Griffins

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“We could love and not be suckers. We could dream and not be losers. It was such a beautiful time. Everything was possible because we didn’t know anything yet.” 
– Hilary Winston

I want to tell you a story.

This may just be for my own benefit, I don’t know.  Most of the time I try to write in generalities so a variety of people can relate and possibly see themselves in my writings.  And maybe even sometimes take something away from what I’ve said and apply it to their own lives.  I hope I make a difference somehow by showing that we’re all alike in the ways that really matter.  We all love, we all lose, we all fail, we all succeed…

But this time – this blog – might be a little different.  This time, I may just be writing this one for myself.  It’s a bit more specific.  Because there’s a little something that makes me unique.

When I was a senior in high school, I lived in a foreign country and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

I probably just lost a few readers right there.  Who can identify with that?  Probably not many of you.  We all have unique stories, though, and I think they need to be told too.  That’s what makes this world beautiful – a mixture of the varied stories from the vast array of people who inhabit it.  Our collective little mess.

So this is my unique story.

This morning I was tagged in a video on Facebook.  My old high school in Giessen, Germany has served its purpose and is now being torn down.  Someone went there and took a short video of what was left of the building.  And what was left of it was the gym.

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(Photo credit: Celia Morrissey, Class of 1997)

The gym.  Wow.

A flood of memories hit me as the videographer walked through that gym.  And I want to tell you why.

My school was a tiny one.  I graduated in 1996 with a class of about 21 students.  Yep, you read that right.  21.  Look at us.  Wow.

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So, as you can imagine, we were a pretty close-knit group of people.  A family.  And boy, were we a family of misfits!  We had probably just about every example of nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity and race you could imagine.  We were military kids.  We knew one life – the life of goodbyes and hellos.  The life of constant change, constant adaptation, constant acceptance.  There was no time for prejudices or cliques or hierarchies that exist in a lot of high schools.  For the most part, our parents made very similar salaries, we lived in almost identical housing, and were all trying to make it in a foreign country where our first language was everyone else’s second.  We were the same in the ways that mattered to us at the time, and that blinded us to the ways that we were different.

At the beginning of my senior year, I found a lump on my neck.  My uncle Jeff (who has since passed away) was very close to his sister, my mom, throughout his bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, so my mom recognized this symptom right away.  In a flurry of doctor’s appointments and surgeries, it was concluded that I had cancer.  This particular cancer is a blood cancer that affects the immune system.  With my immunity weakened, I wasn’t allowed to attend school.  So, for a little over four months out of my senior year, I was a no-show.  I went through chemo and radiation.  I lost my hair.  I took my SATs in a secluded room away from everyone else.  I missed playing varsity volleyball.  I missed homecoming.  I missed football games.  I missed it all.

But I hardly even knew it.

Because I had so many people keeping me updated.  It was like I was there.  I had notes sent home to me from my friends (actual pieces of paper – not emails – remember those!?) filling me in on all the happenings at school.  I got phone calls every night.  I had brief individual visits from friends at home and at the hospital during the times my immunity was up and visitors were allowed.  In a way, it was like I didn’t miss a thing.

And let me tell you about the day I was able to return to school.

I was terrified.  A lot of people had not seen me yet.  They hadn’t seen my wig.  Or my puffy, swollen face from the chemo.  They hadn’t heard my voice, or lack thereof, from the radiation on my chest and throat.  Even though I knew they all loved me, I was still a 17-year-old girl filled with the fear that my appearance would somehow now determine how I was to be treated.  Not only was I wrong, of course, but I walked into the front doors of the school to see a huge “Welcome Back, Melissa” banner strung across the front hallway, signed by pretty much everyone in the school.  I’ll never forget that moment.  Or many of the moments to follow.  The support I got from that little family was overwhelming.  I remember Ladel Scott hoisting me up and carrying me once when my legs were too weak to carry me up the steps to the second floor.  I remember Luster Walker taking one look at my bruised and swollen hands from too many IVs, and saying that they were still the most beautiful hands he’d ever seen (just like he used to say before I was sick).  I remember our English teacher, Gay Marek, taking one look at all the weight I had lost and promptly exclaiming, “No fair…you cheated.”  🙂  I remember my sweet boyfriend Nathaniel Angelus (who also had to grow up a little faster than most as he basically went through cancer treatments with me) carrying my books and walking me to classes and checking on me every second to make sure I was strong enough to get through the day…and once checking out and going to the hospital with me when I wasn’t.

