Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thoughts on attending my 20 year high school reunion

Hair straight or curly? Dress or pants? Or blouse and skirt? Which one best says "I'm not the awkward geek you might remember" and "I've got my act together now" with a touch of "I just threw this fabulousness together without trying too hard" and of course does not make my butt look fat? These are the questions I ponder as the clock ticks down to Saturday night, a date that will definitely go down on my permanent record: my 20 year high school reunion.

This will be my first reunion. I think there was a 5-year but I missed it. 5 years just didn't seem like long enough apart to merit getting back together. Also, I was living on a Caribbean island, working for a resort company, putting my degrees in French and International Relations to very good use leading relay races on the beach in multiple languages. I'm pretty sure there was a 10 year reunion but I missed that one too, probably because I was living on yet another island (Kauai). But life takes funny turns and one of them took me away from the islands back to the Michigan's lower peninsula, so I have no geographic excuse not to go. We don't have any other plans and we do have a babysitter. We bought the tickets, put it on the calendar, so I guess it's now official: when the Lahser High School Class of 1990 reunites Saturday night, I will be there.

I still find it ironic that I'm attending, much less even had a minor role in planning this event, since I have spent much of the past two decades trying to distance myself both mentally and physically (hence the islands) from my 1-12 experience. No "K," as I skipped kindergarten, which is the equivalent of having a scarlet G for "Geek" branded on one's forehead at age 5. Maybe that was the reason, or maybe it was my mass of frizzy, dark curly hair in a sea of shiny blondes, or maybe it was just my bad luck, but from the early days of elementary school when the Great Divide opened up between the Cool Kids and the Others, I was on the wrong side. At least it felt wrong at the time.

I don't have the happiest memories from those early school years. I had a few close friends (who remain close today) but for the most part, was a bit of a loner. I remember being teased- the painful name calling at the playground, the even more painful name calling I suspect happened behind my back. I remember the loneliness of lunchtime in the cafeteria, and the sinking feeling every time a teacher said it was time to pick teams. I remember burying myself in books, befriending the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, making my own playdates with Encyclopedia Brown, Ramona Quimby and the Judy Blume crew. I remember the kindness of teachers, their sympathetic looks as I'd drag my feet on the way to the playground.

And I remember the Cool Kids. They seemed so very, very cool. They were the trend setters, the style mavens, and I was always a few steps behind. They had mothers who ran the PTA, lead the Girl Scout troop and baked cookies for class parties. My mother was a university professor, but at age 8 I failed to realize how truly impressive that was. I was too busy watching the Cool Kids go running off the school bus into the waiting arms of their mothers as I sulked away to a babysitter waiting at home.

A few weeks ago my all-American, captain of his high school soccer team, Cool Kid of a husband and I were at my parents' house and dug out my old middle school yearbook. He got a kick out of reading the loopy, dot-your-i-with-a-heart cursive signatures in the back until he came across the spots I'd gone over with thick, permanent marker. "What's that about?" he asked. "Oh, that's just where the mean kids wrote nasty things that I crossed out." His pitying look reminded me that my experience was not exactly normal.

High School was not much better. I fancied myself quite the thespian, so I tried out for the lead in the school play, and was instead cast as Nurse #2. I tried to follow in my star swimmer of a brother's footsteps and suffered through a miserable season of ear infections just hoping not to drown. Academically I excelled, but AP Calculus is not exactly the express train to Coolsville. In perhaps a nod to a future career in broadcasting, I won a speech contest to deliver the Commencement Address to my fellow graduates of the Class of 1990. The crowd was large, the applause was polite, and the looks on their faces seemed to say, "Umm, OK. Who are you?" I was glad to be done.

As a defense mechanism, I began in childhood to coat myself in nearly iron-clad armor: a giant smile (a decoy to ward off the appearance of unhappiness), a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor (why not beat them to the punch and make fun of myself), and a mental strategy I'll call "When-Then." As in, "I may feel like a nobody right now, but one day when I'm older, things will be different and then I'll show them. I'll show them I'm somebody." It's a philosophy I've clung to through much of my adult life: When I lose 5 pounds, then I'll be satisfied. When I land that dream job, then I'll feel fulfilled. It's a sneaky method of delaying happiness in the present, always envisioning a happier (thinner, richer, etc.) future. But it doesn't work, because "then" never happens, it's always pushed aside by another "when."

A few years back the idea of attending this reunion would have terrified me, as I was still living in that When-Then world. But 20 years does wonders when it comes to perspective. I know I'm not the timid, awkward girl I once was, and I'm no longer trying to prove anything- not to myself, and certainly not to the Cool Kids. I know that the labels we carry as children (and sometimes assign ourselves) don't have to follow us the rest of our lives. I've come to realize that the Homecoming King and Queen don't actually wield any political power. The prom date who dumped me before the last song even played with the "It's not you, it's me" speech? Turns out he was telling the truth: he's not so into girls.

Thanks to the wonders of social networking, I've already "reunited" with dozens of high school classmates. Online we've shared everything from the joys of new jobs, new babies, to the painful losses of jobs and loved ones. In cyberspace we've established something we may not have had in person: a friendship. As nice as that is, I have found myself replacing my "When-Then" thinking with "If Only." As in "If only we had been friends back in the day, just think how different things would have been!" I find myself imagining walking down those high school halls with my head held high, greeting friends right and left, making plans for weekend parties and late night phone calls. Maybe I could have skipped all that angst-ridden, finding myself stuff in my 20s and gone right for the well-adjusted 30s? Maybe I could have been happier.

But that sort of "If Only" thinking is just as toxic and counterproductive as "When Then." While "When Then" allows us to live in the future, "If Only" is a way to reinvent the past. Neither one deals with the here and now, or gives credit for where we've been. I am who I am today because of what's happened, good and bad. And that includes high school.

So come Saturday night I will head to the reunion with just a few butterflies in my stomach. I'll do my best to enjoy the chance to reconnect not with the kids that we were, but with the people we've become. We will eat, we will drink, we might even dance. I will put away my "When-Thens" for good and I will raise a glass to the Lahser High School Class of 1990 with this final "If Only": If only I had known it would all be OK.

1 comment:

  1. I, like you, am a victim of the same diseases... When-Then & If Only. I've never seen them so clearly defined and honest as I have in this blog. Here's to living in the moment and being thankful for who we are TODAY.