When I tell someone I’m planning to go to a high school reunion, or if I ask if they’ve gone to any of theirs, I often get the same eye-rolling response. So many have told me they couldn’t wait to get out of high school and never wanted to see those people again. This seems even more so with gay people. For us gay kids, this was so often a difficult time in life.
I lived in the same house from kindergarten through tenth grade, and went through school with many of the same kids right on through. Some of us were also “tracked” together academically, representing a particularly tight cohort.
I wasn’t unpopular, and wasn’t really bullied or picked on too badly like some of the other kids. But I got occasional taunts. Somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, some of the kids started calling me “prude.” In retrospect this seems like a weird choice of words, but I think they were picking up on how I was different. Maybe this was a more gentle, coded word for “sissy” or “queer.” This was in late 70s, purple-state suburbia, and the notion of being gay wasn’t really in the general consciousness, though I’m thinking it was in the subconscious. Hence “prude” as a label indicating something out of sorts.
What turned out to be more unsettling, and actually devastating, was not that I was picked on, but that over time I became left out and forgotten. Some of this was my own doing. As I entered adolescence, sometimes I’d become angry and pick fights with friends, or they’d pick fights with me. Eventually, I started losing friendships, and found I had fewer and fewer friends.
By high school, I had just one good friend. We went to a big high school, so big that lunch break was split into two separate consecutive sessions. As “unluck” would have it, my one friend was assigned to the opposite lunch break as me, so I had nobody to hang out with at lunch. We’ve all seen those teen movies where the rejected kid holds their tray and fretfully scans the lunch room, looking for a friendly face to sit with, and I expect some reading this have experienced this themselves. I was determined not to have that happen, so instead I took long walks alone through the neighborhood, returning to school just as lunch break ended. Sometimes I’d walk home, but if I saw my mom’s car parked in the driveway I’d turn back. I didn’t want to explain to her what was going on, let alone tell anyone else. This was my secret shame, and to this day there are very few people I’ve shared this with.
Halfway through high school, my dad got a job out of state, and we moved. Even though I was at my lowest point with so few friends, I bitched and moaned. But I think a part of me sensed an opportunity for escape. I was scared, but could it be any worse? When we moved away, it was a quiet disappearing act as I hardly said goodbye to anyone. We just packed the truck and left.
I moped my way through junior year at my new school, but also started to make friends. By senior year, I’d made a number of friends, many more than I had at my previous school. I attended winter formals and proms, and by the end of senior year was even dating a girl (but that’s a story for another time).
I graduated high school in the mid 1980s. There was no Facebook, and for that matter no internet, so keeping in touch with people was not as easy as it is now. I’d see friends over holiday breaks from college, and I’d keep in touch with my closest friends through letters and the occasional phone call. But for the most part, classmates from both of my high schools were far in the rearview mirror. Sometimes I wondered what was up with a particular classmate, but there wasn’t an easy way to find that out. I figured at some point I’d see them at a reunion, but I wasn’t in any hurry.
I missed my first round of reunions. The 10th year reunions were in the mid 90s, and although the internet was gaining traction, it was still hard to find people. I don’t think either of my high schools knew where to find me, and I wasn’t in any hurry to be found. By the 20th reunions, it was easier to find people and I think classmates.com existed, but I still was not in any hurry to revisit that stage of my life.
It wasn’t until Facebook came along that I began to really get in touch with classmates from my childhood. Kids I’d known since kindergarten were now 40-something adults. It was exhilarating but also weird to get in touch with people I hadn’t been in contact with for more than two decades. Underlying this was the bad feelings of having been estranged all those years ago.
Getting back in touch with people, I was surprised how many people had positive recollections of me, even when sometimes I didn’t remember them much at all. One woman told me she remembered me as always smiling. Yet I could barely place her or recall any experiences we’d had together.
Through Facebook I confided in one friend the dismay at having been so isolated in those high school years. I’d known her since kindergarten, and was thrilled to find we still had a great rapport even after all these years. She said she did not remember me falling off the radar, and told me she was having with her own problems at the time. In high school she had been popular and even dated a guy on the football team, but said under the surface she was struggling. “We were all messed up, it’s just that some of us were better at not showing it than others,” she told me.
So when the 25th reunions were announced on Facebook, I was determined to go. By now I was older and more confident, out of the closet, and wanting to reconnect with some of these people who I’d grown up with. I was less interested in going to the reunion of my second high school, since I’d only been there two years and had already been maintaining contact with a handful of friends. But for that first high school, part of it was a feeling of unfinished business. All these years I’d been haunted with grudges and regret, and now I was ready to face that shit down.
