The Other Side of South Portland

It’s been a tough couple of weeks, both physically and emotionally.  Which is why you haven’t seen a post from me since the first week of February.  I have a plan to tell you more about that, over the next couple of weeks, but it’s very much still unfolding.  So, for now, I’ll post a blog I started two weeks ago, after I took a trip down Memory Lane. It’s really called “Broadway”, but obviously that sentence wouldn’t have as much of a -last sentence of the first paragraph, preparing you for the story, in anticipation- kind of ring to it. So yeah, Memory Lane.

I grew up in a town called South Portland. It’s one of the larger towns (by population) in Maine, but it’s Maine, so there still a good chance you’ll see someone you know at the gas station on laundry day, if you know what I mean? There are two middle schools, Memorial (Go Wildcats!) and our rival school, Mahoney. We used to refer to Mahoney (and beyond) as “the other side of South Portland.” Obviously, the middle school you went to was determined by which side of the town you lived on, but we merged for high school. When I was in 8th grade, I envisioned the merge with Mahoney looking like a scene from Grease; a feud between The Scorpions and the T-Birds, with only one way to settle it… car races and leather jackets, of course. GO WILDCATS! To my disappointment, the transition into high school was subpar. There was no fight to the death. No one broke into song. I was the only one wearing a leather jacket, so that was embarrassing. “The other side of South Portland” stuck though, and just became a way to describe the opposite side of wherever you were.  A terrible descriptor, really, but I use it to this day….  “what street are you looking for? Oh yeah, that’s on the other side of South Portland.” Whatever the f that means.

Earlier in the week, I met my sister at our water aerobics class and decided to walk there, to double the workout. The water aerobics class is in South Portland, so I walked part of the way through the town.  The process was a bit nostalgic, passing memories with every step. At first, I didn’t realize the kind of impact a walk like this could have, until I found myself under a highway overpass that I’ve only walked under once before. I was 15 years old and with a middle school friend, who passed away a few years ago. I started thinking about her and that time in our lives; a time we saw as complicated, not knowing what complications adulthood would bring. It was raining, and we had been walking for a while, so we looked disheveled. We stopped at a gas station on the corner, to buy a box of macaroni and cheese. Some older man saw two disheveled kids, scraping together change, and he slipped her $10 on his way out the door. We laughed about how he must have thought we were homeless teens. I think we thought we were homeless teens too, to be honest.  We were having issues with our parents, as teenagers often do, and at the time, we relied heavily on the support of each other. It was nice to walk under that bridge again, almost 20 years later.  It was nice to remember what it was like to be childhood friends, and to take a minute to acknowledge her life and passing. It got me thinking about what other memories would come up, if I walked the entire length of South Portland.  So, that’s what I did. The following day, I walked 7.6 miles, from one side of South Portland, to what I thought was the furthest point on “the other side.”

I started walking by the mall, a place that holds a lot of memories for me, because my first job was at Orange Julius, in the food court. I worked there with my best friends, at the time, and I think it’s safe to say that those were some of the best days of our teenage lives. The first taste of independence… paychecks, but no bills, permits turning into licenses… it was like sweet freedom on the open road. Except for the fact that we were not making enough money to pay for the kind of gas that an open road required, and we didn’t have anywhere to go anyway. So, when we weren’t just driving around aimlessly, we were hanging out in the food court.  We started meeting other people our age, by food court trading. You know, “Hey, Au Bon Pain guy, I’ll give you a strawberry smoothie, if you give me a scone. Before you knew it, we became this community of teenage food court friends.  Ok, fine, we were mall rats.

Past the mall, was this neighborhood I lived in through most of elementary school and some of middle school. As South Portland neighborhoods go, this may have been described as one that put the “lower” in “lower to middle class”, but there was a real camaraderie there. It was an isolated community, and I lived there in a time when you could just tell your parents you were going “out to play”, and not come back until dark. Some of my greatest memories came from that neighborhood. Like that day we found a skull in the woods. Some real “Stand by Me” type of shit.  The kind of day where you leave your house as kids and come back as men. As an adult, I can fully acknowledge that it was likely the skull of an animal. Otherwise, this wasn’t so much a “coming of age tale”, as it was a “should have told your parents about that murder” tale.

