Last weekend I attended my 20th high school reunion.
In the week leading up to it, Phoebe repeatedly confused the word reunion with funeral: “Are you excited for your funeral, Mom? What are you going to wear to your funeral?”
“It’s a REUNION, Phoebe,” corrected Emma. “A funeral is for DEAD PEOPLE.” Phoebe just shrugged her shoulders. Tomato, tomato.
I decided to not take this as an omen or read into on a metaphorical level. I had bigger fish to fry, like finding a really hot outfit and getting an eyebrow wax. Because if I have one thing to show for myself after two decades, it’s better eyebrows. Check out those caterpillars:
My high school girlfriends and I decided to not take our significant others, because most husbands fall into one of two categories. He:
A. Would rather wax his chest hair than stand in a room full of strangers, especially the one stranger that dated his wife 20 years ago,
B. Would absolutely love to hang out with a room full of strangers, and become best friends with all of them, find them on LinkedIn, and have beers together the next time they come to town.
Ok, my husband may be the only B guy. But I didn’t feel like driving five hours in the car with the kids, so he had to stay home. Plus you can’t be the most popular guy at someone else’s reunion. It just adds more confusion to an already socially disorienting experience. Sorry Phil.
A few years ago I read an article by Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine called Why You Truly Never Leave High School. In it she discusses the problematic and at times traumatizing “big box” effect of high school. Basically, you fill a big cement building with kids who have nothing in common but their age.
In order to make sense of this chaos and social anarchy, adolescents assign each other labels (Jock, Brain, Dork, Prom Queen). According to Senior, because these roles are assigned at a formative time when your prefrontal cortex is still kind of…mushy, these labels tend to carry over into our adult lives. And like, not in a good way. “Most American high schools,” says Senior, “are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”
Yikes. So if high school was so traumatizing, why, twenty years later, would I drive five hours to north Jersey to re-live the experience?
Because -for me, at least – that’s not the whole experience. I didn’t love high school, but I didn’t hate it either. I wasn’t Homecoming Queen or Class President. I was a middle of the road marching band dork who used my semi-responsible persona as an opportunity for minor rebellions. For example: the time I told the school secretary I had to drop a tuba mouthpiece off at the local repair shop, when really I went to buy cigarettes and Mountain Dew. Who is going to argue with a tuba mouthpiece?
Senior writes, “For most adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories.” I believe this to be true. My high school was kind of….quirky. A melting pot of two towns on Route 10 in East Hanover, New Jersey. The land of wigwam socks, Aqua Net, and diners. The school itself was a 70’s California style school comprised of separate buildings and covered catwalks….except it wasn’t built in California, it was built in Jersey…on swampland. When it rained, the mud would rise and worms would wiggle onto the catwalks; then when the sun came out, the pavement would be covered with smooshed, fried worms. It just made no sense. And to me, there is something sweet about that.
And while I may have endured my share of high school traumas (like that unfortunate prom alcohol poisoning incident), there were triumphs, too – namely, my girlfriends, who still get me in all my craziness, and look out for me just like they did twenty years ago.
We pre-gamed the reunion at my friend Priya’s childhood home, and drinking wine
coolers in the bathroom while experimenting with makeup and jewelry felt like old times. As I sat on the tub while Priya and Helen rifled through a box of bracelets, I was overwhelmed by a comforting sense of deja vu. As the clock ticked closer to go-time, however, I started to feel a little anxious.
“So what do I tell people I do?” I asked. “Like can I say I teach yoga even if I am not teaching yoga at this very moment?”
Priya paused, eyeliner in hand, and met my eyes in the bathroom mirror. “You tell them you are a writer, because that is what you are.”
“Yeah…but is that really true if I don’t make any money doing that?”
Helen looked up from the jewelry box. “No one is going to ask for your bank statements,” she said.
As it turns out, no one asked me what I did. Not one person. They asked about where I lived, if I had kids, but no one gave a shit if I was an astronaut or soccer mom. They were, however, concerned about my hair:
“But why is your hair straight?”
“Uhh, because I blew it out.”
“But it’s still curly, right? Like, underneath the temporary straightness?”
“Because…you were…Jessie Power with really long, curly hair. It was kind of your thing.”
Now you tell me! I had a thing! Other than the prom-alcohol poisoning thing!
At the end of the night we all piled into the car, eager to get started on the post-reunion wrap-up. Many of our female classmates -as predicted by Jennifer Senior – remained the same. The smart girls are still smart, the party girls still party. The girl that hated you for whatever reason still hates you. The guys, however, had blossomed. The skinny boy from Geometry who never said a word is suddenly showing you photos of his three kids. The cool guy who wouldn’t give you the time of day is suddenly pulling you out on the dance floor to Turn The Beat Around by Gloria Estefan. There were some major full circle moments. It kind of felt like a wacky extended family wedding. With lots of strobe lights. It is New Jersey, after all.
I see Jennifer Senior’s point about high school being dangerously arbitrary. But to me, it’s also kind of the beauty of it. We have nothing in common, yet we have this one HUGE THING in common. And twenty years later, that’s still a bond. You may not see these people ever again, but you care what happens to them. You celebrate their accomplishments. Your heart hurts for those who are struggling. I paused for a moment on the dance floor and looked around at all of us – jocks, brains, cheerleaders and band nerds, eating mozzarella sticks and dancing to Ace of Base…in what alternate universe would this happen other than high school?
It’s a celebration of randomness.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go blow dry my hair curly. Because you know, it’s kind of my thing.