Riding the Train Back to High School

If you were looking for proof that high school never really ends, you need look no further than the suburban Metra train.

After driving myself to work for the better part of a decade, I joined the suburban rats racing to work by railcar about a year and a half ago. In that time, I have listened to countless podcasts, read a few books and graded a lot of papers.

I have also had the opportunity to observe my fellow rat-racers on a daily basis. The results of my informal study conclude that the social food chain you thought you outgrew when you graduated from high school is actually alive and well on daily commutes from the suburbs to downtown Chicago.

Many train riders simply choose to bury themselves in a book, magazine, Candy Crush or earbuds, enjoying a personal retreat from their surroundings as the train carries them inevitably toward another day of work. I would count myself among this rabble, but most days the train is too packed for me to get a seat, and sometimes it’s difficult to retreat without a seat.

This usually leaves me surrounded by another group of commuters — let’s call them the Popular Kids — who have no intention of retreating and view the train ride as an opportunity for socializing with the rest of their clique.

Oddly enough, I really only witness the meeting of this clique in the morning. Perhaps everyone’s evening schedules are too different (involved in too many extracurricular activities?) to reunite for the ride home.

The fraternizing begins before the train even arrives. I first noticed the Cheerleaders, a gaggle of 40-something females — married or single, mothers or not — who gather in a closed circle on the platform to discuss the previous evening’s adventures, the increasingly cold weather or the annoyance of a delayed train.

Metra has an app now. Isn’t it terrible? Or maybe it’s wonderful. What do you gals think? Did you hear about that [insert current event here]? Crazy.

For a few weeks, I saw a much younger woman — mid-20s, tops — joining the Cheerleaders’ circle on the platform. She smiled and laughed along with her mentors, a freshman being taken under the wing of a group of seniors.

They board the train as a group and don’t even try to find seats. The crowded stairwell entrance is their cafeteria table.

And then the boys finally show up! The Board Room Jocks have arrived to give this high school reunion some much-needed gender balance and sexual tension. They’re not lettering in football these days, but their diversified stock portfolios will make your heart skip a beat and their sons are tearing it up in pee-wee soccer.

The Cheerleaders are all smiles as they greet the Jocks. Pleasantries are exchanged and the Jocks make wisecracks about the weather or the late train. The Cheerleaders ask about the jocks’ kids.

I have three daughters and one son. I snuck one in there! I love my daughters, but I’m so glad to have him around.

The Jocks regale each other with tales of their Christmas vacation excursions. One Jock talks about his hockey league.

Yeah, it’s about 10 games a month, usually at 9:00 at night. I tuck in the kids and go to the rink.

The cast of characters changes sometimes and the Popular Kids will celebrate a Homecoming. Another middle-aged Jock who still maintains his great high school hair will randomly appear on the platform one day. All will venerate.

One of the ever-present Jocks busts his chops.

Where you been, Steve? Skipping out on work?

A Cheerleader sidles up next to him.

We MISSED you!

The Cheerleaders have moved on to a discussion about winter boots, and two others have joined the conversation — a married couple in their late 50s or early 60s who commute together until the wife gets off at the Clybourn stop. These two are the Useful Nerds, tolerated by the Popular Kids for their interesting entertainment value and their invaluable ability to help with homework.

The train conductor briefly breaks up the high school reunion to collect their tickets. He brushes a little too closely to one of the Jocks. When the conductor’s back is turned, the Jock whispers sardonically to a Cheerleader, rolling his eyes and motioning toward the conductor. She laughs.

In this high school hallway on rails, the conductor is the dean of students. He hassles them about their tickets. Sometimes he’s cranky. Better stick it to the man.

Steve holds court for the rest of the train ride, telling jokes and deftly navigating a conversation about Chicago’s murder rate and gun control policy.

The train eases into the station and — just like that — the bell rings.

“See you tomorrow!” Steve yells, as they grab their briefcases and go their separate ways.

School is out for the day, but high school never ends.

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