I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  Because I want to get back to the point.

The gym.

The memory that stands out in my mind, and will always stand out in my mind until the day I leave this Earth, is the last day of my senior year.  We had an assembly in the gym (oh, how many assemblies there were in that little gym…) for the end-of-the-year awards.  The last award to be given was the annual “senior of the year” award.  After battling cancer and still graduating with a 4.0 grade average that year, I was presented this award.  As my name was called and I walked to the stage, the entire school rose to its feet and gave me a standing ovation.  I can’t even type these words without the tears coming all over again.  As that little 17-year-old bald girl looked across all of those smiling supportive faces of her peers, she somehow knew, even then, that this – this – was the stuff life was made of.  At that moment, we knew nothing else.  We didn’t know anything about bills or jobs or kids or divorce.  All we knew was that we loved each other.  And we were survivors.  Each and every one of us.

I’m an adult now.  I’ve lived many places and have seen many people come and go from my life.  But I still hold a special, tender place in my heart for all of those people who shared my world in Giessen, Germany in 1996.  Ours was a bond that will not be broken.  We are Griffins.  Our school may disappear, but our legacy continues.  Like our mascot, we are part lion and part eagle.  Our courage and strength will soar on.

Together.

***

“Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it – memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.”
– Tad Williams

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21 responses »

  1. I would of grad from Giessen co 95 but moved after my sophomore year, would of been ur freshman year, I was and still am good friends with Ladel Scott, this story touched me, very well said, it brought tears to my eyes, i miss the Giessen days and am sad to hear its being torn down, feel free to friend me on facebook

  2. What an incredible piece of literature. I attended Giessen all four years of high school and graduated in 92. I have often wondered what has happpened to our school and every now and then someone will post a picture or two and the memories come flooding back as if it were yesterday I was there. Thank you for writing this article. I believe that whether you attended school the same years or not, we’re all part of a family that grew, loved, lost and at times left legacies while attending Giessen American High School.

    • Very well said. Thank you for reading and commenting. We are a special group of people. I hear others talk about how much they hated their high school years and I feel so privileged to have had what we had. Not a lot will understand, but we Griffins get it.

  3. I left Giessen in 93. Would have graduated there in 94! This picture brought back a bunch of memories. My kids always ask me what my school looked like in Germany. I showed them the video and yearbooks so that they could get a before and after image. So sad to see what has become of a part of our lives has brought so many happy moments and a life style that molded us into what we are today! No matter what year you attended, if you were a Griffin you will always be a Griffin!

  4. What a moving piece! Thank you for sharing your story with us. I have fond memories of GHS as well-graduate of 93. And although we moved before I could graduate from GHS, I have always considered it “my home”…because we were all there-in the same boat-fathers and mothers deployed, soldiers, and we “got it” we knew how it felt to move…to be gypsies and to connect. It saddens me to know that our school was torn down but the memories we all carry far outweigh the building material. Thank you again for your story and GRIFFINS always!

  5. This was beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing. Us ‘brats’ are an amazing bunch. I graduated from Giessen in 92, I only spent 2 years there, but I have very fond memories and the video of what’s left made me so sad!

  6. That was simply beautiful!
    Thank you so much for sharing that.
    I consider myself luckier (although it didn’t seem like it at the time, seeing everyone come and go) than most. I got there in ’84 and didn’t leave until I graduated in ’92. So I attended Butzbach Elementary (Knights), Gießen Middle School (Panthers), and of course Gießen High School (Griffins). Reading your story just reaffirms the special bond that we share not only as Army brats but as Griffins as well. Everyone there has touched me in a special way and helped form the person I am today. I miss that time, place, and most importantly the people I was fortunate enough to meet very dearly.
    Thanks again.
    Sending much love and much respect your way!

