By M.C. Antil
A few months ago, as I was walking up the steps toward the front door of CBA – literally, the first time I had done so since my senior year of 1972 – those three numbers hit me like a lightning bolt. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. But there they were.
The combination of my old locker.
Now, understand, a man-sized river had made its way under the bridge since I last used that sequence of numbers to manipulate the tumblers on that dinged up old lock that each morning stood between me and all those dog-eared artifacts of my high school days. Understand too, I’d tried any number of times over the years to remember my old locker combination, if only to gently exercise my brain and get its creaky old wheels oiled up and turning a little freer.
But I’d always come up empty. Until that day, that is, when at the behest of Patti Callahan and Helen Kelley, the virtual heart and soul of the school’s development department, I came out for a meeting and a tour of CBA, version 4.0.
Suddenly – poof – there they were.
To say I was blown away by what I experienced on my tour that day would be an injustice to the sense of wonder I felt as I walked open-mouthed through the halls of what in my day had been little more than three vertical, well-waxed halls lined with a few classrooms, a library, and a lab or two, each stacked atop the another and all standing opposite a serviceable but largely non-descript gym and cafeteria, while a thin strip of administrative offices and hallway managed to tie everything together. The physical evolution of CBA was, in a word, mind-blowing.
But that’s not the reason I’m writing this. I’m writing this because, just as those three numbers somehow managed to pop into my head the very moment my foot hit the front sidewalk, something almost magical happened to me that January day as well when, after so many years, so many joys, so many victories, and so many fond memories – not to mention a lifetime’s worth of pain, sorrow, heartbreak and at times gut-wrenching loss – I finally decided to make a pilgrimage back to the grounds where my adult life first took root.
Ask most anyone who knows me. I can be a hard case, and always have been. I’ve always carved my own path through life and danced to the beat of my own drummer. I remain something of a contrarian. I can think to the point of overthinking, yet still somehow manage to apparently, every so often, not think at all. I can be gregarious, social and friendly, yet my default mode has always been to retreat into the vast recesses of my mind, a place that over the years I’ve learned can be a sticky web of uncertainties, possibilities, hopes, fears, dreams and rabbit holes, a place of wonder, discovery and, at times, utter chaos, where the recluse in me can feel free to sing at the top of his lungs, dance like there’s no one looking, and pay homage to that part of him that, for a lack of a better term, he now affectionately calls his inner nerd.
Maybe that’s why, after so many fits and starts, one day just a year or so shy of my 50th birthday I decided to throw off the shackles of others’ expectations, push my chips to the center of the table and, against all reason and logic, become a writer.
As I trudged through the snow to meet Patti and Helen that day, and made my way up the front sidewalk, I was suddenly overcome with feelings I’m not sure I’d ever experienced as a grown man. Here I was 18 months removed from Stage IV cancer, just having lost nearly 80 pounds and being forced to lie for months in bed as my life and its choices were locked day after day in a relentless tug-o-war with my thoughts, emotions, memories and, every so often, regrets.
But all that was suddenly gone. Suddenly it was 1972 all over again. And there I was, yet again, a wide-eyed, hopeful dreamer of a kid whose future still lay there stretched out in front of him in all its technicolor glory. In the sliver of time it took for me to slam my car door shut, walk a few steps, and pull open the front door of my old high school, my perception of life changed from what was to what might someday be. Suddenly I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of possibility, and I found myself no longer a product of all the rocky roads I’d taken, all the dead end signs I’d blown through, and all the toads I’d kissed.
I suddenly could remember going to CBA a 13-year old kid just trying like hell to fit in, and leaving four short years later a young man who’d learned a bit about hard choices, and learned too we all have an inner voice; one that, like it or not, at some point in each of our lives is going to need to be reconciled – and that any of us who chooses to obey that voice will often end up paying a steep price for having done so. After all, that young man would learn, it’s rarely easy for anyone to carve his or her singular and (often) lonely path through life.
I could remember too, as if it was only yesterday, Brother Phillip – Crazy Horse, as we called him – the biggest, scariest, most-likely-to-squeeze-your-head-like-a-pimple teacher in history, announcing during English one day, “Mr. Antil, I’d like you to see me after class.” I remembered visibly gulping when Crazy Horse summoned me in that feral, snorting-stallion way of his, and remembered too the sick feeling in my stomach as I sat there for the balance of class trying to imagine what it might feel like to be flattened into a pancake, or maybe dropkicked into the next time zone.
But, above all, I remember Brother Phillip, his massive hands and big, thick knuckles, handing me back the creative writing essay I’d recently turned in, a couple of stapled and typewritten pages at the top of which I saw a big B minus in an even bigger red circle. “I’m not sure what you plan on doing for a living,” he told me gruffly, barely managing eye contact, “But you might consider becoming a writer. You have a certain…gift.” He then looked up, saw me still standing there, and said simply, “You can go now, Mr. Antil.”
That’s what hit me that day, something I’d buried deep in some dusty corner of my mind. That’s why I’m writing this now. And why, for all the things my parents ever gave to me, life included, I will go to my grave believing the greatest was their insistence that their one and only son go to CBA.
Because by just going back to CBA in January of this year, by simply placing one foot on its front walk, and by merely finding myself once again on its grounds, something remarkable and entirely unexpected happened to me. Life changed, and did so for the better, if only by the tiniest of fractions. I was renewed. I was energized. And I found my soul once again full of the most underrated and underappreciated of the Lord’s three virtues.
Because on 6245 Randall Road one cold and snowy day just a few months ago, I found magic. Because on that day, the dial turned, the tumblers fell into place, and what flew open – if only for an instant – was a window to the best part of this bowed-but-never-broken traveler; a still young-at-heart seeker who’d left CBA having been taught, as hard as it may be, to always listen to his inner voice, to understand that life is and will always remain a series of choices and consequences, and to never be defined by his past, but by the dogged pursuit of his future.
And it’s that young man in me who is writing this to you today, my fellow alums, friends and families, that reenergized and re-kindled wide-eyed dreamer of a kid who I promise you will spend the rest of his days believing these three things, the seeds for which were all first planted in my soul at CBA; that the journey matters more than the destination; that it’s never the cards God deals us, but how we play them; and that, perhaps above all, better days lie ahead for anyone with the strength, courage, and conviction to believe they do.