In high school I was not one of the “popular” people. I was bookish, insecure and athletically inept. For people like me, I suspected, high school was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
To make matters worse, I was so near-sighted that I wore glasses from age seven until I discovered contact lenses in ninth grade, and I had metal braces on my teeth for six long years, until I was 17. When my orthodontist finally removed my braces, I secretly hoped I would be transformed from an awkward duckling into a confident, graceful swan, but nothing of the sort occurred. My teeth were now straight, but I was still insecure.
Before you begin to feel either pity or contempt for me, let me rush to explain that my high school years were not utterly devoid of happiness. I formed close friendships with classmates who shared my interests in drama, chorus and doing well academically. In the spring of my junior year, I even acquired a boyfriend—a gentle, kind-hearted senior who was a friend of my brother. I began to think better of my high school experience.
In my senior year, however, the ground began to shift under my feet. I started to have occasional bouts of what I now realize was extreme anxiety, which would overwhelm and paralyze me. I never told anyone about these episodes; they were my best-kept secret. Looking back now from the perspective of several decades, I think my anxiety was triggered by the realization that I had to apply, and then go, to college, and after that trudge onward through the rest of my life. The prospect seemed overwhelming, and I had no clear idea how to proceed.
At the same time, I was profoundly influenced by events unfolding beyond my high school classroom, especially the college campus protests against the Vietnam War that escalated in the spring of my senior year. In my own personal rebellion against authority, I began wearing jeans and dark turtlenecks to school—a stark reversal of my previous obsession with donning perfectly matched skirts, blouses and sweaters every school day. More important, I gave up doing my homework in trigonometry, my least favorite class. Not surprisingly, my grades in that class plummeted, and in the spring marking periods of my senior year I failed to win academic honors for the first time.
In spite of my anxiety and my academic improprieties, I managed to apply to, and be accepted by, a fairly good college, whose admissions committee generously overlooked the fact that I ended up flunking trigonometry. When I left for college, I wanted nothing more than to put the bad memories of my senior year behind me and re-invent myself in a big city a hundred miles away. I was quite certain then that I would never return to my hometown except for periodic visits to my family. My memories of my senior year were so bitter that I even lost contact with my closest high school friends—a circumstance that, as the decades passed, I came to deeply regret.
For years, I was able to keep my vow to live anywhere but in the area where I grew up. I went to college in Washington, D.C. and graduate school in Buffalo, N.Y. I moved to New York City and lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. My next stop was New Jersey, and then I traveled south to Washington again before making my way to Honolulu, where I lived for 14 years. During my travels, I settled into a career as a journalist, writing for magazines and newspapers. I went back to visit my family frequently during those years, but “home” was always someplace else.
My family visits never matched the dates of my high school reunions, but I doubt I would have gone even if they had. The insecurities I formed in high school had never really left me, and I expected they would reappear in full force if I found myself in the company of my classmates once again. In high school I had feared I was not popular or pretty enough. As an adult at a reunion, I anticipated, my classmates might think I was not professionally or personally successful enough. Why take the chance?
In the fall of 2001, however, my visit to my family happened to coincide with a small, informal get-together one of my classmates organized for some members of our class and several students from the previous year’s class. Because my brother was part of that class, he cajoled me into going and gave me a calming pep talk in the car on the way to the event.
At the restaurant, I was shocked to discover that my classmates—many whom I had not laid eyes on since graduation—seemed genuinely glad to see me. Furthermore, not a single person made a judgmental remark that would have triggered my still-active insecurities. We spent a congenial evening catching up, and I began to think I might possibly have been wrong about my schoolmates’ opinions of me all those years ago.
A little more than a year later, I was forced to revise another story I had been telling myself since high school: that I would never again live in the area where I grew up. I made the wrenching decision to leave Honolulu and return to Pennsylvania to help care for my mother, who had developed Parkinson’s disease and was in a nursing home.
