Athena Scalzi

I Regret To Inform You All That I Miss High School

There, I said it. I’m not happy about it, but it’s the truth. I miss high school.

When I was in high school, I hated it. Not just a normal amount, the way every teen does, but like, extra hated it. I resented the idea (and still kind of do) that kids are legally required to go to school every single day for thirteen years of their life (except summer and weekends). Like, that’s a lot of time. For something that at the time seemed so purposeless and not helpful to actually living life.

I despised school not just at the individual level, but at the institutional level. I feel that at its core, school is a beneficial thing, however I also believe that it is a deeply flawed system. Not just in academic ways, but in disciplinary ways, as well (that’s a post for another time).

Throughout high school, I couldn’t wait to be done. I wanted to be done so badly that I went to community college my senior year of high school so I could leave school a semester early. I told myself I would never, ever miss high school, and that anyone who missed high school was deluded.

Well, joke’s on me, because I started missing it about two years ago. And I graduated in 2017! So it didn’t take me long for me to wish I could go back.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is I miss. Is it my friends? Is it the days where teachers brought in Oreo Balls and let us play Jeopardy? Is it playing kickball and your crush telling you “nice catch”? Is it the super gross chocolate milk cartons? Or is it that feeling of having your whole life ahead of you, the future being some bright, intangible thing you look forward to seeing? Is it less about high school and more about me missing my youth and carefree days where my biggest problem was figuring out the answer to number thirteen on the math homework? Do I miss the time before my mental health was garbo and I had who I thought was the love of my life by my side through it all? I think it’s a combination of many things, and many people.

I didn’t expect I’d miss my teachers so much, either. Sometimes I wish I could just walk into the school and go say hi to them all. But some of them aren’t even there anymore. I miss having teachers that cared about me, or at least knew my name. In a lecture hall of over a hundred people, you feel so insignificant. For me, the more I care about a teacher, or feel like they value me as part of their class, the more likely I am to try, to do the work and put in effort. I miss having a teacher who believed in me.

Going to school made me get up at seven every day, which at the time I hated more than anything in the world. But now I can’t bring myself to get out of bed until around 1 or 2 in the afternoon. It may have been annoying, but school did keep me on some kind of “good” schedule. It gave me a reason to get up, get dressed, do something, anything with my day. And I miss having that regularity. That structure that I cannot enforce upon myself no matter how hard I try.

When I was sixteen, I was pretty much the only one in my friend group to have a license. I drove us all around; to Walmart, Waffle House, the movies, the mall, pretty much anywhere teens could go that didn’t cost a lot of money. I felt like I was needed, like my role in the friend group was important. I don’t have anything like that anymore. I think I miss feeling essential amongst my peers.

I miss feeling like I was special in other ways, too. In elementary school, I was one of four kids in my grade in the advanced studies group. I always nailed standardized testing, and my reading level was off the hook. In high school, I wasn’t that same level of super smart kid, things were actually hard now. Like geometry. Fuck geometry.

Despite not being as smart anymore, I was still thought of as such. It’s just what I had been known as my whole life up to that point, so people still thought I was. I was still absolutely crushing standardized testing — I got the highest ACT score in my class — but suddenly I didn’t understand things anymore. I had to drop a class for the first time in my life because I could not grasp chemistry and I was failing. My reading comprehension diminished as soon as I started reading 1984. I felt stupid for the first time in my life, but at least everyone still thought I was the smart kid.

Now, after being in the real world and having been at Miami, I’m left with an inferiority complex on top of my gifted kid complex. And I miss the days when I didn’t have these feelings. I miss school because it made me feel good enough. Now I feel like I’m not.

I also miss high school because parties were exciting, and fun, and in college, they’re just boring. In high school, I knew who I was around, and in college, everyone was strangers. In high school, people’s parents would order some pizzas for the party or something. In college, you’d be lucky to be offered anything other than a bucket of Jungle Juice. I know that’s kind of a silly thing to miss, but parties in high school were really more just like hangouts and bonfires. In college they’re loud house parties where someone ends up at McCollough Hyde Hospital from getting alcohol poisoning at Brick.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Really I’m just lamenting over a time in my life that’s gone forever and I wish I could have it back. I have a hard time letting go of things, and that includes the past. I also have a hard time accepting that there are certain things in my life I will never get back, things I can never do again, things that are just permanently in my memories and they’ll just have to stay there. It just makes me sad.

Do you miss high school? Tell me why (or why not) in the comments. And as always, have a great day.



Systems Check: Ooooooouuuf

I posted this on a Twitter thread yesterday but I think it’s worth noting here as well: Not long after Athena had her COVID test, I had one as well. It came out negative, but it was also a less accurate test that apparently has higher error rates when the symptoms are (relatively) mild. In retrospect and in consultation with some people who think about this stuff more than I do, I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably did have COVID, given the symptoms and some lingering (but, again, relatively mild) issues I’m having. At some point in the reasonably near future I’ll have an antibody test to confirm or deny this theory of mine. For now, I’m going on with the assumption I did have it but still interacting with the world as if I didn’t — i.e., staying home most of the time and taking all full and necessary precautions when I have to go out in the world.

I should note that generally speaking I’m fine and the rest of the family is fine. Athena has by all indications fully recovered from her encounter with it, and both Krissy and Dora (my mother-in-law who lives nearby) are perfectly fine and healthy. The lingering issues I’m having are general fatigue, which is generally solved by a nap, and a mushy brain, which is not horrible in a general sense — who among us is braining at peak efficiency in December of 2020? — but has been a real pain in the ass in trying to get this book done. Turns out, you need a sharp brain for writing! I’ve been plugging away at the current book while I’ve been under the weather, and, well, I have words, but at the moment that’s all I can vouch for.

