Twenty years ago I fearfully graduated from high school. The future seemed risky and unstable. I don’t really like flying by the seat of my pants. I like lists, schedules and plans. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a plan after graduation except to accept the music scholarship I was offered because I didn’t know what else I wanted to do.
Something was better than nothing.
That first post-graduation summer was full of work, a budding romance and hanging out with a couple of high school friends. But for the most part, everyone I had called “friend” moved on quickly. We all went to different colleges and lost touch much sooner than I ever imagined. Not because we weren’t really friends, but because life just got in the way.
And I know I didn’t make enough of an effort.
I was friends with just about everyone in high school, or perhaps more accurately, I was friendly with everyone. There really wasn’t anyone I didn’t like and absolutely loathed the idea of being classified in any specific group, although our school was pretty typical. We had our jocks, skaters, kickers, pot-heads, preps, cheerleaders, band geeks, etc. I was lighthearted and happy most of the time. I could have a conversation with anyone, find fun in every moment. I remember smiling, a lot.
But, I also remember spending most of my time on the sidelines, watching and listening.
I was shy at heart, afraid of letting my guard down, fearful of being rejected. It seemed easier to always be “the sweet one” or “the happy one”, rather than have too much of an opinion. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own skin to make lasting connections. The boys were all my friends, but never my dates. The girls chatted and sat with me at lunch, passed notes with me in class, and laughed with me on the band bus. But rarely did we invite each other over for sleepovers or birthday parties. Besides, in my mind’s eye, I wasn’t the prettiest, or the smartest or even the most talented. How could I compete with all of those classmates that were those things? Seriously, what teenage girl doesn’t have self-esteem issues?
Fast forward twenty years.
Months of dieting, nervous excitement, shopping for the perfect weekend attire, and planning came to fruition this past weekend at my 20th high school reunion. Friday started at a family friendly hamburger joint called MoMaks. I was the first person to arrive, of course, and sat facing the door. Slowly people trickled out to the patio, some with spouses and kids in tow, all with a blank look on their faces, searching for someone they recognized. At first, an anxious electricity awkwardly hung in the air, hindering feelings of community. Groups of people congregated in circles of familiarity, casually glancing across the patio hoping to venture out of their comfort zones.
And then something drastically changed.
People started being honest. Handshakes and hugs were offered freely while introducing themselves to their classmates, as if we were meeting for the first time. We all got “do-overs”, and suddenly it didn’t matter who had been friends with who, because, we were all friends now. Social walls, prejudices, and teenage jealousies were non-existent. There was a greater sense of community than I ever remember feeling while we were in high school. There was a general feeling of acceptance and genuine admiration.
The rest of the weekend consisted of a Homecoming game, tour of our rebuilt school and dinner reception. There were considerably more people at the final event than had been at MoMaks or tour. As I approached the restaurant, my stomach churned a little. The other events had been small and easy to maneuver conversations. This was going to feel more claustrophobic like trying to wiggle my way through the school halls or at one of our school dances. This would require me to talk to people and mingle, something I am quite comfortable with now, but I was struggling to figure out how to be this almost 40-year-old me around the people who only remember me at 18.
I was struggling to figure out how to stop thinking of them as 18 too.
Whether it was a big or small crowd, it didn’t matter. The emotional warmth that had started on Friday night continued into Sunday’s early morning hours. Faces continually lit up in excitement as classmates became friends, sharing stories about their children, jobs and adventures. People who probably had never spoken in high school were now exchanging contact information. People who had once been acquaintances were now turning into long-lost best friends. All this time we had been remembering our personal faults and flaws, and now we were all being remembered for our assets.
We weren’t labels anymore.
We were grown-ups.
We were secure enough in ourselves to see each others value and achievements.
We used our shared high school experiences to bind us together.
What I didn’t like about my 20th high school reunion was being reminded of all my childhood insecurities, self-inflicted, of course. I was also a little sad to realize how many people I wish I had made a greater effort to be closer friends and stay in contact with all these years. And it’s not that I have really changed much, I’m just more confident in being myself.
In fact, I think that is probably true of most everyone after 20 years. It’s just too bad it takes us that long to figure it out.