MCHENRY: Returning again and again

Sometimes I think it would be a lot easier if Inspector Javert from “Les Miserables” showed up every time I got off my plane flight home. That way, I would only have to answer “the question” once, and at least I would get to answer in song.

For the uninitiated, a quick catch-up on the plot of the movie-musical: Inspector Javert chases Jean Valjean across several decades of French history, all because Valjean stole a loaf of bread. As the plot grinds forward, every time Valjean appears to escape, Javert shows up. And each time, Javert insists that “Men like you can never change,” and that Valjean is still on the line for grand theft carbohydrate.

And, if you were at home during winter break, I’m willing to bet that you heard a variation of the same accusation. Your friends and family may not be holding you at sword point when they ask you, “What are you doing?” or “How’s college treating you, honey?” But their impulse is like Javert’s. They want you to be the same, because sameness is easier to deal with, and easier to understand.

If you mentioned that you’re interested in writing, as I made the mistake of doing over Thanksgiving, your grandfather will explain to your uncle at Christmas that you’re a “writing person.” Your high school physics lab partner, who is now majoring in the subject, wants to see if you still do science.

I’ve heard a lot of people refer to the experience of seeing old friends as similar to putting on an old coat: comfortable. When my friends and I climbed into a car to drive across L.A. over break, for instance, we knew exactly where to sit, what to say, and even what radio stations to tune to, because, to quote Javert, “So it has been and so it is written.”

Javert wants the same sort of thing from Valjean that your high school friends want from you (and, if you’re being honest, you want from them). Javert’s the kid who tries to convince you to marathon-watch “The Lord of the Rings” when you’re trying to act sophisticated at a reunion. He’s you when, out of rigid habit, you heartily agree.

But, as I remembered when Frodo was about halfway to Mordor and I no longer seemed to care, the point of “Les Mis” is that Javert isn’t right. Old habits may die hard, but they do die. I am simply not the same person I was two years ago.

I wasn’t out in high school. None of my friends dated anyone, or went to parties. My personality was well-enough defined by a couple of sports teams and significant-enough academic success. The rest, like to whom I was attracted or what I would major in, was never important or pressing enough to be considered, like the parts of a coloring book you learn to leave blank because, halfway through, the picture seems complete.

College means confronting those details in the corners, and returning home means having to redefine what the new “you” has come to look like. This involves blabbering endlessly about how awesome the people I go to college with are, being accused of bragging and then taking refuge near the appetizers in a fake text conversation.

I know that people understand that I’ve changed, just as I understand that the girl who I always saw in the library is now head of her sorority, or that the guy I always heard practicing the piano has gone into film. Despite what Javert may imagine, people aren’t fixed in place like stars.

In real life, as opposed to fiction, we watch others change slowly. Instead of seeing our friends after 15 years on the run, we experience smaller gaps away from the people we know: three to six months, a year or two. People come together and grow apart without easy explanation.

The sweeping, swollen conclusion of “Les Miserables” is another story: lovers reunite, the good guys die and the bad guys lose. Through it all, Victor Hugo’s underlying Christian allegory of forgiveness is jackhammered into the minds of the audience. It’s ridiculous. I cried.

Musicals deliver the kinds of lessons that only make sense when bellowed from the barricades or whispered in the gathering rain. Of course, nothing in my life has ever been solved in time with a grand falling cadence. I know that. But some romantic part of me is stuck, ignoring the bum voices and the over-direction, because, come on, this clearly speaks to me.

Damn this growing-up business. There’s something to be said for the fact that people will change — and that’s a moral so big and stupid, you could even learn it from a musical.

Jackson McHenry is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at jackson.mchenry@yale.edu .

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