As a doting aunt to my brother’s two sons, I found myself attending functions at their high school—the same building I had graduated from so many years before. On these visits to my alma mater, I would occasionally catch a fleeting, vaporous glimpse of my anxious, youthful self disappearing around a corner or down a corridor. But the chimera would always vanish before I had a chance to confront it. It was probably just as well. How could I have explained to my younger self that I was once again living in the very area I had hoped to leave behind forever?
My mother lived for more than six years after I moved back home, and I was enormously grateful I had made the decision to be close at hand as she courageously faced the heartbreaking progression of her Parkinson’s disease. After years of wandering hither and yon, I also came to understand what a blessing it was to be so close to my brother—my only sibling—and my two nephews, and to watch them grow up.
In addition, in a twist of fate that would have astonished my younger self, I developed a friendship with a woman who had been one of the most popular of the popular girls in high school. She and her husband own a popular coffee house not far from the high school, and on visits there I discovered that she was warm, thoughtful and possessed of a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor—a far cry from the unapproachable goddess I had assumed her to be in high school.
Given my status as a repatriated resident of my home town, it might seem that I would welcome the chance to attend my latest high school reunion—a celebration held earlier this month. Instead, in the days leading up to the reunion I was assailed by all of my previous insecurities and a brand-new one. This time, I couldn’t use my location to signify that I had had a fascinating, successful life after high school: I couldn’t tell people I lived in Honolulu, or New York, or Washington, D.C., or even New Jersey. Now I live less than 10 miles from my high school, and to make matters worse the ghost of my youthful self has taken up a baleful post there, and I can hear her scolding me whenever I set foot on campus or drive by the building in my car.
I might well have given in to my anxieties and skipped the reunion if not for the encouragement of both the formerly unapproachable goddess and another classmate, who was organizing the reunion and who reached out to me on Facebook. My desire not to be rude to these two kind women who apparently had forgotten how maladjusted I was in high school outweighed my insecurities. Thus, after driving to the reunion and sitting in the car outside the restaurant for a few minutes to steady my nerves, I took a deep breath and walked up the steep wooden steps to the front door.
Once inside, I was instantly glad I had come. The level of merriment rivaled that of a joyous wedding, and I found myself talking to classmates who greeted me as if we had last seen each other a few months earlier instead of decades ago, on Graduation Day. We traded stories of marriages and divorces, children (or, in my case, nephews) and grandchildren, and time spent taking care of elderly parents and laying them to rest. A classmate I had known since grade school shared a poignant memory of my mother from our childhood that touched my heart and left me momentarily speechless. I began to wonder how I ever could have considered skipping this extraordinary event.
Classmates talked a bit about their careers: one woman had become a dentist, one a teacher, and one a lawyer. One of the men had become a geologist, and another had gone into business. But no one was boastful; it was as if they were merely explaining how they had passed the time since we walked across the graduation stage to receive our diplomas. As I listened, I found myself quietly in awe that the naïve, unformed young people I had known so long ago had discovered how to make their way in the world—and quite successfully, it seemed.
I won’t be absolutely certain until I drive past my high school and look for the troublesome wraith of my younger self, but I think going to the reunion may have helped me lay to rest—or at least confront—the demon of insecurity that plagued me during high school and continued to haunt me long after I graduated.
I learned at the reunion that none of us has had a perfect life, and that—at this stage in our lives—the point of reunion is not to impress each other with what we have achieved but to celebrate the fact that we survived the many decades since high school. We are kindred spirits by virtue of our common experiences: the years we spent together in school and the hilly, winding, sometimes stony paths of life we followed separately after graduation. The prevailing sentiments in the room that night seemed to be kindness, empathy and understanding, spiced with generous dashes of humor.
Contrary to all of my expectations, I had a great time at my high school reunion. I was disappointed when the night was over: I wish I had been able to spend more time with the classmates I talked to, and I regret that I didn’t get to connect with everyone in the room. And I sincerely hope it will not be five long years before we gather together again.
Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper
High School Entrance Photograph Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper