retreat my thoughts to my laptop and try not to think about it.
I should just go about my business and get some work done. After all, I was now on my own, without a regular paycheck. I needed to focus.
Not five seconds later, I immediately start thinking about it. I start thinking about my own graduation from Elmo, about how I was so eager to ditch high school and move on to college.
Back then, I wanted to get the heck out of here, and I couldn't do it fast enough.
Running Away to College
I was a decent student, good enough to get into both UCLA and UC Berkeley. Truth be told, UCLA was my dream school. Fresh off of the memorable 1995 NCAA National Championship, including the iconic Tyus Edney game winner against Missouri, UCLA was this public school kid’s dream.
Top that off with the surprise of seeing half of the basketball team when I visited campus during my senior year, a glee that only a rabid sports fan could understand, I was ready to be a Bruin.
And then I decided to go to Berkeley.
Once you plant an idea in your head, it’s hard to get rid of, especially as an angry 17 year-old. One of the reasons I decided to go to Berkeley was fairly legitimate: the school had a strong business major and UCLA “only” had a biz-econ major.
I wanted to major in business so that I could make the big bucks as soon as possible. My family needed me to grow up fast and support them financially.
The other reasons? Not as critical to the adult version of me, but meant the world to the teenager in me.
- Berkeley was far from home, so I wouldn’t need to see my parents too much. I desperately wanted my independence from them.
- Only 3 other kids from my high school had decided to go to Berkeley, while over a dozen kids decided to go to UCLA. I had zero desire to run into any of them. Not because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t like myself. I ended up running into all 3 while at Berkeley, and it was way less traumatic than I had envisioned.
- I hated high school so much that I wanted a brand new identity. I even chose a new name for myself. I would call myself Ken when I arrived on the Berkeley campus instead of my given Chinese name, Kuan-Hong, that everyone in high school knew me as. After all, I was still dead-set on assimilating as much as possible.
Chill the Heck Out
I ended up getting a great education, of course. I don’t regret my time at Berkeley whatsoever. It was a great environment for me to grow up in. Luckily, I couldn’t have gone wrong at either school. I root for both shades of blue at football games, save the tie-breaker that goes to Cal when the two teams go head-to-head.
I have good friends that graduated from both schools, and I even went on to take a UCLA Extension course a few years back, finally “fulfilling” my childhood dream.
If I could go back and talk to the 17 year-old version of me, the one that couldn’t wait to run away on graduation day, I’d tell him to calm down and not be so angry all the time.
He would most likely tell me to go screw myself, so I’m pretty sure my life would have played out in the same way anyway.
But at least I can chuckle at the irony that exactly 21 years later, I’m sitting here sipping a cup of coffee, across the street from the very place I couldn’t wait to leave.