What do you remember about your high school years? Football games? Chemistry tests? First dates?
This week, I’ve been reflecting on my high school experience with an unshakable sense of sadness. My high school graduating class held their 40th reunion last weekend. The only reunion I’ve ever attended was my 10th. One of my friends and I went out for a nice dinner together, then snuck into the reunion after registered attendees finished their rubber chicken dinner. We didn’t eat or drink anything. We tried to keep a low profile as we wandered around the room for about an hour, chatting with a few of our former classmates, then quietly exited before anyone figured out we weren’t on the guest list. I skipped the 20th, 25th, and 30th.
I must have added myself to some online list from the school, because I started getting emails about the upcoming 40th reunion several months ago. The tickets were only $139 per person.* By only, I mean “Were they kidding?” They weren’t. Mind you, John Hersey High School was located in what was then a solidly middle-class suburb of Chicago. The tab for the night was way beyond what I would have been willing to spend to do some surface-y catch up with people I haven’t seen for forty and a half years. (I graduated from high school mid-year of 12th grade, and headed directly to college after winter break.)
I suppose the cost might have been worth it if I thought there was someone there who’d remember me. I was a fringe kid back in high school. At first, I was on the fringe because I cut class every day to go smoke weed. Then I became another kind of outlier because I was a freshly-minted Jesus freak. I wasn’t a Pomberet (which is what they called the pom-pon girls, because they wore berets as part of their pom uniform) or even a member of the debate team, which was several grades lower on the social spectrum at my school. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t on the spectrum at all because I didn’t do anything at high school except go to class, and I wasn’t all that great at doing that, either. I learned early my Freshman year that my assigned role at school was to be an unobtrusive audience member while the Popular Kids held the social spotlight.
Once an audience member, always an audience member, it seems. Not going to the reunion didn’t stop nosy me from browsing through the pictures posted by some of the eighty-ish Hersey grads who attended the bash last weekend. There were another 25-35 or so who were spouses/partners in attendance as well. A better way to look at those numbers is to recognize that less than 25% of my graduating class of between 500-600 people showed up. Many of those who came to the event were the ones for whom that hefty outlay of cash was most worth it – the Popular Kids, the ones most invested in high school life.
Even if I had the money, I don’t think I could have shelled out $139 a head to walk into a room, only to hear, “Michelle Marks? I’m sorry. I don’t remember you at all.” I thought those thoughts were 58 year-old me channeling my insecure teenage self…until I heard this week from several other people from the JHHS Class of `77 who chose not to attend because they were afraid of the same thing happening to them. None of us audience members were the object of bullying or name-calling in high school. But every single one of us remembered how painful and dehumanizing it was to feel invisible – even four decades later.
If there is a take-away from this for me, it is a reminder to make sure I do my best to truly see every person who comes into my life, whether they’re a family member or a bagger-in-training at the grocery store. Make eye contact. Be fully present. Notice.
Question for you, readers: Have you attended any of your class reunions? Why or why not? What was the experience like for you?
* I was trying to figure out if this event was a little on the pricey side, so I did a little online comparison shopping. As an example, the cost of a recent 30th reunion from an upper-class suburb not far from the 60004 (it rhymes with Whyland Hark), had an early-bird registration price of $69 bucks a head.