One of the themes of Tom Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward Angel” is that you can’t go home again. It’s one of my few memories from reading the book, which was part of our 11th grade syllabus. The book was long and daunting, and perhaps we wouldn’t have gotten through it without frequent in-class reading and lively discussions about the path of protagonist Eugene.
I recently tried to reread the tome in anticipation of a return trip to my high school. After struggling through the first 100 pages, I gave up. Without the discussion and the camaraderie around the content, my interest waned. Evidently, my fondness for the book stems from the humans who were reading it alongside me rather than the characters within its pages.
The book’s philosophy, that you can’t go home again, was hotly debated in our classroom that semester. The conversation even seeped into other classes and our after-school activities. You can’t go home again. The idea has chased me through life even as I’ve tried to prove it wrong, tried to return to places of my past, and as I’ve tried to recapture moments.
Stubbornness being my forte, I decided once again to disprove the philosophy and returned to my hometown of Atlanta for my aforementioned high school visit more than 30 years after graduating. It was a special event, arranged for the school’s former students before the building is demolished.
The school was always the runt of the district, as the smallest building, the smallest enrollment, sometimes an afterthought of the school board. My high school class was the last to graduate before the building was turned into a middle school. Now the plan is to replace the building with a shiny new high school.
Despite hating my high school experience as a teen, I was excited about returning decades later. Time softens pain. It softens disappointment. With time, the horrible memories faded like dreams, replaced by the happy moments that seemed to grow brighter with each passing year.
Suddenly I realized returning to those halls seemed like a good idea, a chance to return to my roots not only of high school but of Atlanta. Certainly I hated high school, but the content of those years went beyond a handful of people who attempted to make my life miserable.
The funny thing about roots, no matter how hard you try to stretch and grow and extend beyond them, they still exist. They’re always there, offering a firm foundation whether we acknowledge it or not. When I graduated I tried very hard to leave Atlanta in my rearview mirror, but something always tugged at me, not allowing me to completely let go.
Roots exist no matter what we do. It’s impossible to remove them completely without our souls dying. No matter where we are or what we’ve grown into, the roots are still there, always a part of us. My own roots are far more humble than the life I have built for my own children. I certainly wasn’t poor, but many around me were. They came from all backgrounds and every corner of the earth. I never fully appreciated how very diverse it was, especially now that I’m surrounded by sameness.
Returning to Atlanta reminded me that the world is like that. It’s not about sameness, but wonderful variations. The differences can be blatant or subtle, but their simple existence was enough to remind me how fortunate I was to be surrounded by a vast array of people, ideas, and incomes.
Walking into my high school, there were many ghosts along the hallways. Memories would catch me without warning, surprising me with a moment that I thought had vanished: braiding a friend’s hair in homeroom, practicing a cheerleading jump in the hallway, a club performance in the cafeteria, falling asleep in Calculus.
As I hovered in the door of Mrs. Hunter’s class, the 11th grade ghosts continued their heated discussion of “Look Homeward Angel.” Some believed that change is inevitable, and the future will never be the same as the past. From my 2023 vantage point, that was quite obvious. Yet those ghosts were still there, they hadn’t left my mind even though the world around them had changed.
Perhaps you can’t go home again, yet sometimes just by visiting the past it triggers something to make sense of the present.
A Lovely Footnote
An ultimate irony to my recollection of the “Look Homeward Angel” discussion revolves around one classmate. He passionately connected with this book, he led the conversation every time, he was one of the most vocal students when we talked about Eugene’s family and his circumstances.
My classmate is a refugee from Vietnam, coming to America in the early 1970s. He and his family members were rescued by a Naval ship prompting him to declare at a young age that he wanted to be part of the US Navy. When he graduated from high school he received an appointment to the US Naval Academy – an incredible feat for anyone, but in particular for someone who emerged from our red-headed stepchild of a high school.
When he became a US citizen, he selected Eugene as his American name; Eugene, the same character created by Tom Wolfe. In another bit of irony, I discovered at our high school gathering that he is now living in Vietnam. Perhaps he found that sometimes you can go home again.