I arrived to the reunion alone, but quickly found some of the friends who I’d reconnected with on Facebook. It was interesting how much people still looked like I’d remembered, just aged a bit and looking like adults. Generally speaking, the women had aged better than the guys, and some of the women were truly beautiful. This included a girl I’d connected with on Facebook who had also been labeled “prude” (not to mention a “goodie-goodie”) when we were kids. Yet now she was devastatingly gorgeous. I’d been in touch with her before the reunion and we each promised to attend if the other came too. She had always been smart, and now had an impressive career as well. She confided that she’d had more than her share of bumps along the road including an unplanned pregnancy and a divorce, but now she was remarried and things had really come together for her.
I also reconnected with one of my friends who I’d had a fight with all those years ago which had ended the friendship. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to approach this history, but it never came up. Maybe it was forgotten, or maybe it was ignored, I don’t know. Twenty-five years later, does it matter? We talked about our families and jobs, but never ventured into that territory.
I’m terrible at saying goodbyes, so when I felt I’d seen and talked to enough people, I just headed out the door without a word and drove away. I’d heard that some people were planning an after-party at a nearby resort, but for me this was plenty. I’d dipped my toes back into the waters of the past, but didn’t feel I was ready to take the full plunge.
What was most interesting, though, was how cathartic this was. The ghosts from the past that had been following me around all these years were suddenly gone. I could even visualize it… wisps of darkness rising into the sky and vanishing to nothingness. All those grudges and regrets, just gone.
Fast forward five more years to the 30th reunions. This time I went to the reunions for both high schools, but as before my interest was mostly with the first high school with everyone I’d grown up with. By now, I’d been in more frequent correspondence with classmates, and we’d shared more of our trials and tribulations with each other. I thought back to the words of my friend who had said that everyone was messed up in some way back then. We had all just been trying to find our ways as best we knew how. It allowed me to relinquish what was left of resentments, realizing that many of us were dealing with all kinds of crap when we were in school and everyone had their own ghosts to contend with. Sure, there were some true dickheads, but now I had the maturity to recognize them for what they were and not project it on myself.
In the hotel ballroom of that 30th reunion, at one point I looked around the room and thought to myself, “this is a room full of middle-aged people.” And of course, I was right there with them in my middle age. Whereas maybe some were dismayed at getting older (with all that entails), for me getting older and reaching middle age brought a confidence and assurance I had never had as a kid or young adult.
At one point I was walking among the crowd with my drink and started talking with a woman who I had admired when I was in school, but had not known very well. As we chatted, I found her funny and engaging – what a great woman! Then without much forethought I said, “You know, I was always so impressed with you in high school. You were so smart and together, and I really admired that.” Maybe this was a bit too frank or forward, but I thought to myself, why not? At first she looked a bit surprised (or at least that’s what I thought), but then he smiled and said she appreciated it. It’s not something I would have been comfortable saying to someone when I was younger, or even five years ago, but now it felt right.
Unlike the first reunion, this time I did not sneak out the door. As the night wore on, it looked like the room was emptying out, and word was that people had been moving down to the hotel bar. So I went down to the bar and found some of my friends, including my formerly-prude cohort and her husband. A bunch of us sat around a fire pit with our drinks, and the conversation was lively and friendly. I talked to a guy who had been on the football team, who was now working as an artist and furniture maker. He showed me some of his work on his phone, and it was great stuff. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to him one-on-one in school, but now we were having a really great conversation. Then across the fire pit was another guy who casually mentioned his husband… I had had no idea he was gay. Finally, another gay guy to talk to!
And that would be the footnote here. Through Facebook, I’d learned a number of classmates had come out as gay, but none of them attended the reunions. I’d asked a few of them if they would come, but the answer was always that school had been too painful and they didn’t want to look back. I get that, and certainly that was my case for many years. So when I attended the reunions, I was one of the only out people there.
Another reunion is coming up. I’m signed up, and even helping with some of the organizing. I’m also trying to get some of the gay classmates to attend. I tell them how great it was to be able to chase those ghosts away, to put the past to rest, to throw that baggage overboard. Like coming out, everyone needs to do it at their own pace and on their own time, but there is something to be said with making peace with the past.
This post was first published on the Bare InkSlinger blog.