My 40th (yikes!) high school reunion is coming up, and my inbox has been clogged with correspondence about it — the official invitation, and group emails asking help in tracking down elusive classmates or compiling a representative slide show. Then there are the messages from friends, discussing whether or not to go, and why.
Most of the concerns have to do with self-presentation — the “elevator pitch,” as writers call it. How do you encapsulate 40 years of experience into cocktail-party chatter? How do you communicate that you looked much better than this before you got sick/your husband left/your kid went into rehab, when you don’t necessarily want the cheerleaders and football players who tormented you and your nerdy friends to know these things about you? “I’ve gotten so fat,” one friend moans. “I can’t let the Bitch Squad see me like this.” Another worries about the lack of spouse and children, traditional markers of success.
These aren’t my particular concerns. I think I look pretty good for my age, and I’ve certainly succeeded professionally and personally far beyond what was predicted for me (which is not that difficult, as the choices that were repeatedly presented to me were to work in a factory or go to secretarial school — both perfectly respectable vocations, but for someone as dreamy and overthinking and disorganized as I was, they would have spelled alcoholism and quite possibly suicide). I have no problem sending in a picture and a cute blurb highlighting my PhD, my book, and my amazing kid. I just don’t want to have to go and talk to all those people.
The fact is, my high school experience was torture. I know, everyone’s was, more or less, because adolescence itself is a kind of purgatory. And most people grow up, realize this, and go back to their high school reunions to find that the popular kids who made their lives miserable were themselves insecure and unhappy; and everyone has a drink and a good laugh and a hug, and it’s a transcendently healing experience. At least, that is what people keep telling me. And it may be true, but I have no way of knowing, because I’ve only been to one reunion, to track down a friend with whom I had a falling-out. She continued to snub me at the party, so I went home. That was 1972, and I never went back.
For me, it wasn’t just a matter of not being popular, or being a nerd, or whatever. I spent nearly every day of my junior high and high school career feeling wrong — I was the wrong religion, lived in the wrong part of town, wore the wrong clothes, went to the wrong summer camps, you name it. And the feeling of wrongness was reinforced, not mitigated, at home.
I used to work with women who were victims of sexual assault. Many of them kept getting into abusive relationships. Some came to feel that men in general were evil and abusive. It was hard to point out to them that they were drawing a certain type of attention, which was not necessarily representative of the actions of most men, without sounding like I was blaming them in some way. I finally hit on the saying, “If you are bleeding in the water, the sharks will find you.” They could hear this, and work with me to locate and heal the deep wound.
My high school had more than its share of sharks, and nearly every one of them found me at one point. There were also lovely, decent people, but I knew only a few of those. Because I was bleeding. The day I left for college (the culmination of a years-long campaign which I still was not certain I had won until I was actually unpacking in my dorm room) I felt, now my real life will start. And it did.
One of my lovely, decent classmates, with whom I’ve remained close friends over the years, has made it sort of a mission to reintroduce me to other lovely and decent classmates, in the hope of what we shrinks call a “reparative experience,” an attempt at healing that wound. I usually resist, sometimes for years, then, because he’s worn me down, I acquiesce—and I’m always delighted with my new/old acquaintance. Some of these have blossomed into deep and lasting friendships on their own. And none of them remember me as the miserable outcast I thought I was — I keep hearing, “But you were so pretty, and there were always people around you, laughing. And so-and-so had a huge crush on you.” And so my sense of my past is softened a bit, rethought. But I still balk at the idea of chitchatting with a room full of these grownup teenagers, as though we were back at a school dance and I were still shark bait.
I don’t think my son will have these issues. There simply aren’t cliques in his high school. There aren’t, from what he tells me, any outcasts, either. There are groups of kids who hang out together because of common interests or other areas of compatibility, but these tend to cross ethnic, economic, and even grade lines. There are kids other kids give a wide berth to because they are physically violent or provocative, but nobody as far as we know seeks them out to pick on them. Some of these kids have settled down over the years, and now they do have friends and companions.
This is not some dream private school. It’s a public school in Manhattan—a charter school, which means it has a special focus. The focus of this school is cooperation and community building. It may not be as strong academically as the really competitive public schools, and he may not be guaranteed a place at a “good” college as he would be at an elite private school—but if he never feels like he wants to throw up at the thought of attending a reunion, that seems like a fine trade-off.