THERE IS A WORLD ELSEWHERE (or Elvis has left the building) By John Watts


I’ll just go right out and say it: Sometimes I find the enormity of big places to be more soothing for my soul than the small, cozier alternative.

Case in points–when I have had a bad day at work and feel rather numb from all the stress, I gravitate to the biggest Barnes & Noble book store I can find and immediately plunge to the furthest depths of the back shelves than I can find.  Once there I seek out a comfy chair and grab some reading material to provide solace and an escape from my own conscience.   Or when I go to the massively arrayed Mclean Bible Church for Sunday church worship.  It is a cop out I know, but I love the leisurely anonymity of strolling in and finding my seat way up  in the upper stratosphere of the auditorium; with barely another soul in reach for shaking hands with during the “let’s reach out and greet our neighbor” portion.  Plus, no one comes up to me afterwards and attempts to reel me in to a deeper commitment of attendance and participation.  I am completely left alone to enjoy the sermon and music and peacefully meditate and reflect all to myself.

Yes big places can be man’s best friend like that sometimes.

And this takes me to my main storyline.

It goes back to when I was still working as a teacher at Chantilly High School (a big fish school in the big pond of Fairfax County Public Schools).  As the spring season drew near to June, I became reluctantly roped into attending the senior graduation for the high school I teach at the very stately Patriot Center at George Mason University, (my old alma mater).

Apparently, while no attendance would be taken and it wasn’t mandatory, it was, nonetheless, expected that all faculty would attend this graduation ceremony as a sign of school spirit.  And as a first year teacher, my staff mentor had impressed upon me the importance of showing my support for the school and the senior class.  I was additionally surprised to see that the teachers were expected to wear graduating cap and gowns just like the graduates even though it wasn’t OUR graduation.  It was assumed that all of us adults had naturally kept our old graduation gowns and that they would fit us.  This struck me as odd plus I had long ago ditched all of my previous school graduation gowns—assuming there was no need to hold on to any.

And it seems the biggest priority in assigned me my volunteer service was to act as a grim faced security guard making sure to detonate and GROUND any rogue beach balls that got lofted high into the air.  I guess this was punishment for my not having a gown to wear and since I couldn’t sit in the school colors clad faculty, this was all they could come up with.

After all, we can’t have too many beach balls bounced around from one section of a big graduation ceremony to another now could we?  Anarchy and chaos could follow on its heels and who knows?  Perhaps it would even lead to lewd signs being written on mortar board hats and, worse of all, some spontaneous streaking?

And boy (I can’t emphasize this enough)—did I NOT want any part of this graduation ceremony or any other kind of extra event celebration involving this HUGE public high school I was assigned to at the time.  I couldn’t care less.  Besides, the few kids that were seniors that I happened to teach and know a bit better would just be tiny specks down there on the stage and completely unaware of me watching or not watching them as they went up to accept their diploma.  So that was my justification anyway.

But here I was being told that most of the staff were assumed to be going to this end of the year graduation in the impressively large Patriot Center.

So I showed up punctually in my suit and tie since I did not have a graduation gown.

For the first hour before the ceremony in the Patriot Center started, we were told as staff to congregate down in the basement where we would have Jason’s Deli cater a lunch for us.  So I mingled as best I could with other staff and tried my best to sound glad to be there.

Having dispensed of this I then dutifully asked other faculty where would be the best place for me to be positioned in the most helpful place possible within the Patriot Center complex.

This was when my contact person, who seemed to care the most about looking in charge, told me emphatically to ELIMINATE any balloons that happened to materialize in my section.  This was all intoned with a very dead serious expression by the Head of the Committee to Eliminate Balloons at the Graduation.

And so, for the first hour I stood there, back leaning against the wall, completely bored and detached from the graduation event.  And to top it off, I was very self-conscious of the fact that others might find me looking rather pointless and out of place too.

But gradually I got less and less into my role as a beach ball/balloon interceptor.  The realization came over me that this ceremony was doing JUST FINE without me and that they had plethora of OTHER balloon interceptors that could intervene if frivolity occurred.  In fact the other plain clothed Balloon Interceptors could all SWARM and snuff out the rebellion quite easily.

That is IF any students decided to release a balloon.  In all my time observing I only saw a few ones lift up in the entire arena.  It was as if they were no longer in vogue and these graduates had more high minded, serious things to apply their grey cells towards.

The whole gig served to remind me too much of my own high school days as a student and how little I cared for attending ANYONE’S committee or ceremony—much less my own.

So I found myself rising from one level to the next.  It was subtle at first—even klutzy due to the fear of being detected.  But soon enough I had ascended up to the main floor and nonchalantly was able to walk backwards into the main corridor outside of the arena where all the concessions were being sold.  To the casual eye it looked like I was merely taking a temporary bathroom break.

But in reality, in a very respectable manner, and one step at a time without a hint of mutiny, I had managed to dissolve further away into the darker recesses of the auditorium until I was out in the full sunshine.

It was my version of the Shawshank Redemption!

I was going to revisit my old George Mason University campus; which I hadn’t set foot on in some 8 years.

At first I jogged.  And then I was galloping!

Every move I made was a celebration because my high school drudgery was over and I was now an independent college kid all over again!

When I think about it now it all seems rather silly as I wasn’t technically even skipping any MANDATORY work day.  This graduation was an extra event that was not part of my formal job description.

But it felt pretty sweet to shed myself of the suit and tie and just roam the GMU campus with an hour or so to kill (and no balloons to apprehend).

The funny thing is that all my roaming soon got very confusing and disorienting.

My old George Mason University campus had switched gears too fast for me into some kind of “Back to the Future” movie that I could not fathom.

Sure I managed to locate many of the same campus commons and main buildings I used to frequent; but the surrounding areas of the campus were 3 times bigger with jaw dropping residential towers, more retail space, and many more electronic reference areas.

There seemed to be mini malls all over the place with stores for each and every student need.  The physical book store space was squeezed in dramatically, and old artifact evidence of my student era was hard to find as pay phones and been long ago yanked out and wireless references were everywhere with passers by typing away obsessively on their hand-helds.


Despite the future shock of the GMU campus, I still look back fondly on this unexpected boon of several hours in which to explore and reminisce.  It gave me BONUS TIME for disappearing inside a different world.  And no one was the wiser in ever noticing my dereliction of duties in the BALLOON AND BEACH BALL INTERCEPTING PATROL.  And as far as I know, the event suffered no security breach episodes and remained as impersonal as expected.

And so in summation, I find as a get older, that there really is a sweet freedom to playing some form of hooky.  Because I believe that it transcends way beyond the original adolescent urge of just skipping some tediously assigned structured activity.

It’s far less to do with the actual SKIPPING and more to do with the VALUING of the informal, down time–before, after, or even during scheduled events.  Because that is often when the soul is at its most free and joyous and can be proactive in dreaming up new ideas.  And for me, that is when I can be most interactive and attuned to the environment around me.

And dang it, sometimes we can find great anomalies in the least likely places if we keep ourselves open and honest.  One McDonald’s can be loaded with more community values than a particular Ma and Pa diner.

And yes, sometimes a HUGE place is more rejuvenating and restorative than an intimate, small one.

A sporadic hooky day can indeed restore some much needed mental health and remind us in the process, that “there is a world elsewhere!”

In my case, the higher altitude of the Patriot Center led to freedom and an evening I will never forget!


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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