“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on…” Irving Berlin
There was a girl in my high school named Alexis White. She had mousy brown hair, pudgy cheeks, and wore clothes of our grandmother’s era. She smiled a lot, and hung out with the theater kids. If it hadn’t been for the play I was in senior year, I might not even remember her at all- she was shy and quiet, I was self absorbed. But now I think about her often. She died two summers ago.
High school was a tumultuous time in my life. I vacillated wildly between being a straight A honors student and a Hollywood club rat in training. I loved mirrors, but hated my body. I read Tolstoy and Eliot with rapt fascination, then sang Britney Spears songs while pounding cheap beer on the weekends. I fancied myself to be a young Angelina Jolie, destined for super stardom, but found myself in sobbing hysterics on my closet floor, overcome by the unbearable lightness of simply being. I was, in short, manic depressive.
I try not to regret the things I’ve done in my life (who has room for such feelings – deal and move on), but I wish I could have done those first three years of high school differently. Instead of being so enamored with beauty and popularity and boys, I wish I had fallen in love with my classes, my teachers, art and history and literature. I did, finally, wake up my senior year, but before that I spent my time in high school in a haze of ego and insecurity.
When speaking about it now (and in my USC application essay), I attribute my “awakening” to my junior year English teacher, Mark Halpern, and his teaching of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” I still consider that novella one of the most profound I have ever read (the phrase “most ordinary, most conformed, and therefore most terrible” keeps me up some nights), but giving all of the credit to those two men is not entirely fair. After all, the drama kids share a part of that responsibility.
I’d been an actress for years, but I’d also been a competent athlete, and at Lincoln High School the latter certainly carried more weight. Thus, it took three years for me to finally audition for the fall play, and I landed the lead role of a Russian spy in Idiot’s Delight. It’s a bit scary for me to think about it now, because I honestly remember so little about the whole experience. Sure, I’ll never forget my terrible fake Russian accent (intentionally so), or the fabulous ritzy 40s costumes I donned. But entire passages of dialogue once boldly delivered night after night have completely disappeared, lost in the ether of my mind. So much for memorization.
What I can say about the experience, with utter confidence, was how taken aback I was by the people I worked with. These kids were genuine, not afraid of themselves, their sexuality, their eccentricities. You don’t like my blue hair? So what, I do. My homosexuality makes you uncomfortable? Then look away while I kiss my boyfriend. These teenagers had nothing to hide. They knew who they were, they accepted who you were, and that was that. I barely knew how to react to such openness and empathy. I was so used to trying to impress people (ie football players) with my looks, my clothes, my flirtiness, that I turned inward before I could turn outward.
I spent most of the duration of the play observing my fellow thespians, not allowing myself to get too close. I longed to be a part of them (and who among them would say I wasn’t?) but I could never fully shake the feeling that I was a fraud. They were too real for me at 17 years old. I had spent too long in the conformed world of our school’s “royalty” to feel like I truly deserved their friendship. But they offered it anyway. Eben, Dashiell, Milo, Ella, Rebecca, Colin, Martha, Alexis.
Two summers ago, I went through one of the most trying periods of my life. In the course of one weekend, my grandmother passed away, my aunt committed suicide, and a friend of mine was raped in my then boyfriend’s driveway. While all of these things impacted me deeply, I was acutely aware of the fact that they were happening to others. Although I shared in the pain, it was not mine. I could think of nothing else for weeks – the suffering of my aunt, the horror experienced by my friend – but I also kept hearing this small voice reassuring myself “but it wasn’t you.”
About a month after this infamous weekend, I received a Facebook message from a drama kid, Alyssa Essman. “Hey Amy, do you remember Alexis White?” My heart immediately sunk. I felt the same terrible feeling wash over me the same night my mom asked “if I was in an okay place.” “Yes,” I responded, hoping my intuition was wrong. I watched the screen nervously. Alyssa is typing… “She passed away yesterday.”
I started sobbing. I hadn’t thought about her since high school, but the news hit me like a semi. It had been some sort of freak accident, Alyssa informed me. Why her? Why Alexis? My mind raced. Though I couldn’t remember much about her, I knew she had been a kind-hearted person, the kind of girl that would never say a mean thing about anyone. I started googling her, looking at her Myspace page (she’d never joined Facebook). She had gotten a Master’s in Literature, taught special ed, and was an aspiring poet. There was a picture of her with her dog. I searched in vain for some of her poetry, hoping for one last communion with this girl I’d known only briefly so many years ago. But my search turned up nothing.
Everyone dies eventually. It’s one of the few truths we all must live with. But it’s so easy to take it for granted when we are young. In high school, we think we are invincible. We look at our peers and assume this’ll go on for a long time. Decades. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it stops at 50, like for my aunt. Or 26, like Alexis. I hate that it took her death for me to finally take so much notice of her. I regret not remembering the conversations we had, or keeping in touch with her after we graduated. But then I think of all the people that have come in and out of my life through the years. People I laughed with, cried with, connected with, loved.
It’s hard for me to express it in a way that doesn’t sound selfish, but Alexis’ death really helped me to see people again. In the same way the drama kids helped change my perspective on community and friendship my senior year, her passing served as a wake up call. Do not take any day for granted. Do not take any person for granted. Do not take your life for granted. It’s too precious to let it slip by.