Last weekend a friend and I volunteered at our coach’s 20th high school reunion. We were told we would be there for four hours signing attendees in, directing foot traffic, setting up, and bouncing a rowdy few if necessary. Thankfully no bouncing was involved, though I would have loved tackling a bunch of unruly guests while wearing heels and a cocktail dress. Honestly, with the promise of cash, free dinner, and a chance to dress up, our coach was doing us the favor. I haven’t had an excuse to dress up in months and my daily outfit consists of tennis shoes, running shorts and a cut-off t-shirt.
Since the event, I have come to the realization that high school reunions serve as the sequels to senior prom, as well as the epilogues of a four-year journey.
The tables were set, the DJ was ready, the final touches were being put into place, and the guests were to arrive any minute. There was a projector off to one side, playing a loop of old photos and home videos from the class of 1994. The camera bobbed along the locker-filled halls of a West Springfield High School, bouncing from one student to another, and periodically settling on a group who would smile and wave.
There was an old yearbook and football helmet on a table that was set off to one side of the foyer. Both the yearbook and the helmet had seen better days; the two were discolored and a bit tattered, but admired all the same.
To the other side of the foyer was a second table, two pictures rested on either side of it, each with a candle set off to the side. These were the students who had passed. Our coach brought us across the table, explaining its significance and telling us that this would be a reality for us one day. But it already was a reality. I imagined what this table would look like for Chico Senior High School’s class of 2011. In the three short years since graduation we have already lost too many classmates.
This table was a reminder of just how unpredictable and short life can be.
As I saw people enter through the lavish, country club halls, I could only imagine what they were like 20 years ago. Each name tag had a senior yearbook photo next to the name, serving as a reminder of who they were, and of what truly terrible mistakes were made in the name of ‘90s fashion.
I looked for the infamous cliques we all remember so well. The geeks, the jocks, the cheerleaders, the mathletes, the stoners – but they were nowhere to be found. Everyone mingled with one another, hopping from conversation to conversation and exchanging hugs and laughs along the way. It was as if the boundaries that divided the populations of nearly every high school had disappeared. If I had known on my first day of high school that this would be the result, my experience would have been so much different.
If seven years ago someone had sat me down and told me that my haircut, braces, dress size, where I ate lunch, what sport I played, or the status I held through high school wouldn’t mean a damn thing five, ten, or twenty years later, I don’t know if I would have believed them, but I wish someone, anyone had. For four years I made a desperate effort to be popular, to be friends with the “right” people, to be noticed. I was so determined to be noticed that I put myself before others and totally lost myself along the way.
There always seems to come a time in everyone’s life when the question is asked:
“Who are you?”
You are asked to define yourself, your essence, who you are as a person. When this time had come, I had no idea who I was. After years of concealing, adding to, and detracting from who I was, I wasn’t sure where the real me began and where the false me ended, or if it ended. I was desperately trying to break out of a box I felt was falsely labeled while simultaneously attempting to shove myself into another box of my own making – one in which I did not fit.
Then came senior year, the year it’s all supposed to change; the year it is all supposed to make sense. I had nearly completely lost my true identity and was more stressed and unhappy than I could have ever imagined. I put myself through an agonizing amount of pressure and pain to be noticed or cool or popular.
Finally, fall homecoming came around. The nominations made their way to my second period Spanish class, where I was pulled out of the lesson and told I was a senior class nominee. I was ecstatic. Me, a sometimes loud – sometimes shut in, awkward kid who was nowhere near popular, was nominated for homecoming queen. By the time the ballots were all out, and the votes in, I could hardly keep it together. The winners were announced at the season’s big basketball game. Much of the senior class was in attendance, and all of the nominees made their way to the center of the court during halftime. They listed the names of the winners over the microphone, freshman first, seniors last. When it came to our turn, my opponent and I held hands. Opponent seems like a terribly adversarial term, we had been friends for years, but at the end of the day it still felt like a competition. I knew I wasn’t going to win, and I was ready to turn around and hug and congratulate her on her new title, but then they said my name. I had won homecoming queen. We hugged and laughed and I made my way to accept my handmade crown. I was congratulated by my classmates, and hugged by people I had hardly ever spoken to. Afterward I stood off to one corner, a bit dazed.
No doors were opened, I hadn’t become popular, I had not benefited from this experience in anyway. I was so lost that I couldn’t even enjoy the moment I had been waiting four years for.
I went home before the game ended and put the crown in a box in the back of my closet. It is still there today, next to a stack of yearbooks filled with memories and smelling of Sharpie from four years’ worth of notes from friends. I always wanted to have the pages filled, to be the person that had to pay for the insert of extra pages because they had too many friends and not enough space, but I wasn’t. There were always pages left empty.
What I didn’t realize is that the absence of signatures or long notes recounting old memories didn’t detract from my worth or my identity. I hadn’t failed. The people that wrote in my yearbook were my friends, my dear friends who I had spent years with, and will continue to spend years with. Regardless of who I was or who I became over the four years of high school, these notes were from the people who were there through it all, and who cared about me, even when I didn’t – and I love them for that.
Seeing the two hundred classmates filling the banquet room last weekend made me think of the people I didn’t meet in high school, the people whose yearbooks I did not sign. If I could go back, I would sit myself down seven years ago, and tell that fourteen-year-old girl that people are what matter, not your status or your haircut or the number of AP classes you are taking. Hopefully she would understand and meet as many people as she could, and maybe even make a difference in the lives of a few of them, and write in as many yearbooks as possible, filling the pages with words of encouragement and of the tales that were to take place over the next four years. Unfortunately, I cannot go back, but I can tell you what I should have written in your yearbook:
I’m not really sure how these things go, or where to start. How do you fit four years’ worth of experiences and adventures into just a few lines, or even a few pages? They never give you enough space anyway. I remember the day we met, and how I knew you were special, and that having a friend like you would be one of the biggest blessings anyone could have. I saw your smile, your laugh, and your spirit light up a room and the lives of others, including my own. You are truly beautiful, strong, caring, and worth more than you will ever know. I cannot wait to see where your life is headed. I can only hope that I may tag along for the journey, because it will be the one books and films and legends are written about. Here’s to you, to the memories, to four years, and to many more.
All my love,