Thursday, November 29, 2012

25 Years Later, It Gets Better

Fancy boutique where I did a work event.
Photo taken by me ~ March 2010

My 25-year high school reunion was Friday night.

I wasn't there.

Now, 25 years ago, if you had told my 18 year old self that I would not be at this milestone event, I would have probably rolled my eyes, flipped back my hair, and said something like, "Ohmigod. There's a shocker. Like, tell me something I don't know."

And if you had told me that I would have REALLY WANTED TO BE at my 25 year high school reunion, I would have been convinced that you had me confused with somebody else.

You see, our high school was not a four year affair. Ours was a small, suburban, very affluent school district where the kids you stood with at the bus stop on your first day of kindergarten were the same kids you were crossing the graduation stage with 12 years later.

There wasn't any room for mistakes. What you did would long be remembered, would haunt you. Escape was a long way in the future.

If you moved into the district in, say, 5th grade (as my family did), you had a particularly tough time. Friendships and cliques were formed early and bonds were tight. And if you didn't live in one of the "right" neighborhoods, or wear a certain brand of designer clothes, or find a brand new car of your own in the driveway on your 16th birthday, it was very, very, very difficult to fit in.

To feel accepted.

Academically, you didn't have it much easier. This was a competitive pressure-cooker and you were expected to excel. In everything. All. The. Time. It was so easy to feel less-than, that you didn't measure up.

Some people cracked.

It's a miracle more didn't.

I deliberately only looked at colleges where not a soul from my class was considering. No matter that I didn't stand a chance in hell of getting into even one Ivy League university - much less all of them, like several of my peers did. When senior class rankings came out, I went around telling people that I - right there, ranked smack dab in the middle of our grade - was "the valedictorian of the dumb half of the class."

Because that's how I was conditioned to see myself.

I selected a college that was the complete opposite of "Cheers," where no one knew my name - at least, not at first.

And then I exhaled for the first time in years, allowed the healing to begin.

But despite that, the old black feeling still creeps in.

It's here right now, in the midnight hour as I write this, as my inner teenage self wonders about the reaction of my classmates to this very post (some of them read my blog now, for gawdsakes) while my 43 year old self knows that I'm different and that I shouldn't give a damn. About what anyone thinks.

It crept in the night of the 25th reunion, as I sat home refreshing Facebook for photos, watching the series finale of iCarly with my twins who had just turned 11 (the same 11 year old kids I was told in high school by more than one doctor that I would probably never have). I looked across the room at my husband, recovering from cancer surgery. Had I been back in Philadelphia, I wondered how I would have answered the "so, what do you do now?" question from my still-overachieving classmates. Somehow, "I've been unemployed for nearly six months and am working on getting a freelance writing and consulting business going," would not cut it with this crowd.

I might have lied.

For you can build a life, conquer demons, add a bunch of accomplishments to your resume - but throw a couple months' rough patch 'atcha and it is enough to bring that old black feeling right back.

As the weekend rolled on and as the recaps and updates from my former classmates were posted on Facebook, something started to happen.

People who once seemed to have it all (and it all together) were admitting that...they...really...didn't.

"I know, I know, I was such a loser...."

"...it was not always easy to see that [the good in people] in high school - when you are so self absorbed." 

HIM?  HER?

*
Back in the 80s, some of my classmates had a math class where they created a paper computer. Believe it or not, it was supposedly cutting edge (no pun intended) for its time.

I wasn't smart enough for that class.

Twenty five years later, I would never, ever have imagined where that paper computer would lead - that something called Facebook would make it possible to finally understand that there were others (maybe more than a few others) who felt the way I did, too. Who were insecure, who were unsure, who felt like losers, who were just trying to find their way.

I've been thinking and remembering a lot over the last several days, and I keep coming back to this:

What would it have been like, had we known? What damage could have been prevented? How different would we have been? How much fewer scars would we have had, then and now?

We're on a post-reunion high, an adrenaline surge. I'm expecting us to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" at the 30th. The other day, one of our classmates posted a video of his band to our class's page. It's good. Really good. He wasn't one of the popular guys, but I always thought he was nice enough.

"Weren't you always quiet in high school?" one friend wrote.

"Just unheard," he answered.

And that's it, I realized. In the end, that's all we wanted back then. To be heard.  For myself, that was it. Like everyone else, I just wanted to be noticed not for what I lacked but to be applauded for what I had and could do well. What a difference that would have made.

That was my writing. It was, at times, the only thing I had to hold onto.

Sometimes, these days, it still seems like it is.

Back then, all I wanted was to be recognized for it - and I wasn't. That craving eventually backfired in a prank that wound up hurting a lot of people in a middle school bullying incident that, to this day, at age 43, I still deeply, deeply regret. I don't need to go into specifics. More than a few will know of what it is I speak. Suffice it to say that if you recognize yourself in this very long-overdue apology, know that I am truly beyond sorry and that I hope you can somehow forgive me.

We live, as we all did.

We learn, as we all did.

But now we know a few things that we didn't know then.

There are others with us along this lonely path.

Most likely, they're hurting too.

And no matter what - no matter what - it gets better.

It really, really can get so much better.


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3 comments:

Becca Lostinbooks said...

Melissa,

I went to a high school where if you did not live in the right neighborhood or wear the right clothes or have the right car, you were a nobody, too. I struggled through high school. I eventually did crack. But then I got right back up again and discovered that I did not need any of those people. They were not worth it. I started to learn I did not have to be friends with certain people to make life meaningful. I did not have to keep people in my life if they were not supportive or encouraging. I still live by that philosophy. Life is too short to let other people drag you down. I learned it the hard way in the hell of a horrible high school. I won't be going to my class reunions but I, too, look on FB, and realize that these same people go through just as many struggles and I find we are all human after all.

Lisa Gradess Weinstein said...

Melissa, as I was reading your post, I was thinking of my high school years (which I hated) and of course, my Melissa who is now in high school. And I thought, like you, that I was such a loser. But now looking back, there were probably so many girls and boys who all felt the same way. They are tough, tough years, they truly shape us. For me, when I got to college I made great friends and that's where I really started to come out of my shell. As for your apology - I want to share something. About 2 years ago I got a message on Facebook from a woman who claimed we had gone to high school together. She said that during high school she had said something to me that really hurt my feelings and now, after all of these years, it was eating her up and she wanted to apologize. Well, not only did I not remember what she said, I didn't even remember her. Her name didn't sound familiar, her picture didn't ring a bell. I looked in my yearbook - I had absolutely no recollection of this person. So I decided not to respond to her message and she kept writing to me. Finally I had to tell her that I didn't remember what she said I didn't remember who she was and I had no desire to be reminded of what she said. I told her I accepted her apology and that she should let it go. I guess my point is - the middle school prank that has haunted you may not be haunting others at all.... try, try, try to just let it go.

Booksnyc said...

great post! You and an excellent writer and I hope you now feel heard through what you do on this blog.