It had been a long time since I'd faced them. Twenty years' worth of long time. I wasn't quite ready to see what confluence of memory and reality was waiting for me. So I stalled. Pumped up the volume on the radio. Tried like mad to absorb the furious bravado of the Old School, hip-hop beats rocking my car.

Be still, my flip-flopping stomach.

I fluffed the hair. Redid the lipstick. Inhaled. Exhaled.

A black SUV pulled up alongside me. Out slid one of my classmates, looking pretty much the same, save for her very pregnant belly and slightly sour expression. She didn't recognize me--or pretended not to.

"Oh, look honey," I heard her husband say, "this looks just like our house."

I think he was kidding. But the house was imposing and reeked of old money--just what you'd expect of an alum of the Westminster Schools, Atlanta's answer to Exeter. The only thing missing was a parade of white columns marching across the front like Scarlett's crib in "Gone With the Wind."

Outside, by the pool, a deejay was spinning old hits from '79: Mother's Finest. Parliament. Rod Stewart. Styx. Prince. Inside, my classmates--white, privileged, scions of the Old South--were spinning their tales of remember-when.

Except for the help--the elderly nanny, the bartender and the woman serving hors d'oeuvres--mine was the only African-American face in the crowd. None of the three other black students from the 1979 Westminster class of about 200 had shown up, which was too bad. Fortification from the ranks would have helped.

I'd been surprised by how much I wanted to come. Chalk it up to curiosity, nostalgia, and an overwhelming desire to tell them all to kiss my patootie--coupled with an equally overwhelming need to make sense of it all.

I am not a bitter person. And yet for 20 years, the mention of high school conjured a litany of old hurts, ancient wounds nursed as if they were inflicted just yesterday. Until the reunion, that is.

Of course, for most of us, high school is a place fraught with adolescent angst. Throwing the black Southern preppy thing into the mix just complicated things further for me.

Like many cities, Atlanta remains divided by race and geography. Westminster is on one side of town, the northwest side, smack in the seat of the white upper class and equipped with all the accoutrements of prestige: front and rear gates, rolling lawns and plaques bearing the names of wealthy alumni on each new building.

My African-American classmates and I grew up on the other side of town, the southwest side, smack in the heart of the black upper class. We were all doctors' kids (including the daughter of former Health and Human Services secretary Louis Sullivan). Color, not class, divided us from our classmates. That, and which team our ancestors played for in the slavery game.

I spent my high school years trying to find a way to live comfortably in the middle, straddling the racial divide the only way an integration baby can: carefully, precariously, occasionally falling over.

Like most of my classmates, I was spoiled and sheltered. Like them, I wore Top-Siders and pastel-colored cords with matching Oxford shirts and Fair Isle sweaters, flipped my hair la Farrah Fawcett and sneaked smokes in my car between classes. As I stood at the reunion party, wearing a name tag emblazoned with my senior-year photo, I was glad I'd abandoned that Farrah 'do long ago.

But I haven't abandoned the ideals that led my parents to send me to Westminster. In my family, it was education by any means necessary. That's why my maternal grandfather worked the graveyard shift at the post office--and played high-stakes poker--to put himself through medical school at the University of Chicago. That's why my Creole-speaking paternal grandfather left the rice fields of rural Louisiana at 19 to attend fourth grade, not resting until he'd mastered both English--and med school.

That's why I found myself at this prestigious school, where tradition was valued above all else. Westminster was officially coed, but in the high school, boys and girls were separated for most of our classes. (The Boys' School got the computers.) The school was also "integrated," but our annual Christmas dance was held at the Piedmont Driving Club--no blacks or Jews allowed back then. (I joked about showing up, but never made good on my threat.) Some teachers assumed I lived in the ghetto, and would say so during class. It seemed that whenever we played a black school during football season, a male cheerleader would appear during pep rallies wearing a gorilla mask. Needless to say, it was a place where I could never just be one of the crowd. A place where I learned that speaking out as I did in the school newspaper (decrying the hypocrisy of espousing liberal values while holding school dances at the country club) could get you ostracized.

It was a place where I never felt that I was good enough. Or smart enough.

There were teachers I loved, those who saw something in me and pushed. Hard. Remembering them still makes me smile. There were students who became my friends. There were good times, of this I am sure.

And yet, as I scanned the reunion crowd, I realized that those good times hadn't had the same impact as the students who confided, "I looooove my maid," as if their publicly stated affection for the Marys and Margarets and Thelmas who cleaned their kitchens and washed their undies somehow made them cooler than cool. As in not racist. Yet whenever I'd offer to hold a class meeting at my house, those same students would hastily tell me that while they'd looooove that, I lived just too far away. And then they'd schedule a meeting at another student's house, a white student's house--a house somewhere on the other side of the world.

