Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lessons From High School—30 Years Later

I went to my 30th high school reunion last weekend.

Aww... Thanks for saying that I look like I couldn't be more than 18 years out of high school. That's sweet.

Anyway, I had a pretty good idea who I was in high school. Or at least, I knew what I cared about (ethics, humanity's search for the divine, playing your best game with a badly-dealt hand, kindness to others, global respect, resilience of the spirit, the priceless value of life) and what I didn't care about (fashion, dating, gossip, makeup, social status, school politics).

Which made me kind of a nerd. And a social outcast—a role I embraced wholeheartedly.

My first three years of high school were spent with one especially good friend who had similar interests, exploring exactly those things that mattered to me, and by the end of my junior year, I had a pretty good idea of why I was on the planet. But then my best friend graduated a year before me and I had rarely felt so alone and adrift. Always the questioner, I wondered if there was actually an average number of french fries served with hot lunch, and began counting my french fries at lunchtime, to see how much disparity there was from day to day. I ate alone, people-watching in the quad, and simultaneously felt a longing to be accepted and a desire to get away from it all.

High school graduation photo, 1986
From exploring the mysteries of the universe to counting my french fries seemed to be a pretty long fall to me, and I filed my senior year away as "pathetic loser." When I graduated and went off to college, I didn't look back.

I kept in touch with a very few close friends, including that one special friend, but high school held nothing other than pain for me. And so I largely ignored the reunion invitations as they came and went.

A few years ago, I became aware that it wasn't that I didn't care about my high school years. It was that I was still running away from them. And I'd done enough work on myself that I knew it was time to put those ghosts of high school to rest, once and for all.

I won't lie. I was scared shitless in the days before the reunion. That 17-year-old high school senior was afraid I'd be walking into the middle of the kind of cruel judgment that only teenagers can dish out. I was convinced they'd see me now as I was sure they'd seen me then: ugly, weird, worthless. I weighed barely 100 lbs. in my senior photo, recovering from several years of anorexia. Nearly thirty years later, after long years of doing battle with my childhood demons (there might be one or two still skulking around), I wore my scars in the form of distrust, social anxiety, depression, and weight gain. So now I was sure my classmates, many of whom were still trim and athletic and gorgeous (or appeared so on Facebook) could add "fat" to their assessment of me.

And then a weird thing happened. A shift, both subtle and profound, as I prepared myself to walk back into the haunted memories of high school. I stopped caring. Really, honestly, stopped caring what they might think. Because I know the truth: I have come a long way in my healing, my growth, my embrace of my spirit. My body will follow; I trust that now. By fully embracing myself, self-care becomes a desire rather than an unwanted obligation. Change always has to come from within.

When I graduated from high school, I was a mere eighteen months past seriously wanting to end my life. Now, thirty years later, though those intervening years were punctuated by death and unemployment and housing crises and medical challenges, I am living the life I've always wanted. I have a strong, solid marriage (25 years as of July, 30 years together), children (now teens) who still love to hang out with me, a 98-year-old house that I love being in, close friends who share those same values I've long held, a career I've dreamed of since third grade, and a clear, strong sense of who I really am.

I walked into the first of three social events at the reunion willing to be open to whatever showed up, be it criticism or acceptance, or anything in between. And I learned that while I was right about how I see myself, I was wrong about how my classmates see me. Wrong about how they'd always seen me.

I was, in fact, really, really wrong.

Many classmates shared their memories of me, and those things I was so sure they'd thought about me didn't come up at all. I started keeping track of the adjectives they used, and other than "quiet" (definitely then, and mostly out of fear, but not at all now), I was amazed at the words that came up most often:

Kind. Caring. Compassionate. Fiercely independent. Quick-witted (especially with puns). Champion of the underdog. Deep thinking (really, really deep). Poet/great writer. Badass.

Huh.

I'm humbled to say that they might have known me better than I knew myself thirty years ago. Because every one of those adjectives have been used to describe me lately, and I'd have to agree with them. ("Badass" took me a while to accept, but I'm down with it now.)

At the tree where I spent many hours
exploring the mysteries of the
universe. 2016.
I thought I'd changed so much since high school, that I barely resembled the girl I was. I think now it's less that I changed, and more that I grew into who I am, who I was meant to me. I was all those adjectives in high school, but you had to take the time to get to know me before you saw them. (The "quiet" part drowned the rest out unless you were willing to look deeper.) Now, they're big and obvious. "Quiet" is my default only when I'm under a lot of stress.

I went to my high school reunion, thinking that I'd show them—and myself—how much I'd changed for the better. And I did this weekend walk those familiar paths between classrooms with more confidence and contentment and clarity than I ever felt in that place. Already, I was no longer haunted by high school.

But the surprise for me was that my classmates showed me that they'd seen who I really was all along. And for that gift, I thank them.
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