Thursday, October 11, 2007

Facing Off With My Peers...20 Years Later

Sometime in the 19th or 20th centuries, someone came up with the idea for the "class reunion." No doubt this person (or people) were feeling nostalgic about the ol' alma mater, and the tradition quickly spread to other schools as well. Having hit a nice, round number since I last matriculated at Glenbard East High School, I decided to take the plunge and attend this event.

I've been of mixed feelings about this matter for years. Any more than two years ago, and I would've told you, "No way in HECK am I going to square off with these people again. I haven't seen them in [X] years--did it ever occur to you that there might be a good reason for that?" And yet.

My friend's mother heard me expressing the above sentiment and told me I needed to get over it. "That was a long time ago. People change." Well, maybe. However, I look at myself, and I realize how much they DON'T change, and I can't say that I'm sanguine about meeting up with people who knew-me-when. My own mother reminded me that, "You know there's a good chance they haven't changed, right?" My mother didn't have a good time in high school, either.

So why didn't I have a good time in H.S.? What was so bad that I graduated a semester early and went to go work at the local Osco Drug to save money for college rather than spend another season in the hallowed halls of GEHS? Well, isn't it obvious, given the content of this page? I was a nerd. Or, more to the point, a wimp. I got along with some folks well enough, even one or two at the higher echelons of the social scale, but on the whole, I probably should've earned an honorary letter in track, given the number of times I ran home out of fear (being chased by bullies) or depression. And, to be fair, I tend to lump my junior high experiences in with high school, since it was essentially the same cast of characters with some new extras for pain and amusement.

And it wasn't just a matter of my peers. I wasn't exactly a treat, either. My junior-year picture is truly something to behold: greasy hair, bad complexion, army shirt, unhappy expression, bad attitude. Today they'd probably peg me as someone who others would watch for "danger signs." However, I never picked up a gun--never even contemplated it, except maybe to turn it on myself--and simply looked upon the whole junior high/high school thing as something to be endured until something better came along. The secret thoughts in my head ended up as shaded science fiction--enemies were punished, the intelligent made supreme, problems were solved--or as a running monologue in my head: One day I'm going to get out of here and get to a place where I won't need to put up with irrational human beings! It turns out I was half right. I did get out and got a better job or two (more on that later). However, the errors, misapprehensions, and social errors I encountered with humanity I learned there first, so the memories are the most outstanding and the most painful. And some of those lessons didn't sink in deeply enough, because I'm still learning them.

There was the mistake I made back in fourth or fifth grade baseball, crying at a baseball game (gimme a break, I was 10 and I got hit by a fastball smack on the left elbow). Why was that a mistake? Because the kids at the game, most of whom did not go to my school, had long memories, and were eager to seek me out as a "target" when I got to the bigger schools. And the hard lesson here was, if you screw up, people have long memories.

There was the time I blew off a shy, quiet girl to go to a dance with an older and more interesting coworker. That was bad enough. Being an idjit, I then lied to her about not going and got caught in the lie because the hard lesson was, people have friends and will tell them what you're doing.

There was the time a kid who had beat me up the previous week told me he was going to leave me alone because another, tougher kid whom I happened to know told him to back off. And the good lesson here was, it's good to have powerful friends. However, there always comes a day when said powerful friend is not around; and then, of course, the lesson is, you can't always rely on your powerful friends to get you out of things. At any rate, I owe my previous powerful friends a drink, at least.

So given all this past anger, angst, aggravation (pick your "A" word), why am I going? Because it really wasn't all bad. Okay, it wasn't that great, but I did have my moments. I was a theater person--box office and backstage techie, mostly. I didn't quite have the flair for acting or the voice for singing. I worked with some good people, and even managed to have a good working relationship with the Theater Director, which wasn't surprising, given my interest in adult intellectual pursuits. I still use one of his favorite lines. When someone says, "I hate X!" and it could be a person, the weather, televangelists, what have you--Mr. H's response would be, "But they've said nothing but nice things about you." Funny guy.

There was also Ms. S, the biology/environmental science teacher, who I was pleased to see is still there, wearing her Hawaiian shirts, and no doubt showing up with a silly hat and a bad accent to be a "guest speaker" for her own classes.

There were athletes and cheerleaders who were surprisingly compassionate (on occasion). "Brains" who could respect me as a fellow intellect, even if I was lazy as a scholar. I had a great time fraternizing with my fellow nerds, writing Star Wars stories or contemplating how to run the best airline or build the best airliner ever. No, those are probably not the normal activities of a high school student, but they beat taking weapons training and plotting how to blow up the school, didn't they? I wrote some passionate fiction in those years, some of which even passes my quality filter today and which I can enjoy as simple stories. I picked up my musical tastes in those days, and it still shows up in my CD collection: Star Wars and Star Trek soundtracks, classic rock, '80s Top 40 pop.

Okay, so there's all that. I've had some positive memories of GEHS, but not enough to go back for a reunion until now. Why now? Because after 20 years, I've finally become who I wanted to be all those years ago. I've done most of the things I wanted to do: moved to Florida, worked for Disney, worked for the military (albeit as a contractor), worked as a writer supporting the space program, even finished an unpublishable Star Wars novel. If there is still trepidation, there is at least pride and not as much shame. Is there some braggin' to be done? Perhaps, but another of those "hard lessons" I learned was not to be an @$$hole about bragging. Or get in people's face about their defects. Or talk down to them. With luck, I can just show up happy. No need to be a jerk about it, just a simple, "See? I made it." And then I can close the book on that part of my life.

Of course there's always a chance that some of those people I irritated, angered, hurt, or insulted are in the mood for payback, just as much as I might feel toward other people, but I'm looking on this as a lesson in humility and human relations. And maybe it's a checkpoint in my personal development. Put me back into a room with a bunch of my former peers, where I learned most of my bad habits, and how will I act? With luck, I'll do fine; but there's always the possibility that, like everyone else, parts of me will never have grown up past high school.

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