The first day of school in the fall of 1988 marked a turning point for those of us who were born approximately fourteen years earlier. Many of us who entered the school doors at Kempsville Junior High School in Virginia Beach that day had known each other since we were children. But a new era was beginning: we were now officially 9th Graders. What this meant was that even though we were still in the junior high building, we were now beginning the final and perhaps most crucial four years of secondary, pre-college education.
And so, as the Reagan era of the 1980’s drew to a close, several hundred Freshman in Kempsville were beginning a new era immersed in a world of dittos, mullets, bangs, acid-washed jeans, and chicken patties for lunch. By that time our ears had become accustomed to the sounds of Z104, which played a lot of Paula Abdul, Peter Cetera, Debbie Gibson, and Bon Jovi. On weekends many of us went in groups to Kemps River to watch movies like Big, Eight Men Out, and Child’s Play while our parents went to the adjacent theaters to watch Beaches and Dangerous Liaisons. We rode our beach cruiser bikes on our paper routes. We listened to our Walkmans. We laughed about who was recently caught French kissing and sent to “In School Suspension” to atone for their adolescent display of affection. It was a simpler time, no doubt.
In those days my life consisted of music and friends, usually at the same time. During the fall, Chris, Duane, Beth and I were inseparable— at school, after school at band practice, and in our homes on the weekends. Together. Constantly.
And there was always music present. We went to the school dances, awaiting that awkward phase of the evening when guys and girls coupled up as the music transitioned from Guns ‘n’ Roses or Fresh Prince to a ballad by Taylor Dayne or Simply Red.
We were also together at every football game. I fondly remember the glory of those Thursday nights in the fall. They seemed to bring everyone together: the band nerds (including myself), the jocks, the parents, and occasionally the Mayor of Virginia Beach (who lived in Kempsville). We would all cheer for Matt, Todd, Jason, and Tony as they tore up the field. Those guys were amazing athletes. Probably still are.
We attended concerts together. My friend Aimee and I, along with 10th Graders Mike and Neil, saw John Denver live at Christmastime. Not the coolest artist for young teenagers in 1988 to see, but we loved every minute of it none-the-less.
We also traveled together. We went to Myrtle Beach with the school band that Spring. I spent most of the week with my best buds Chris and Duane as well as Andy, Todd, April, Christie, Julie, and Lori. We laughed a lot, made a lot of prank phone calls in the hotel, and made music together at several competitions. Mr. Leonard was proud, and we were proud to be directed by him.
I picked up the guitar that Spring. I learned enough chords to begin playing songs by artists I enjoyed, such as John Denver and Bon Jovi. I also began to write songs, and would workshop them on my friends who were very gracious to listen. My lyrics were nothing award winning, but I found the practice of writing to be therapeutic during that period of adolescent angst and confusion. Over the next few years of high school I would write songs about Desert Storm, God, nature, and my close friendship with a classmate named Cathy.
My grandfather died that June during the final week of school. It nearly crushed me. I had a jazz band concert that night which I considered skipping, but my mom told me it would be good for me to go. She was right. When I arrived, Chris and Duane hugged me and told me they loved me, a bold thing for Freshman guys to do at school in 1989. But they knew what it meant to be a friend. Christine then appeared out of nowhere. She had lost her mother a few years earlier and knew what I was feeling inside. Few words were spoken. She simply embraced me, waited until I finished crying, and told me everything would be okay. At that point we all walked out on stage and played our hearts out, and once again I realized that my survival of 9th Grade had a lot to do with friends and music.
I’m reminded of those days every now and then. The reminders come through various means. But whether it’s by a song at church that I heard for the first time in 1988, or a phone call from Jimmy, who sat with me and made me laugh everyday in Earth Science class that year, it always makes me smile to think of the bond my friends and I shared. True, we were naïve in many ways, and had not yet faced the greater joys and sometimes-painful realities that can come with adulthood, but I firmly believe we cared deeply about each other. They all still mean a great deal to me. We correspond with one another only on occasion, but I think of them often and will forever be grateful for their friendship.
My hope and prayer for them is described in Rod Stewart’s version of the song that dominated the airwaves during the 1988-89 school year:
May the good Lord be with you down every road you roam
May sunshine and happiness surround you when you’re far from home
Be courageous and be brave
And in my heart you’ll always stay