Soon, alarmingly soon, I’m going to Japan for the first time. I have my passport, thank Ganesha, and I have enough new podcasts on my phone to while away the intercontinental flight, but otherwise I’m bleakly unprepared. I’m heading into foreign territory with no language skills and hardly any currency. Worst of all, I’m armed with the bare minimum of cultural knowledge—mostly stereotypes or anecdotes, which if taken literally would mean I’m flying into a den of panty-sniffing samurai Godzillas. I’m adventurous and willing to learn, but I’m just not a Japanophile. I’m going there to hang out with my friends.
Unless you, like me, were lucky enough to form immutable friendships at a volatile age, you’re probably wondering why I would fly 8,000 km for a reunion. I’ll admit, it wasn’t our first choice. Our first choice was Grass Valley, California, and it happened in summer 2014. To tell the story of this trip, I have to explain that one, and to do that, I need to tell you who these weirdoes are, and where they ended up.
It began with Wanda. A few of us met previous to Grade 7, either in Lynwood’s Academic Challenge programme or in Unitarian church school; but we were mostly lone pariahs until Wanda McKay’s Language Arts class at Crestwood junior high school. An eccentric free spirit of the Jonathan Livingstone Seagull variety, Wanda provided a safe and suitably surrealist backdrop, and a surprisingly literate soil for our unique brand of creative weirdness to thrive. A steady diet of ee cummings, Edmond Rostand, and (sanitized) Leonard Cohen fuelled our imaginations, but more importantly Wanda believed in giving us a lot of latitude to develop our own language. In Grade 8, Wanda somehow ended up teaching us Math and Science too, and while I don’t remember learning much in those classes, I suspect she planted in us the seeds of a multidisciplinary academic outlook. Everything was connected.
In spite of Wanda’s best efforts to make a playful paradise out of junior high, our hormones and the brutal pecking order of pubescence still made it hell, especially for those of us struggling with broken homes, bullying, and in some cases nascent mental illness. Eventually, it would come to light that one of our asocial sextet had paranoid schizophrenia, another had autism, and a third had OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome. But back then, we weren’t diagnosable, we were just freaks. If we’d been in a normal school, with normal teachers, we would have been six space-cases alone against the world, and I sincerely doubt we all would have made it out alive. But together, we ran the gauntlet of adolescence with relative abandon.
A remarkable exodus unfolded in high school. Of the six core members of our group, four went to Ross Shepherd (the “brainiac” school), while T. And I went to Vic Comp (the “artsy” school). Initially, T. wanted to go solo—he had suffered the most in junior high, although he kept a lot of his pain private, and he wanted a fresh start, leaving foes and friends alike behind him. But I loved T. too much (and at 15, was way too selfish) to let him go; and besides, Vic had a plethora of cool options—and, as it turned out, a triumvirate of brilliant English mentors for me, worthy successors to Wanda’s legacy.
So, in Grade 10, it was just T. and Scott in this scary-wonderful inner city school. Weekends, we’d have sleepovers with the Shep friends, and tell them of our adventures at Vic—how, in the right classes and under the right circumstances, it was sort of cool to be weird there. By Grade 11, Ty. and R. had joined the Dark Side, and in Grade 12, J. joined us, too, leaving only D. at Shep. Partly because of this recruitment campaign, I felt like I had been instrumental in keeping the team together through the potentially divisive home stretch towards adulthood.
Yet there were divisions, and as you might expect, they mostly involved girls. R. and I fell out badly in Grade 11 because he got a girlfriend first, and I was jealous. Later, as many of us traded partners like a hormone-fuelled game of musical chairs, our egos all suffered further bruises, although most of them healed quickly, because back then there were always other fish in the sea. Only D. stayed out of the romance game, quietly applying himself to his studies and, eventually, coming out as gay.
After high school, the diaspora gained momentum. Yet we were somehow elastically bound together; one of us might stretch out to Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver, only to snap back within a few years and end up rooming with another friend, or two, or three. Our interests never fully meshed—Ty and T. and R. and D. are all coders, while J. and I are English types—but we share a common ground of private jokes, humbling coming-of-age nostalgia, and space-case perspectives that shrug off nearly all disparities.
By 2014, R. was in California, working for Yahoo, so we joined him there (myself from Cape Breton, Ty from Edmonton, T. from B.C., and J. from Osaka, Japan, where he’s bringing Wanda-like pedagogical lunacy to his English classes, strangeness in a strange land) for 10 days of reminiscing. We regressed a lot, no question, but we also picked up and continued many of the gritty philosophical conversations that we’d begun 25 years earlier, as bright, troubled teens. On the final day, we resolved to meet again in a couple of years. J. said, “I got a wife and three kids to support. I don’t think I can afford another trip to North America for at least five years.” And we all said screw that, we’ll come to you.
And here we are. An ex-girlfriend once accused me of Peter Pan Syndrome—being slavishly attached to my youth through my relationships with junior high friends—but Peter Pan never went to Japan, man. When my friends can not only help me through the rough times, but invite me along to new adventures I never would have had without them, that’s not living in the past. That’s using the past as a launching pad, and hand-picking your crew.