I survived my 40th high school reunion yesterday without embarrassing myself too much or giving in to the group surge of “Let’s only talk about funny-fun stuff we did!” It was the very first invitation I had received from the school where I spent three anxious years during pretty much the worst years of my life.
I arrived as a sophomore, which was rare for a class that had bonded as little girls at Catholic grammar schools spread out all over San Francisco.
While I was away at summer camp, My Toxic Mom had thrown out all my clothes hanging in my closet, replacing them with two red-white-and-blue plaid skirts, four white Peter Pan collar style shirts, a few pairs of knee socks and one scratchy wool sweater. That’s how I knew she had enrolled me at Mercy.
Immediately exempted from attending chapel or other religious events, I was told to read in the library. And because no one ever said I couldn’t, I started reading whatever I wanted. I would lay on the carpet several hours a day and read biographies mostly, searching for lives that mirrored mine in some way.
My home life was so chaotic and unbearable that I had trouble focusing on any organized study effort. I had no understanding of cycles of a school year, that study led to quizzes and semesters meant finals. Every day was a distinct event, unconnected to the previous day or creating a path to other days. Quite frankly, because I was living in a terror-driven home, each morning I arrived at school I took a deep breath of relief that I had survived the night.
I was that kid that sat in the back, looking out the window. My low grades reflecting my state of mind. I can see how some teachers could write me off.
I had very few friends then, none of which I had kept up with. So, imagine my surprise when a woman sidled up to me like a former con I had served time with. She spoke out of the side of her mouth, telling me quickly who else might show and that she had saved some seats for us — in the back.
We were all wearing name tags with our enlarged senior photos. While we bought drinks to get through the lunch I stared at hers. I knew who she was, but didn’t really remember her very well. But she remembered me. At one point she said that she always thought that I had a hard time in school.
“Well, yah. But I had a terrible home life. I really wish I had embraced school more, but I just wasn’t able to. All the girls seemed so connected and I wasn’t part of that,” I said with a smile.
“I think you alluded to your home life once, but I had no idea it was really that rough,” she said.
“Well, kids get through it because they have no perspective. They have nothing to compare it to. It’s a blessing really,” I replied.
We kept talking about our lives now and the things that we’re passionate about and we ran into a couple of other girls who used to be part of the little group of misfits that sat on the lawn to smoke and trade stories about boys and bands and stealing our parents cars. Two of our group had babies early. I realized while we were talking that most of the girls I knew then were outsiders, one way or the other. They had a common history of showing up randomly, looking lost, being brought into the circle, and then either leaving school suddenly, or drifting off like I did. I had forgotten that we’d flirted with guys in motorcycle gangs, that we used to hitchhike in our uniforms, that we rolled our skirts up so high the hems sat rigidly atop the seats of chairs.
All around us at the reunion, gaggles of women in groups of five or six or seven, linked their arms and bodies together and jumped up and down squealing with delight at simply being in each other’s company. We sure didn’t. The noise and energy got to be too much for me so I walked down to the girls bathroom, the scene of so much former teen drama. The expression of reunion happiness was nauseating me.
I managed to get through a very nice chicken salad lunch with warm (cat-piss) chardonnay and a PowerPoint “in memoria” presentation of about a dozen girls in our class of 223 that have died. Then there was another show of snapshots of all the fun our class had at school plays, dances, and ski trips that I never attended. I wondered if I had been capable of signing up and showing up could I have changed my high school experience? Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a certain sister (not a sister anymore, I heard) who once told me that I should set my sights on a career in retail. She was sure I could get a job at The Emporium Dept. store.
I went to the bathroom again.
As I stood there combing my hair I was composing the hallway speech I would give to the sister informing her of everything I had accomplished in my life despite never being helped or supported or even seen in any way. It took me awhile, but I found my life path and had built a grand life — she needed to know.
The group photo was scheduled for a few minutes hence and several women were fixing their faces. One said she couldn’t take the NOISE in that room and I agreed. As she opened the door, she turned to ask me “Are you going back in?”
“I’m not really sure I can.” I said with a smile.
But I did head back to the assembly room just as everyone was heading out double doors to the front of the school to have a professional photograph taken on risers under the school banner.
I took a few steps to join the group but stopped short. I realized that nobody needed to hear my speech, least of all the person who had never really seen me in the first place.
“I can’t do this.” I said to myself. “And I don’t have to.”
It wasn’t until I was outside near my car that it suddenly hit me that, because of the way I had parked, I literally had to drive past the entire class of 1973 posing in the blustery cold. Everybody – or nobody – would see me leaving and I didn’t much care.
I was meeting my husband in North Beach to listen to live jazz at the Savoy Tivoli. It was our anniversary and after dinner we’d go to see Sam Shepherd’s “Buried Child” at the Magic Theater. I had faced the past and that was enough. It was time to get back to the best years of my life.