Our 20 year high school reunion is coming up this week.
As it’s taking place on the other side of the world I won’t be able to attend, but the event – and the milestone it symbolises – has raised some interesting discussions and emotions.
You know the ones.
The hyper-awareness of the passing of time. The over-examination of our lives prompted by the prospect of Going Back. That horrible but oh-so-inevitable tendency towards comparison when you put together a group of girls who were all doing the same thing 20 years ago, and then shine a spotlight on the different paths they’ve chosen since. The stubbornness of those teenage insecurities and anxieties – long buried – now bubbling, unwelcome, to the surface. The friendships that have endured the years since that time and the ones that have not – those that hit bumps in the road which threw them wildly off course, and those that just petered out quietly, the years getting the better of them.
So many feelings – so entirely dictated by our own unique experiences of those shared years.
Is this why Romy and Michelle told everyone they’d invented Post-Its?
I’m one of those people whose memories of high school are largely happy ones. I know this isn’t the case for everyone (or most people, even) – and I wonder if there was a formula. But looking back I think, more than anything, it was luck. My friends and I seemed to land in that sweet spot, far enough below the radar that we escaped the need to be “cool”, but not far enough to invite negative attention. We followed the path of least resistance: abided by the rules, wore the correct colour hairbands and shade of socks, did our homework and got decent grades. We also went to parties on the weekends and blagged our way into nightclubs before it was legal, and there were boyfriends and boy friends and our fair share of cat fights and bad choices.
But we muddled through and for the most part I was happy. To this day our school song leaves me with a catch in my throat and my best friends then are my best friends twenty years (and five countries) later – which makes me feel pretty lucky.
But as Baz Luhrmann said in the 90s, “Your choices are half chance; so are everybody else’s.” Not everyone had the benign experience I did – especially in a private, all-girls’ school where pressure was rife and “achievement” was measured within only so many parameters. And so while I feel sad not to be joining my classmates in a few days’ time to drink champagne and reminisce about our favourite English teacher or the day a box of matches was found in the girls’ toilets, I know now in a way I wouldn’t have 20 years ago that a pull from the past isn’t quite so welcome for everyone.
I wonder if I might even feel a small tug of anxiety or nervousness or ego myself if I wasn’t sitting comfortably all these miles away. If I was going, would I feel a need to prove to my former classmates that I’ve fulfilled my potential? What does my potential even look like? What happened to the last 20 years? Do I have “enough” to show for them? What does “enough” look like?
I have few bad memories to protect myself from, but I like to think I’d go into our reunion week wearing the last 20 years like an armour – and that everybody else would do the same. I hope that the experiences we’ve had since those short shared five years together – years which have had such a lasting impact on our futures, now already so far lived – would protect us from any intruding unhappiness or insecurity.
I wasn’t much of a public speaker at school – the undivided attention of an audience always made me a bit breathless and tongue-tied — but as I have distance and these words on paper to protect me now, this is what I would say to my former classmates if they were listening:
Welcome to wherever you are.
(Okay, so I stole that one from my great love of the 90s, Jon Bon Jovi – sorry. I told you I wasn’t cool. But the sentiment stands so I’m rolling with it…)
Welcome to wherever you are. Just like that, we have been adults longer than we were children, but none of us have this figured out.
Some of us have the careers we dreamed of when we were young women in scratchy uniforms and unbecoming brown lace-ups. Others have changed paths time and time again and are still working out what we want to do. Most of us sit somewhere in the middle and are still feeling our way.
Some of us are parents, some never want to be, and some are somewhere in between. Some of us had babies and left our careers behind – and have been feeling shaky, guilty and a bit judged ever since. Some of us had babies and didn’t leave our careers behind – and have been feeling shaky, guilty and a bit judged ever since.
We were once the women of the future who were told we could do and have it all, but now we know from experience, that wasn’t strictly true. Because nobody actually told us “it all” comes in drips and drabs rather than all at once, and never – never – in the packaging we thought it would. “It all” doesn’t look like it says on the box and it has the power to make us feel like a total failure even as we keep reaching for it regardless. “It all” is a mirage, and if it looks like some of our classmates have achieved it then an honest conversation would dispel the illusion right away.
You are exactly where you are supposed to be – as am I, as is everybody else – even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Do not apologise or feel less than, and I will try not to either.
I would also say that I hope the years that have fallen as they may since we made our final exit from the school gates will prop you up as you return – no matter how you’re feeling. I hope you feel at peace with who you are and that you will bring that person when you come – because everyone will want to meet her.
And finally, I would say I wish I could be there too, to share with you some of the imperfect and incomplete and frustrated and joyful and fulfilled and happy and “just muddling along” parts of who I’ve become in the years since we last met. I wish I could clink glasses with my oldest friends in the place where we met, and I wish I could clink glasses with the ones I never took the time to really get to know and say, “Hey, we should have been friends.”
I would say I wish I could “come back after many years and think fondly of the things that we remember. And the friends that we made then – these will be friends forever.”
Everyone’s a spark
And in the night
Together we make a light
A fire burning bright.
Ad Dei Gloriam.
(Pictured: Two of my best women. Photo used entirely without their permission.)