I’ve been flipping through my high school yearbooks lately.
I dug them off their shelf the day I got back from my 20-year reunion, and paging through the pictures and messages – for the first time in perhaps 15 years – is helping my brain put the faces I saw at the reunion together with the names I remember from graduation.
Why didn’t I do this – let’s call it research – before my reunion? Why only after? Probably for the same reason I wasn’t entirely certain going to the reunion was a good idea: I wasn’t eager to relive those years.
If you’d asked me any time in the past two decades what high school was like for me, I’d have had a pretty definitive answer for you. I’d have said I hated high school, that I had a very small circle of close friends, that I was a social misfit who didn’t really have a place in the school I attended. I wasn’t one of the popular crowd, I wasn’t top of the class, I wasn’t stand-out in anything enough to be memorable.
I skipped my 10-year reunion (even though I live a 1.5-hour drive away) using the logic I’ve heard countless people use before and since – I was in touch with everyone I wanted to be in touch with from high school already (a grand total of two people). I had similar qualms as I made the 1.5-hour drive to my 20th reunion. I had even convinced myself that most of my classmates wouldn’t even remember me.
What was I doing?, I kept thinking. Why, if I didn’t fit in back then, did I think I’d fit in now? Why, if I hated high school so much, would I want to revisit it?
I walked into the bar on the first night of the reunion, relieved to notice they had a registration table set up with nametags, and was immediately enveloped in a bear hug by a guy I hadn’t had time to even look at before he hugged me. “Jessica Spiegel, ladies and gentlemen,” I heard him say. When he pulled back, I saw that it was someone I’d known since third grade, when I first moved to Oregon. He had been a loveable punk kid, a trouble-maker with a sweet side, and someone I hadn’t been close to. In the bar at our 20th reunion, he not only recognized me, he was happy to see me. I was dumbfounded.
At that moment, I realized I’d been approaching the whole reunion thing all wrong. It wasn’t about reliving the past, it was about living in the present with people who shared history with you. And that was it.
Through the rest of the weekend, I had an utterly fantastic time seeing people I hadn’t seen in 20 years – some of them I’d been friends with, some of them I’d just known by name. In every case, I felt like I was making new friends as much as (if not more than) seeing old ones. There was no awkwardness, no reverting back to age 18. The old cliques were gone. There were some remarkable transformations, and they were (as far as I could see) taken in stride. People were accepted for exactly who they are right now. I drove home with an unexpected warmth in my heart.
And then when I got home and pulled my high school yearbooks from the shelf, I started to wonder what high school had really been like. The pictures of classmates were familiar now that I’d just seen so many of them again in real life, but reading through the messages made me question the entire premise upon which I’d built my impressions of high school. I read page after page of friendly words from people I had thought wouldn’t remember who I was – and not just the usual “stay cool, have a great summer” stuff we all expect from yearbooks. These were heartfelt teenage messages, with phone numbers and addresses and requests to stay in touch. Requests I had obviously ignored.
In the end, I wondered, was I on the outside looking in during high school, or had I removed myself from the social scene?
But then I came back to the warmth from the reunion. My classmates had clearly decided – subconsciously or not – that it didn’t matter what high school was like for any of us. It didn’t matter who hung out with who, what grades we got, or what we wore. It didn’t even matter that our interests weren’t completely aligned as adults. What mattered was that we shared history together – in some cases, going all the way back to kindergarten – and nothing on earth can change that. We can grow up, get jobs, move around the country (or the world), get married, have kids, get divorced, get married again – and we’ll still be the same people who once had goofy haircuts and wore polyester pants in that fourth grade class photo.
That unchanging history used to depress me. I’d look at my resume each time I’d write it down and cringe at the path my life had taken. But once I reached a place where I was happy with who I am now, looking back at the path seemed less depressing and more intriguing. I’d gone through that and ended up here? Well, I’ll be.
And so it was as I drove home from the reunion, happy with who I am and no longer afraid my classmates wouldn’t remember me, that I decided I no longer care about the teenage discomfort I surely felt back then. I no longer want to be part of the crowd who chimes into the chorus of “I hated high school.” Yes, growing up is difficult in lots of ways – we all felt it, and many of us felt like we were the only ones who didn’t quite fit in. It sucks at the time, and of course it’s only continuing to grow up that helps you not just get past it but see that you weren’t the only one – that everyone goes through an awkward period and, most importantly, that people don’t tend to judge you forever by the person you were when you were 18.
Maybe I really did hate high school back then, or maybe I’ve just convinced myself of that over the years. Either way, it doesn’t really matter anymore. What matters now is that there’s a group of people who have known me for a damned long time and who are friendly, open, accepting, and warm for no other reason than we’ve known each other for a damned long time.
I’m already looking forward to the 25th.