Tell John Hughes I want my money back
My 20th high school reunion is coming up next year, and the usual suspects have already found me on Facebook.
The pace of friend requests seems to be accelerating, as the organizers round us up and stuff us in the alumni corral.
It brings up a lot of conflicting emotions, watching these half-remembered names pop up. Bad enough to be traumatized by high school, but I’m also traumatized by the last reunion. I don’t remember what I wrote on my blog back in 1999; I just remember that I made the organizer cry.
I was trying to do a tongue-in-cheek “ha ha, isn’t this awkward” piece and accidentally released ten years worth of repressed anger. Hopefully, I can do a little better this time.
Seeing these names pop up is difficult because every time I see a name, it disturbs the narrative fiction that I’ve built up around my high school years. Shortly after graduation, I decided to purge all my authentic memories of high school and replace them with a script from a John Hughes film.
That is, I forgot everything that actually happened to me and replaced it with a hodgepodge of stereotypes from sitcom plots. I stopped thinking of my classmates as authentic, 3-dimensional people and recast them as wacky 80’s movie characters.
I stopped referring to them by their names and slapped handy labels on them: The Jock, The Cheerleader, The Bully, The Grit, and The Jerk. By the time my 10th reunion rolled around, I had rewritten the story of my life and stripped these people of everything that made them human.
Now, every time I see a name pop up, I have to face what I did and confront how wrong I was. I see those names pop up, and I realize, not only did I misjudge these people — the whole story of my adventures in high school — my whole concept of who I was at 18 years old, is based on things that just aren’t true.
Here’s the story I made up. Stop me if this sounds familiar: I had six friends in high school. Everyone else hated me.
I hung out with a core group of like-minded nerds, and everyone else in school either hated us, resented us, felt quietly superior to us, or actively made fun of us behind our backs.
Classic movie plot. The perfect foundation for a book, a play, or a movie script. But it didn’t actually happen.
Sure, there were plenty of competing cliques in my school, and everybody got laughed at from time to time, but the “cool kids” were too wrapped up in their own drama to care about us, and the vast majority of people didn’t belong to anything at all.
And here’s the interesting part. The people organizing this reunion aren’t the cool kids who led everything when we were in school. Today I’m hearing from the “normal” people, the unaffiliated people, the people who didn’t fit into neat categories. And with each name that pops up, I realize how skewed my perception was.
I painted myself as the victim, in my fuzzy memories of high school — a sympathetic loner just like all those John Cusack roles. But I was a victim with no oppressor — a nerd with no bully — a lonely hero with no reason to be lonely and no villain to match myself against.
I kept waiting to be abused by an obnoxious football star or an evil foreign exchange student, but our football stars were all decent guys and the only foreign exchange student I remember is a Finnish girl who needed help with Algebra.
I see these names on Facebook as a series of missed opportunities — a series of friends I almost had — a set of experiences I cheated myself out of. I was so sure these people would reject me, I rejected them in advance, for no reason at all.
I feel wistful and a bit guilty about this, but not quite guilty enough to overcome my fear of reunions. Reunions feel like a kind of extended beauty contest. Make your way through the formal dress and talent competitions, present your essay on What You’ve Done With Your Life, and wait for the judges to weigh in.
Of course, there are no judges waiting for me at the punch bowl. I’m old enough to know that now, and maybe, if I grit my teeth, I can look back to 1989, and realize there were never any judges at all.