16: Common Ground

16: Common Ground

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

Common Ground

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.

~Wayne W. Dyer

I maneuvered my rental car off the highway onto the main drag of the small town I had lived in nearly a lifetime ago, searching for the hotel I’d booked for my thirtieth high school reunion.

I didn’t recognize a thing. “This place has really changed,” I thought. Then I realized I’d made a right rather than a left and was driving on a road that didn’t exist twenty-six years ago.

I’d felt slightly disoriented by my reunion even before I got lost on that Louisiana road. What was I doing there? I hated high school.

It was because of Facebook. Back in the early eighties, I swore that once I graduated, I’d leave for good. It was an easy vow to keep — I’d mentally packed my boxes during eleventh grade. I fled the South for New York and didn’t visit except to see my parents. Once they moved, there was no reason to return. But on our high school’s Facebook page, a couple of women posted they were organizing our reunion. “Have fun,” I mumbled to my screen. I never looked back at those days through the fuzzy nostalgia of middle age. If I thought about high school at all, it was with relief it had ended.

Then one of the organizers, a woman I hadn’t known at all in high school, as she ran with the popular crowd and I hung out with the stoners, sent me a note saying she hoped I’d attend. We’d chatted by e-mail about our kids and our ex-husbands in an easy way I never would have years ago when I kept my vulnerabilities safely stashed away in an impenetrable lockbox.

On an impulse, I bought a ticket. I was curious. What were my classmates, these virtual strangers (and, thanks to social media, virtual “friends”) like? How would it be to see each other without the screen as a buffer? On the notes line of my check, I scribbled “angst.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Indigestion. Panic attacks. Maybe a little part of me secretly hoped that those who’d been cruel were now old and fat. Maybe, actually, that part of me wasn’t so little or so secret. (Of course, I was the same age as them and couldn’t fit into my high school jean size either. But still.)

I headed off to Louisiana with one small tote packed with dresses and several huge bags of emotional baggage.

But something happened I didn’t expect. We’d changed. There were the usual physical changes: gray hair, reading glasses, wrinkles. As a group pushing fifty, though, we looked pretty great. There were also more subtle differences. There was an openness I hadn’t expected, one that only time and space allowed. Or perhaps it was me; maybe I was candid in a way I hadn’t been all those years ago, when I wore my preconception of others like Kevlar — convinced that my classmates were robotic zombies marching lockstep in their Calvin Klein jeans and flipping feathered hair out of Maybelline-shaded eyelids in unison. I wanted to march lockstep too, but didn’t know how. Each morning before school, as I unsuccessfully attempted to tame my hair into the Farrah Fawcett ’do all the other girls had, I felt like a fake. So I hid in plain sight, certain that by ignoring “them” before they ignored me, I’d win. Of course, it was hard to win when no one else was playing the same game.

At the reunion, a friend from my old social circle came up to me and we hugged. “Look, I’m shaking,” she said, holding out a quivering hand, adding, “Lori and I talked about turning around and going home.” I knew exactly how she felt. I told her that when I got to the reunion, I had to force myself to walk through the door. During the drive from the hotel, I’d morphed into a self-conscious adolescent. High school — even all these years later — provokes a visceral response. The grown-up part peels off, leaving only the burning emotional adolescent core. It’s like being sixteen again, but with better shoes and no acne. High school, even thirty years later, still messes with the mind.

Clutching my seltzer, I mingled somewhat awkwardly, but less so than thirty years earlier. Conversations with my old friends, my fellow misfits, and others I thought I’d moved on from, or at least away from, quickly skipped over small talk and went deep. None of us were as forthcoming at sixteen when we tried to wear coolness like a cloak. In my case, it was a cloak that hung awkwardly off me, the wrong size and color. Now, we felt more comfortable, collectively, in our skins. I learned about siblings and close buddies who’d died, of suicide, alcohol, AIDS. A friend told me she grew up seeing her dad hit her mom. Another friend, who’d read something I’d written about mental illness, shared that two brothers had bipolar disorder.

I was humbled by the frankness of those I thought I’d left behind, who had stayed in the South. Mistakenly and obnoxiously, I’d assumed the town and its citizens would be exactly the same as thirty years ago. But everything and everyone had changed. I’d gone from resisting authority to being it, first as a teacher and then as a parent. My town had grown up, too. It now had a burgeoning arts district and a far more diverse population. What I’d mentally accused some who’d stayed of doing — not being open-minded — I was guilty of. Don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of people at the reunion I avoided. But that’s the great thing about being an adult: Thirty years ago, I cared about what people thought; now, I cared about what I thought.

The following day, I drove my rental car to the airport after what turned out to be a very fun high school reunion (five words I never thought I’d string together), its radio station a way-back machine playing groups I hadn’t heard since then: Rush, REO Speedwagon, the Eagles. Instead of finding a station that was more to my taste, I left it on. Somewhere on the long bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, “Blinded by the Light” came on. I sang loudly and off-key and realized I had no idea what the words were. I smiled as the high school angst I’d held on to for too many years dissolved somewhere over the lake.

~Sue Sanders

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