  7. Wonderful entry. I fondly remember my years at Giessen. I arrived shortly after you graduated. Thanks for sharing your great memories with us!

  8. I remember all of the moments you’re describing, though from a different persepective…. brought tears to my eyes…. My brother took that video last week. I wish I could have been there with him. Although we all haven’t always gotten along and come from and are embarking on vastly different walks of life… that Giessen common thread running through our lives is a strong one. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Really enjoyed your prospective on the giessen high school. I graduated there in 1993 and had the chance to not graduate there and move to California. I’m glad I made the choice to stay and graduate. I really thought the Germans would use the building for great things. I never thought it would get torn down? Your story is very inspirational thank you for sharing it with us. Frank Moore

  10. I wish I could have graduated with you in 96, but my dad had transfer orders to move to Portland, Oregon before our junior year started. I ended up graduating in Vancouver, Washington, which is less than 15 minutes away from Portland. Very moving piece you wrote, which brought me in tears, yet very precious memories during our time as a freshman and sophomore. I am very sad to see the school being torn down, but Giessen will always be in my heart and I know in everyone as well! Much love to you and all the Griffins! ❤

  11. This a very similar story to mine, I will have to gather myself together, before I can post or tell you my story. However I’ve always consider Gissen Griffin High School Home, in fact if you check out my Facebook Page, you’ll see that I even claim Germany home. Although I was not born there. Griffin High had the most special place in my heart! It was TRUELY the most amazing experience of a lifetime, I don’t think a lot of people can relate to the type of experience we had because to me it was almost like a fairytale. In fact if I had my own kids, I wish I could reproduce the same lifestyle I had there, for my kids today, but I know that’s impossible. I will come back maybe in a week and post my story. It’s quite an amazing story.
    My Facebook name is, Claude Tracy Griffin Jr.

  12. What a nice entry. I left the Griffins in 1986. The school was brandnew but it was something special. Gay Marek was my middle school English teacher, I am not surprised of her upbeat attitude. Thank you for sharing this memory; mine are flooding back. Red and Black forever.

  13. I was a member of the first graduating class of 1986..I can certainly relate to the family bond you speak of…

    The pride of being in the Griffin family regardless of graduation year fills my heart and soul…many wonderful moments born there…..many sad thoughts of it not being there to give birth to more Griffins….innocent to the toils of adulthood but made more ready for it just by attending our halls of knowledge….Giessen Griffins Rule

  14. Hey Melissa, (first… sorry if the grammatik isn’t right..)
    I’m Naemi, 16 years old, from Germany and I live in Gießen since 2005 ^^ I’m volunteering now at the Lebenshilfe Gießen at the facility in Lollar near by Gießen. There I am working in a day conveyor site and there is a Man with a disability. At that time, however, he was in Giessen on the American High school, too. His name is Mike/Michael. Unfortunately, I may not say his full name because of the data protection I have signed. And I am really sorry, because you could have known him even maybe. He’s a very happy person and at that time was in the basketball a team, I think so, because I found some pictures of his time there at the High School. He still knows like one dribbles a basketball and throws, in spite of his dementia. It’s awesome!!
    So I hope you read this and understand what I want to say to you:D

    Greetings from Germany!!
    Love Naemi

    • Thank you so much for writing this to me! Do you know when Mike/Michael attended Giessen American High School? I wonder if I know him. Thank you for the work you do! He is lucky to have you.

  15. What an amazing post! You were literally one of my biggest inspirations in high school and the courageous battle that you fought and WON gave me such perspective on what really is important in life!. You are right, we will always be Griffins and we share a special bond that will last a lifetime. And you trust that even though its been 20 years, if you ever need some help up some stairs again, your old friend Ladel will glady carry you up all of them all over again! #GriffinsAreForever

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