Reunions: To celebrate high school or rejoice that it’s over?

September 8, 2011

What’s the statute of limitations on hating high school? Five years? Ten? Thirty?

I ask because this past spring, a notice arrived in the mail that my 20th high school reunion would be taking place in early September. Actually, it was an e-mail — or, to be more precise, an e-mail notifying me that I’d been added to a newly created Facebook group titled “DHS Class of 1991.” One of my fellow grads — a woman I’d been friends with in kindergarten before we went our separate ways — had taken it upon herself to organize the event and was putting out feelers to gauge interest. I logged onto Facebook and started typing, wondering whether the point of the reunion was to celebrate the experience of high school . . . or rejoice in the fact that we had left it behind.

I lied and said I’d love to come.

* * *

High school never ends, or so they say. (“They” being me . . . and some North Texas band called Bowling for Soup.) In my experience, the social striving and self-selecting tribalism that define one’s teenage years enjoy a brief reprieve in college, only to reassert themselves, sometimes with even greater consequences, in the workplace. This is a nation built, in part, on self-actualization and innovation, yes, but the dark secret behind the American Dream is that those things we are born with — our race, our gender, our economic class — never stop defining who we are to the world outside, and they often get their most critical and lasting reception in adolescence. Celebrating this in the form of the high school reunion seems understandable and absurd.

The poignancy and precariousness of these formative years goes a long way toward explaining our enduring fascination and obsession with adolescent depictions in pop culture. Feature films set in secondary school — “American Graffiti,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Heathers,” “Clueless,” “Mean Girls” — are considered some of U.S. cinema’s most enduring classics. In recent years, TV producers have amassed fortunes and critical acclaim for shows (“Glee,” “Friday Night Lights”) set in the world of high school extracurriculars. But the narratives found in these portrayals are not ones that most of us, myself included, really recognize. Which raises the question: Is our embrace of these entertainments rooted in a desire to relive adolescence or to redefine and transcend it?

* * *

It’s probably obvious that my feelings about adolescence are pretty complicated. Junior high, which is to say seventh through ninth grade, was the most difficult time: My open and friendly (some would say naive) demeanor, frizzy hair and pimple-splattered face were like catnip to the newly emergent and vicious orchestrations of a group of girls who lived in the gated country club development on the south side of my Northern California college town. (I was humiliated enough by their verbal harassments and social machinations that I took to hiding in a hallway bathroom during phys ed class.)

High school itself was less acutely anxiety-provoking — I had a great group of friends and could see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is to say, graduation — but no less unsettling: It was becoming clear that the burdens specific to the very white, affluent milieu I found myself in (my economic class, my mixed race) would probably be liabilities that would extend into adulthood. In my high school, unlike those depicted on the silver and small screens, the mean girls rarely, if ever, turned on their own kind, and any African American with the swagger and arrogance of, say, Smash Williams would have had that confidence drummed out of him long before he ever reached 11th grade. In my town, people tended to stick with what, and whom, they knew; there was nothing bringing us together, nothing larger — not football, not musical theater — that had to be overcome, save for mediocre SAT scores or the absence of a ribbon-wrapped BMW in the driveway on one’s 16th birthday. It was like a John Hughes movie, except that in those movies, even the most loathsome of characters are eventually given an opportunity to exhibit their humanity.

I’m not ashamed of sounding harsh, nor am I going to pretend that the traumas of adolescence don’t find expression in my psyche, even 20 years later. (One of my most fearsome antagonists, a freckle-faced brunette from the aforementioned gated community, makes an appearance in my dreams once or twice a year.) At the very least, my high school angst provides me with some interesting stories, such as the time the cute musician I’d been crushing on and obsessing over for months accepted my invitation to the prom only to abandon me at the event and run into the arms of a really nice, beautiful blonde I’ll call Kristi. (My date ended up marrying her just a few years later, further cementing my suspicion that in high school, as in life, the nice, beautiful blondes usually win.)

* * *

Here’s the fantasy of what my 20th reunion will be like: Dozens and dozens of the most privileged, popular kids — the ones for whom high school was an apogee, not a nadir — milling about and enjoying beers as they subtly brag about their six-figure incomes, their ranch houses, their new luxury automobiles. (I can get enough of that in any Upper East Side hair salon, thank you very much.) Here’s the probable reality: A few hundred of my contemporaries, all grown up and genuinely eager to see one another and make new — and old — friends.

Even so, my unease about the whole thing means that I’m choosing to spend this Sunday in my adopted home town on the East Coast, where, along with millions of other New Yorkers and Washingtonians, I’ll mourn a more poignant and painful anniversary. This, I decided recently, will prove to be more communal and life-affirming than any microbrew-soaked assemblage in my little bubble of a California town. But I’m willing to concede that I may be wrong, and that maybe my dismissal of the event is less about the devil I think I know than the devil I don’t. (Pardon the aphorism, but our school mascot was a Blue Devil.)

On Wednesday, another Facebook message appeared in my e-mail inbox, this one from a high school buddy I’ll call Theo, an exuberant, intelligent and sensitive soul with whom I’d been extremely close and had traveled with to the Soviet Union on an exchange trip. I hadn’t spoken to, or heard from, him, in almost a decade. It turned out he’d gotten his PhD and was working as a poli sci professor at an Ivy League university. “Anna Holmes!” it began. “Are you going to the reunion this weekend? Or would you rather eat stones?”

I laughed. And I’m pretty sure he already knew the answer.

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