A few years ago, my high school classmates started mentioning our ten year reunion in our class Facebook group. There was talk of dates and locations and who planned to go and who was too far away. I think I was in New York City the first time it was mentioned. And then it came up again when I was in Tennessee. And then actual plans started to develop when I was in Washington, D.C. No matter where I was in the country, I knew from the first time it was mentioned that I would go. But I could never quite articulate why.
I did not love high school. Or rather, there were aspects of my high school years that I loved, but the actual school bit was, for the most part, not one of them. My high school was the stereotypical southern variety that cared a lot about labels. (Think Friday Night Lights. Exactly that.) Aside from being one of the “smart kids” (which included all the students who signed up to take the few honors and AP classes the school offered), I was never part of a built-in group the way my sister always was. I was friends with individuals but marginal to their cliques. I knew people, because when you live in a town with four elementary schools that feed into one middle school and high school, you inevitably know people. But I wasn’t popular. I had a best friend who was (okay, is) far more charismatic than I will ever be, so some people saw me only as a sidekick. I wasn’t invited to the Friday night parties (and wouldn’t have gone to them if I had been). Instead my few close friends and I were sitting on top of cars in empty parking lots, and making movies, and writing secret blogs that only strangers and each other would read. I was voyeuristic and painfully aware of things. And though I wanted people to know who I was, I felt incapable of actually talking to them.
If other people don’t identify us the way we identify ourselves, it can feel like that identity doesn’t exist at all.
When I got into college (which was not a given at my school), part of me wanted people to know it because it would mean that maybe my peers would finally identify me the way I wanted to identify myself. (Smart, but also determined. Resilient. Bold.) For the most part, this did not happen. Very few students or teachers had ever heard of my college. Very few people understood why I wanted to go so far away. Aside from the handful of friends and teachers who knew me well, it went largely unnoticed. Though I left high school feeling recognized by the people I was closest to, I suspected that to everyone else, I was the very definition of a wallflower.
When I graduated from college, my mom begged me to let her ask our town’s newspaper to publish something about it. To our knowledge, I was the first person from my high school to ever attend any Ivy League school, and I was about to start a degree at a second one. The thought of a public announcement felt humiliating and self-aggrandizing, but at the same time, I felt like, yes, I did a cool thing that I’m proud of, and if there’s even a chance that someone else can see it and realize that they can also do whatever cool thing they’ve always wanted to do that no one else has told them they can do yet, then it would definitely be worth me feeling self-conscious. A small part of me also wanted that validation. Look town, I’m not a wallflower anymore.
But the newspaper wouldn’t publish it. They said it wasn’t newsworthy. All those years later, and I still felt invisible in my hometown. What if I could only be myself a thousand miles away? What if I could only be myself in cities where no one knew me? How had I gone from a person incapable of talking to strangers to being a person who only felt comfortable around strangers? Can you spend 18 years in a place and still feel like you don’t belong there? (The answer to this is yes, you absolutely can.)
Years later as our reunion date got closer, I saw so many negative comments on social media. Why would I want to hang out with people I didn’t even like ten years ago? I already see the people I want to see from high school, so why would I want to go pretend to care about anyone else? I’m not interested in watching people stand around with their old cliques. I understood the comments, but at the same time, I couldn’t relate to them at all. I’m a sentimental person, a memory hoarder who perpetually exists half in the past. When I tried to persuade friends to come with me, they’d ask why I wanted to go in the first place. I could never articulate a good answer. Because it has never occurred to me to pass up an opportunity to reminisce with other people I wanted to say, which is true but not the full answer. Maybe because I’m both the same person I was in high school and a different person entirely, and I want to see the ways in which that’s true for everybody else. Because I don’t have to be best friends with someone to have memories of them that I’d like to hang onto. Because I no longer need affirmation from anyone there. Because there are very few times in life when we can so clearly measure the way we’ve grown as people than the times when we can throw ourselves back into a group of acquaintances who knew us before puberty. Because sometime in the past ten years, I learned how to talk to strangers. (The only way to cure social anxiety is to move to four cities over ten years where you don’t know a soul.)
But also there’s this. It took me six years of higher education, two years of teaching at selective high schools, and these past couple months of advising college students to fully realize how thankful I am to be a product of my high school. I’ve seen the alternative, and at the time it was what I desperately wanted. But in retrospect, I’m thankful my high school experience wasn’t stressful and that the only pressure I felt was from myself. I like that I had to find my own friends instead of having a built-in friend group. I like that I went to school with all kinds of people who were different than I was. Despite how harsh a critic I am of Mississippi public education, I also know that I wouldn’t trade my experience for another one, because it’s part of my identity, too.
And so I went, with a couple of my (still) best friends who I’d spent months trying to coerce. And I don’t mind if it’s melodramatic to say it lived up to every expectation I had for it. I have never seen such collective and genuine enthusiasm from an entire group about seeing old acquaintances, regardless of whether the individuals were friends in high school or not. I had conversations with people I’ve “known” for 15 or more years but never had a one-on-one conversation with. I have never seen so many people connect with each other across still-in-tact friend groups and decade-old cliques and teenage animosity. If this was what high school parties were like, I hate I missed them. This reunion held none of the emotional weight and intensity that my college reunion did (see my college reunion post), maybe because it’s not a time in my life I would want to live again. Instead it was the less complicated kind of fun where I watched my former classmates dance together in a way that our teenage self-consciousness would probably have prevented the last time we saw each other.
My general assumption in social situations is that I will know people who do not know me. But people knew me that I did not expect to, which made me wonder if I might have been wrong about how people saw me all those years ago. Who was I to you back then? I wanted to ask, but there are limits to just how weird I’m okay with being viewed in public.
I did not mention that I write. I did not mention my college or what I did in grad school. That’s not who I am to these people, and I’m fine with that. I mostly asked questions and learned about the cool things everyone is doing and all the places they’ve traveled and met their significant others and looked at pictures of their kids and reminisced and felt weirdly proud of everyone for still liking each other this much. And then the reunion ended but everyone was having too much fun to stop, so we went to a bar and did the whole thing again when even more former classmates showed up. Letting people surprise you is always worth it. Spending a night feeling grateful for a shared past is always worth it.