I kept walking, past the street that led to the middle school, where I had my first boyfriend of more than three days.  Past my childhood best friend’s house, where I spent most of my high school years, and learned that familial love can come from people who are not your family. Past the street that led to the high school, where I grew into adulthood.  Past the house where we stole that pizza that time. You thought that was going to end in a different way, didn’t you?  The story paints us in a terrible light, but I’m going to tell you anyway. A group of girls were sleeping at a friend’s house and we wanted pizza, but didn’t have money. So, we concocted this plan to order pizza to our address, and to an address further down the road, but on the opposite side of town than the pizza place. On the other side of South Portland, if you will?  The delivery driver arrived, and half of the group put our acting skills to the test. Shocked and confused as we exclaimed, “we never ordered pizza, Sir!” “This is an outrage!” “Who would do such a thing?”   At the same time, two of the girls were sneaking down the front stairs, to rob him of the pizza we ordered for the second customer. You know, because we were geniuses.  Little bratty, thieving, evil, teenage geniuses.

Coincidentally, on the day of this walk down Memory Lane, my best friend, Emily, connected with our teacher, Tom, from high school.  We made a plan to meet for dinner at a restaurant in South Portland.  Emily and I met in Tom’s class, or “room 108”, an alternative education program.  It was one large room, with three teachers who found a balance between education, and the knowledge needed to function in the real world. We did Yoga, and nature walks for PE credits. I learned how to do my taxes in Math class. My history book was “A Peoples History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. We called the teachers by their first names. It was all very progressive. The program was designed as an alternative to mainstream classes, for kids who were at risk of dropping out, or not on track to graduate on time.  My family moved around a bit in high school, and my attendance suffered, as did my grades. As an adult, I can see that it wasn’t just attendance, it was also discipline.  Lots of teenage angst. I wouldn’t change it though, because I needed the lessons that Tom’s class taught, and I have carried them with me.

The three teachers in Tom’s class had very different, but distinctive personalities. We used to call it a “functioning dysfunctional family.”  We described Laurie as someone who had the role of the Strict mother. She stressed the importance of education in a way where you knew that her whole purpose was to make you a more informed version of yourself. She was excited by literature, and was the first person who showed me the joy of reading for pleasure, and not just because the curriculum required it.  She treated us with respect, but had a little less tolerance for our shenanigans than we would have liked. We described Tania as the “Fun Aunt.” Tania was kind, in the truest form, with unwavering patience. When I think about Tania, I think about how genuine she was in her will for me to succeed. To be honest, I think Tania wanted me to succeed more than I wanted that for myself.  More than I was capable of it, at that time. It took me a few years, after high school, to see in myself what she saw in me.  Imagine the kind of impact you would have to have as a teacher, for your student to look back 17 years and say that.

Then there was Tom.  How do I describe Tom? Let’s go with… Dangerous Mind’s Michelle Pfeiffer meets Jeff Bridges in ‘Snow Squall’, meets Mr. Miyagi.  Only Tom’s “wax on, wax off” sounded like “breathe deep, seek peace” and when I say, “Jeff Bridges”, it’s because he actually taught on a school boat.  Tom is the kind of educator who is more like a philosopher, and the kind of philosopher whose work echoes through generations. He has had a fascinating life… the walked barefoot for a year on a dare kind of fascinating. Through all the stories that Tom has shared of his life though, he never shines brighter than when he is talking about these three things: his wife, his kids, and his work as a teacher.

Meeting up with Tom, at the end of this journey, was something fateful. He gave me advice, as he always does, and I soaked it in, as I always do.  I told him about the Long Trail, my training, and other recent events. He told us about his kid’s successes, and how different the high school is now. As we were sitting there, Tom got a call from another teacher, who worked closely with 108, when we were students.  Someone who had a significant impact on me and Emily as well. It felt like the universe at work.  Seventeen years later, Tom and Tania are still working together, Emily and I are closer than ever, and Mr. Gafur calls just after we spoke of him. It was the perfect conclusion to this walk down Memory Lane.

The day was flooded with memories. It was an ode to the people who have come into my life to stay, and those who came and left lessons. The walk was a reminder of the kind of strides I have made for this hike, but it was also a reminder of the kind of strides I have made since 15-year-old Kelly first walked under that overpass. I’m grateful.  I’m grateful for the love and friendship I have seen in my life, and I’m grateful for the memories I have of South Portland… you know, from this side or the other side.


(I’d like to dedicate this post to the life and memory of Karyn Kundishora-Nowlin.  Thanks for the inspiration, old Friend. I hope you are resting in paradise)


3 thoughts on “The Other Side of South Portland

  1. Hey Kelly I think of working with you often . I do miss those good old days you discribed when we all thought we were on top of the world with very little to worry about but it seemed at the time like we have major problems lol if we had only known …. Miss you and I love reading your blog . Thank you for sharing it !!


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