More specifically, what I’ve noticed is that while there are some writing things I can still do perfectly well, there are other things my brain just can’t get it together on. At the moment I can write dialogue just fine, but I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. This is a problem because while it’s fine that people talk to each other, they and the story then have to do things. I find the specificity of my fuzzy brain issues interesting in an academic sense, but in a practical sense, it’s annoying as fuck. I actually need to write this book and if at all possible, I want it to be good. Being able to plot is something I need my brain to do.

It does feel like the fuzzy brain thing is beginning to lift, which is good. But it’s happening slower than I would like, and it would have been better not to have had fuzzy brain to begin with. It is what it is. And honestly, if the worst thing that happens to me from this maybe-probably-COVID is I spend a some weeks plodding along in a lower gear, mentally speaking, I will count my blessings. Other people have had it much much worse. I’ve kept my editor appraised of things and (here we knock on wood) it shouldn’t have any effect on when the new book comes out in 2021. But if it does, I’m not going to beat myself up too much about it.

Consider this piece a closing bracket to this opening bracket piece, where I basically said the same thing but with less covidity. And be careful out there, folks. If in fact I did contract COVID, I’ve gotten off very very easy. But it’s still no fun at all.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sam Hawke

The thing about “happily ever after” is that it skips over so much. What happens when you don’t skip “ever after?” Is it actually happy then? Sam Hawke has thoughts on that, as it relates to the newest installment of her Poison War series, Hollow Empire.


Winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.

There’s a temptation to stop a story at the point at which the good guys have ‘won’, whatever that looks like. Maybe they won the war. Defeated the dark overlord. Found the thingamajig, rescued their true love/family member. Deposed the despot. But life is more complicated than that, and even though we are trained to be satisfied with the big finale in terms of story beats, I’ve always been fascinated by the what-happens-after. 

If there’s a recurring theme in my work so far it’s something to do with bad power structures – identifying them, dismantling them, and then (this is the hard bit) trying to do better. On the surface City of Lies was a murder mystery with the poison-tasting main characters trying to unmask a traitor and stop a civil war, but at its heart it’s also a story about privileged people being forced to reckon with the evils they’ve benefited from. Hollow Empire, it follows, is about what happens next, when you’ve resolved to right the wrongs: all the grand gestures aside, what does ‘trying to better’ look like in practice, today, tomorrow, next year? So in planning where I wanted to take the story, the core driving force was the desire to explore how my main characters—all fundamentally decent humans, for all their flaws—might go about trying to do better. And that has to be shaped naturally, even inexorably, by the events of City and how the country would try (and possibly fail) to change itself in light of a seismic shift in its people’s understanding of the world.

We’ve all read books where the main characters seem to reset after each book, fresh and ready for more adventures, unchanged by their last lot. Or one problem is solved in the big showdown and then that conveniently fixes all of the related mess; Simba comes back as rightful king to take his place and oh good! The rain is here to end the drought and fix that whole messy starvation issue! The main character’s love interest was imprisoned and tortured but it’s cool, they’re free now and definitely not permanently traumatised, don’t worry! There’s an easy appeal in that; after all, it means you can think up new adventures for the same beloved crew but you can leave the set-pieces relatively static and preserve the character dynamics that worked for you in earlier books.

Change is hard, change is messy. But in epic fantasy the stakes are frequently sky-high and the events of previous books world-changing. Failing to give the effects of those events sufficient gravity—that is, failing to properly explore consequence—is a sure way to drop my interest in a series. (In fact an exploration of consequence is a cornerstone of my favourite series of all time, Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, in which personal choices made by Fitz in book 2 are still impacting how minor characters react to him in book 14!). 

After City, things couldn’t go back to the status quo. The opposing sides of a civil war agreed to a peaceful resolution, but what does that really mean? How do the aftereffects of rebellion and recognition of decades of abuse actually change the fabric of a country socially, economically, culturally? In Hollow Empire I wanted to explore how, in practice, a government might expand to be more inclusive and make reparations for the kinds of large scale wrongs it has perpetuated, and, importantly, how this could (and likely would) go wrong. We’ve got plenty of real world examples to see how resistant those in power are to sharing it or (heaven forbid) giving it up, and how on a personal level even people who understand the fundamental injustice on which their privilege is based will try their best to resist change, as if a problem is fixed merely by identifying it. We can’t go back to the status quo, but boy some people will try hard to keep us there anyway.

So Hollow Empire finds us with our characters a little older, still making mistakes (and still, quite often, wishing desperately for a cup of tea instead) but still trying their best. Trying to wrangle the country into a stable and fairer future, holding the fragile peace together despite the efforts of an unwieldly and antagonistic Council with its uneasy mix of old and new representatives. Looking to the future and the next generation by adopting their relatives as heirs, forced to reconcile responsibility and love for a child with training them in an inherently harmful and dangerous job (it is one thing, after all, to accept that a beloved uncle fed you poison as part of your training; it’s still another to do the same to a child in your care). Grappling with the aftereffects of their secret duties creeping into public lives. Dealing with the physical and emotional fallout of what happened to them before. And being given access to power previously denied, and finding it isn’t entirely as expected.

Of course, none of this is the main the plot of Hollow Empire. The story is another political intrigue/suspense/mystery, set in an overstuffed Silasta during effectively the Fantasy Olympics, in which our poison tasting protagonists are once again on the clock to protect their country and their loved ones from danger. There are assassins on the hunt, sneaky diplomatic games among the visiting dignitaries, a criminal gang running a sinister new drug, and an old and determined enemy. But I hope that this driving force of not just the question—how can we do better—but also the ultimately optimistic viewpoint that we can and should keep trying, is something that readers take away from the Poison Wars.

Hollow Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

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