Exit 26. And now, 20 years later, no one cares.

If you are my friend in real life right now, then this weekend you saw me tagged in a bunch of pictures on Facebook having a great time with people who you’ve never seen before.  Who are these people? you might be asking.  Do you have a secret second group of friends that you spend time with?  Why haven’t I ever met these other friends of yours?  Are you sneaking around on us?

For one thing, I’m being dramatic here; if you’re really thinking that, you’re too clingy.  But seriously, those people were my friends from high school.  This weekend was my class reunion.

I told a few people this last week that I was going to my high school reunion.  One response I got repeatedly, particularly from females in their early 20s, was something along the lines of “I don’t ever want to go to my high school reunions.  I only had three friends in high school, I still see all of them, and the rest of my class were a bunch of backstabbing jerks and bitches.”  Some people have this stereotype that at high school reunions, that people stay in their cliques and act just as immature and dramatic as they did in high school, putting people down who don’t meet their shallow standards and making people feel badly about themselves.

My recent high school reunion, as well as the last one 10 years ago, were the exact polar opposite of that stereotype.

It was a fairly small crowd, considerably smaller than the last one.  But it was a crowd that included people from many different walks of life and high school social circles.  There were old friends who I’m sporadically in Facebook contact with, old friends I haven’t seen in 19 or 20 years, people I had classes with but didn’t know well, and people I barely knew at all.  And everyone was so nice and so happy to see each other.  Saturday night we met at a bar, and I had dinner with a smaller subset before that.  Sunday afternoon, we had a family-friendly barbecue and picnic, so that we could meet everyone’s children and look at old yearbooks and pictures and talk about how funny everyone’s hair was 20 years ago.

High school was a very interesting time for me.  I felt like I transcended cliques, and I never felt like there were people I didn’t want to see, because I stayed out of petty drama.  I kept to myself a lot for the first two and a half years and mostly only talked to people when they were asking me for help in class.  I didn’t shy away from all school activities, though; I went to football games, about half the dances (where I would spend a lot of time watching and occasionally get on the floor and be an awkward white boy), and drama and dance performances (because I knew people in them).  I started spending more time with people the last year and a half, and I got involved in more student activities as well.  I spent most of the time around the other students in honors and AP classes.  But I also had friends in the band and student government circles, because they were the rest of the students in the AP classes, and friends from other groups, because we had a class together at some point, or knew each other in middle school before the honors students’ schedules began to diverge.

I was really afraid of a lot of things, though.  I grew up very sheltered, and I didn’t really know how to make friends or be a friend.  I was used to getting teased and bullied all the time, and I wasn’t used to people being nice to me.  But most of my high school classmates actually were nice to me.  I was talking to someone about this over the weekend, and she said that no one really knows who they are in high school, that I wasn’t alone in being scared and confused.  I think the difference is that a lot of people put up a façade to get people to like them, whereas I just didn’t actively try to get anyone to like me.  But occasionally people would see the real me peeking through, and they probably liked what they saw, because, especially as I got older, friends would invite me to things and encourage me to get involved.  I did to some extent; the time I was in a skit in front of the whole school, playing Butthead, still feels like a major turning point in my life.  But I also turned some invitations down, just because I was afraid and unsure of myself.

I think a lot of the things that kept me from doing more in high school were just in my head.  In addition to being afraid and sheltered, I also felt like an outsider.  I didn’t grow up with those kids, and even though I went to school with them from the middle of 7th grade onward, it took a few years to get over the feelings of being an outsider.  The reason I felt like an outsider was a secret that I had kept for 26 years, until last night.

This high school serves a number of rural and semi-rural communities in the area north of two medium-sized cities on California’s Central Coast.  But I did not live in any of those communities.  I actually lived in one of the two nearby cities (the less glamorous one, according to most people), three blocks from another high school.  My dad went to that other school, class of ’67, and my brother went to that other school, class of 2000.  (Mom went to Catholic school in that same town.)  Only a few close friends knew that I lived in town, and the ones who knew never knew how I ended up at their school.  And I had never told any of them until this weekend, when it came up in a few conversations.

From April of 5th grade to October of 7th grade (1987-88), I was in a full day special education class for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.  I was the kid who was teased and bullied constantly, and I would just sit there and take it and take it until I had a violent outburst.  During that year and a half, there were never more than 10 students in the class, and they were almost all boys who were far less successful in mainstream classes than I was.  Eventually it came to the point where they were talking about gradually transitioning me back to mainstream classes, so from October until January of 7th grade I was only in the special ed classes for half the day, and I started taking three periods at a regular public middle school.  For logistical purposes, combined with the fact that I wanted a fresh start away from my childhood bullies, I would walk half a mile from the school that hosted the special ed class to the middle school in that town, which was nine miles from my house, one town over from where I lived.  After a few months (January 1989), that was going well enough that I started going there for the full day, and from then until my graduation in June 1994, I attended school in that district with kids from those towns.  Given my history of being bullied and teased for just about every reason, it’s perfectly understandable that I didn’t want my friends to know that I had spent a year and a half in a class for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.  Right?

One of my friends whom I told that to last night, when I mentioned that this was the first time I’d ever shared that, said, “And now, 20 years later, no one cares.”  She’s totally right, which is why I’m sharing it on this very public blog where anyone in the world might read it and share it with their friends.  My friends in high school were able to accept me even though I was a little different, and that has only gotten better with time.

I’ve always known that I’d want to go to every high school reunion.  I grew so much as a senior, and then abruptly everyone graduated and scattered.  I’ve often wondered how much more I might have grown had I had one more year with those friends.  I can’t change that now.  But what I can do is make more of an effort to keep in contact with these people.  My Class of 1994 friends really were a special group that made a big difference in my life.  And after this weekend, I know I’m glad to have these people in my life.  Hopefully I’ll see some of you again soon without waiting another five or ten years.

And a postscript: While I stayed out of drama in high school, I did unfriend someone from high school a couple years ago on Facebook for petty reasons.  He commented to one of my friends to say hi to me even though I unfriended him.  As soon as I got home that night, I apologized and re-friended him.

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