It hadn't been personal. We were, all of us, operating from the maps our parents handed out at birth: Maps bordered by race. Maps that didn't acknowledge the sweeping social changes shaking up the '70s. Looking back, I know this is true.

And yet, there were incidents that felt decidedly personal.

Every year, the Girls' School at Westminster put on a big Mardi Gras: Each high school class competed with skits and floats. And each class elected a class queen to ride on its float. My senior year, my name was one of several on the ballot. After the votes were counted, one of my classmates pulled me aside with the news: When the committee saw how many votes I was getting, it had rigged the ballots. A blonde would ride on our class float that year. My classmate wanted me to know because, she said, it was wrong. I agreed it was wrong, and tucked the information away. It never occurred to me to do anything about it. I simply tucked it away.

It's only in looking back that I realize that things you tuck away never really go away.

Like the comments my classmates made about my college applications. I was a B student at a school known for its rigorous academics, thriving in English, history and art and struggling through trig and chemistry. That had been good enough for Dartmouth. When I was accepted, murmuring began that affirmative action had smiled upon me. "If I were black," one student told me, "I'd apply to Dartmouth, too." Another classmate, her face wrinkled with concern, confided her worries to me: She was sooooo concerned that I was going to flunk out.

She was wrong. I graduated with honors in my major. And I was sorry she hadn't shown up at the party, so that I could look at her now and tell her just how wrong she'd been.

When it's all said and done, of course, a high school reunion is a reunion is a reunion.

Everyone shows up to prove they are exactly like they were back then--or completely different. The prettiest girls somehow look the worse for wear. Someone shows up with a husband old enough to be her dad.

But there were surprises: The unexpected pleasure of being welcomed. Of being wrapped in warm hugs. Of being told, we were hoping you'd make it.

There was the shock of hearing from once-popular girls that they never felt as if they belonged, either. The chubby class clown and party boy--who had orchestrated many a grain alcohol party--had morphed into the most handsome man in our class.

But more than anything, I was surprised to find at a school that each year ships off batches of its graduates to the Ivies, so many women in my class who don't work, haven't worked. Won't work. We've chosen very different paths.

And there was the petty pleasure found in vindication. Again and again, classmates would ask me what I did for a living. And when I told them I wrote about the arts for The Washington Post, their eyes would widen. "Wow!" more than one said. "You're the most interesting woman here!"

At first, their responses mattered to me. And then, they didn't. Once, it mattered very much what they thought, even though I never would have admitted it. Standing by the pool, we watched a slide show of pictures culled from our shared past. Most were of the same 20 or so kids, the popular ones, the ones who went on class trips that only a select few knew about. The ones who joined secret sororities.

And though I didn't see my face up there, I knew I was there. My identity is firmly rooted in my African-American heritage, but, watching the slide show, I realized just how much white people have shaped my life, both positively and negatively. We shared so many of the same experiences, listened to the same music, learned the same drills from the same teachers. They shaped me simply because, at one point, we shared the same space in time.

But we don't anymore.

And I no longer need to pick at the scabs of the past, which freed me to find kinship at the reunion. With the made-over class clown, who has become a composer of pop ditties and is struggling to make ends meet. "You know," he said, taking in the extravagance of our classmate's mansion, "I clean houses like this for a living." And I've begun trading e-mail with a friend from school, a poet who describes class reunions as "re-alienations." For her, they conjure up feelings of walking alone around the cafeteria, tray in hand, despairing of finding a place to sit.

I realized that while Westminster was often painful for me, I am perhaps better for it. Is it an experience I'd choose for my as-yet-unborn children? Probably not. But it made me an observer, a journalist, a writer. Someone who can navigate many different worlds with ease.

Someone who knows now to speak up when they rig the votes against you.

Fueled with these realizations--and no small quantity of red wine--I sidled over to the buffet table and approached a particular classmate as she piled quiche, guacamole and chips on her plate.

I just wanted to say thank you for blowing the whistle on the Mardi Gras thing, I told her.

She didn't remember.

I don't know what I expected from her, exactly. That she'd commiserate, maybe. Cackle over the misdeeds of our classmates, possibly.

Remember, certainly.

I stood there, taking in the irony of which memories we choose to hold onto. And those that we let go.

That meant a lot to me, I told her. It was a big deal.

I bet it was, she said, nodding her head in affirmation.

I bet it was.

Teresa Wiltz covers arts and entertainment for the Style section of The Post.