I begrudgingly flew home to Cleveland, Ohio (Believeland!) this weekend for my high school reunion. “Begrudgingly,” not for fear of ridicule or embarrassment – but instead for fear of how I would feel about myself once back in a room of old friends and neighbors.
And I was half-right, the evening ended with me in tears. For hours. But for surprising reasons.
I was bullied as a kid, badly. Not just by my 3rd grade classmates, some of whom were at the party, but by the original instigator: our teacher: Miss J.
I remember the first time she made fun of innocent 8-year-old me, as I stood in front of the class to present a clay speed boat I had made for our “Modes of Transportation” project. I remember the entire class laughing at me, and not knowing why the laughter felt so bad. I remember uncomfortably laughing along with them, in a vain attempt to be part of whatever was so funny.
You never really get over a year of being the class punching bag. That, coupled with ongoing emotional and physical abuse throughout my childhood, convinced me that when people were mean or cold to me, it was my fault. I must have done something terribly wrong, even if I had no idea what it was.
Moving to another elementary school in fifth grade helped, but I was left with the constant lingering feeling of somehow being less-than. It wasn’t until eighth grade, when I made a few good girlfriends, did the ugly voices inside my head quiet down.
But they’ve never gone away.
Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to bring them back. A couple of women whispering as I enter a conference room, a text to a friend that goes unanswered too long – that’s all it takes to bring out that demon voice. I’ve made it my mission to fight the assumptions that rise to the surface. I use my brain to fight my wounded heart.
But I think, I hope, this reunion (that I didn’t want to attend) might actually have helped silence some of those voices for good. And helped heal that inner wound.
The event was an amazing rush of feelings and faces, some familiar and some still unknown. It was incredible, really – walking into a sea of strangers with whom you share such an intimate history. It was good to see them all, whether or not we had been close in school. We were survivors together. Survivors of our adolescence.
I felt the urge to write one of those back-to-the-future letters, to tell my insecure 16-year-old self not to worry so much about all that teenage nonsense. I’d try to convince her of how silly we all were back then, and how it all (mostly) evens out in the end.
At one point, I looked up as I was dancing the Cupid Shuffle alongside my cheerleader buddy, the class jock, the prettiest girl in our class, and the class dweeb – and was amazed to see the quarterback and two of his buddies dancing and laughing alongside us with a couple other nerds and burnouts. Everyone was nice to everyone.
The words “Never did I think…” kept rolling around inside my brain.
But what amazed me the most was how surprised I was that so many people liked and remembered me so fondly.
“Don’t you remember? I was about to lose my job at the toy store because I couldn’t make change,” my former best friend in the world, Laura, said.
“I did that?” I asked.
I was sincerely surprised that I didn’t remember that at all, though it totally sounded like me. I’d worked the cash register somewhere since I was 14-years old: the skating rink, video store… and I still remember how to make change.
“Yes! You took me home and, without making me feel stupid, taught me how to do it,” she beamed appreciatively.
“You count up! From the total to the amount they’ve given you,” I laughed.
Sadly, all these years since high school, whenever I thought of Laura I was ashamed. She and our other bestie, Diane, were SUCH good friends. They meant the world to me, all throughout high school. Then I did the thing girls should never but always do: I dropped them both cold when I fell head over heels in love for the first time our senior year. And regretted it the moment he went MIA in college.
Lesson learned, for sure. I’ve never done it again. But the guilt and shame had never left me.
Then there was Joe, my good friend and uber-talented architect, who picked me up and hugged me like family as soon as he saw me. And Matt, nice guy-turned-Silicon Valley tech-success story, who messaged me on Facebook days before the event to see if I’d be there.
“I read your stuff, it’s really good,” he told me over a drink at the bar.
I was genuinely shocked. I don’t think I ever felt that memorable, or important. And I certainly didn’t think I mattered that much.
I love my life and am so grateful for all that I have. And by comparison to so many others, I have a lot. But I am also dealing with a lot of big unknowns at the moment. By myself. I feel alone more often than I’d care to admit. It felt good to be part of something bigger for a night, and I’m proud of who we’ve become.
I want to say thank you to my classmates for helping me feel better about myself at a very unstable time in my life. You gave me a sense that I made a difference, that I am memorable.
You moved me beyond words.