Wednesday, August 25, 2004

H.S. Reunion: The Dance

In honor of my 20 year high school reunion last Saturday in Walnut Creek, California, my mother pulled out my old Las Lomas yearbooks from 1980-1984. On Thursday and Friday, I thumbed through them, but could only look at them for a short while before the sense of being smaller and less important than others overcame me. I'm one of those people who has never wanted to experience high school again, not for a second, not for anything. Looking at photos of cheerleaders and laughing girls falling over themselves for the camera only reminded me of how much laughter I didn't participate in. I guess my belief that others' lives are better than mine started earlier than I thought. I've assumed that adulthood has made me gaze at others' marriages and families in vague envy, but obviously it's an older behavior. In high school I was never popular, but always longed for it, didn't everyone? I didn't learn self-esteem and aloofness. I used my artistic talents and academic skills as best I could and tried to believe that my wallflower high school years would lead me to some incredible adult life that would justify my years of quiet patience.

If high school was an unpleasant experience of alienation, why go to my reunion? I think what was most important to me about attending my 20 year high school reunion was the feeling of history it gave me. As a nomadic loner, I make my home in places where I have no roots, no family, and no one remembers me from ten years ago. I envy people their closeness to family and friends even while I avoid it. It seems they have a sense of place, of identity, of history that I lack. I find it safest to be alone and I prefer it that way, but I miss feeling like I have a history here. Chicago holds only eleven years of my memories and the rest are somewhere else. There's a stabilizing force to being grounded in a physical place and my daily life lacks that stability. An almost tribal sense of needing to feel my roots is what drew me to the reunion of the Las Lomas Class of 1984.

On Friday afternoon my sister Judy and I walked around our old elementary school and I was surprised at how innocuous it felt. The sunny hills of Walnut Creek didn't hold the darkness I remember from my grade school years. As I breathed into the clear blue skies and scuffled along the rural boundaries of my grammar school, I saw for the first time that I actually had advantages as a child. Urban children have nothing like our access to the limitless natural setting of Indian Valley Elementary School. It was so peaceful, calm, open and free. Also, from kindergarten to fifth grade I think I didn't notice the cliques and popularity levels as much. I think I was more carefree and less self-conscious and I didn't yet know what it felt like to be excluded. That pain didn't begin until the end of my sixth grade year when I was one of few children who were not invited to Michael Keim's end-of-the-year party. That event marked the beginning of my sense of being outside or at least unappreciated, and it's a self-doubt that has never left me.

Surprisingly, as Judy and I began the weekend's reunion activities, the discomfort and pain I remembered from high school was absent and my nervousness about regressing into the frightened and insecure person I was back then turned out to be unnecessary. Everyone was so enthusiastic to see everyone else, even me, that it felt more like an affirmation of everyone's value, not a reinforcement - or even reshuffling - of old high school lunch groups. In a rare, rare experience for me, I was surrounded by people who knew who I was, who had witnessed my growing up, who had memories of me from decades ago. Those who knew me from Indian Valley addressed me as "Gina," and I remembered that I really go way back with some of them. And it was as if we had made a jump from the easy compatibility of elementary school to the all-inclusive welcoming of our reunion, with the social pecking order of high school forgotten. It was wonderful.

I was surprised at how relaxed everyone was. Some of us theorized that the ten year reunion had been more somber and stiff because we had all been establishing ourselves in the world, careers and marriages were new or still unformed, and we felt like we had to project a certain image. Now at the twenty year mark, we've let go of a lot of that need to "present," we're more comfortable with ourselves and have a better sense of what matters and what doesn't. Those who are still attached to accomplishing and who feel they've failed in some way weren't there, so the rest of us had a great time.

And how did it feel to be single and child-free while surrounded by classmates who are married with children? It was fine. I was relieved to discover that there were several child-free people who had not yet married, so I wasn't the only one. Having reached certain fitness goals also helped my confidence, although as I said there was little ego-polishing and no jockeying for position in a stale social hierarchy. Everything was good.

There was one point during the Saturday night dance when I felt so happy that I felt sad at the same time because I knew the moment and what caused it were fleeting. The boom and blare of Earth, Wind & Fire surrounded me and my classmates as we danced, swept up in the deliciousness of remembering youth while reveling in the present. I felt like I had a place in the world, a home, a starting point, if only for that night. It was like my foot touching the bottom of the pool after dog paddling for SO long; like finally seeing into the mirror from an angle that includes my own reflection. And I didn't have to give up any of the poise and accomplishment I've gained over the past twenty years. I celebrated with my classmates, who included former homecoming royalty and those who had walked the halls alone, and I was still me, Regina Rodriguez at 38 who has more sense of self than ever before. The grown up part of me didn't go away; I didn't have to lose any of it in order to fit into the reunion. My old high school class of '84 had room for me no matter how much I've changed. I didn't expect that.

I'm still bewildered at how free we all were to be who we are now and not shrink into the roles we had formerly played. It was a wonderful affirming experience of acceptance that I never would have expected from a social group formed in adolescence. Maybe I can be friends with some of them now. Maybe I can grow and change and not have to jettison everything and everyone who came before, as if any memory of me will lock me in place. I look forward to keeping in touch with people better and I look forward to retaining a sense of history and support.

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