The Meaning of High School and Reunions: BS Reunions? #mendelcollege



You read that right…

High School… Who cares, right?

Someone contacted me on LinkedIn this week. Someone from High School. He asked me whether I was going to our HS Reunion this year. I haven’t been to any of them as far as I can remember and it has been more than thirty years since I graduated from there. Plus, the school is in The Netherlands, so every year I have a solid excuse, for who travels thousands of miles to relive those wretched high school days?

High School. Were you happy in High School?

My kids went through the American school system and when they went to their High School here in California, there was a deep disconnect with my memories. We had no cheerleaders or football teams. We didn’t have a swimming pool or water polo players either. The extreme sport and conditioning my kids had to engage in was also a very American notion and my god, I wish my HS (Mendelcollege, Haarlem) had a Drama Department like Miramonte has.

American HS experiences have been glamorized and mythologized in American movies but there is also a very dark side to American HS, because it is truly a popularity contest at times. In fact, it is a rather ruthless and cruel scene for the girls who don’t feel as pretty, popular or as smart as the clique they would love to belong to. Mean girls are the meanest sons of bitches in HS… After which they become press secretaries for Donald Trump.

And then there are the parties, the binge drinking and the plethora of drugs– that’s a part of HS I wasn’t familiar with either. I can hardly remember drinking much at school parties at all and I didn’t need a prom dress or a partner or a line of coke to make me feel better about myself. Nice, you might say, not to have all that baggage and hoopla, but prom or no prom, I think lots of people remember HS with mixed feelings, if not anguish. It was a time of becoming and evolving and the biggest tragedy was if you had “peaked” already in HS. Most of us peak after, if we peak at all.

My elementary school was a very happy time but then puberty sort of coincided with taking Latin and Greek and it all went downhill from there. I became very introverted, related for most of my HS days to Janis Ian’s brilliant song At Seventeen (those of us with ravaged faces/lacking in the social graces/desperately remained at home/inventing lovers on the phone …  it isn’t all it seems… at seventeen), and dreamed of graduating and leaving all of that debilitating awkwardness behind.

So do I have any good memories, you ask? Any nostalgia? Maybe.

I remember certain teachers and did fall in love with languages and learning English in particular, a language I found (and still find) far more nuanced than my native Dutch. The school, started by priests, was known for its academic discipline. I went for the equivalent of what people in Britain refer to A levels (Gymnasium B), so I learned to work hard, a work ethic that’s still with me today. For that I’m grateful, but the rest is a hodgepodge of cringeworthy memories and mostly… regrets.

Socially awkward and shy, I regret not having reached out to others who were more alike than I dared to assume. Like a journalist friend whom I barely exchanged a word with in HS, but whose path I crossed many years later, and when we started e-mailing, we realized we had both been devoted readers and lovers of books and we wondered out loud why we hadn’t been better friends in HS. We learn to have more open minds when we actually venture out in the world but in HS we are too busy dealing with our adolescent acne-scarred selves to bother to look around us. I wish I had been more open. I wish I had reached out to that one unhappy and unpopular kid in my class (like I was for a large part myself) and I wish I had actually thanked that one teacher who made a difference.

After HS, I blossomed, as a student in Leiden, the US and Great Britain. I got my PhD at Radboud University in Nijmegen, which was followed by my first book with an American publisher. But those are just resume data points. My biggest success was a personal one in that I could ditch Janis Ian, even though the song still brings tears to my eyes because I felt like such a fucking loser in HS.

As a result, I never liked Dutch guys very much, a romantic hangover from my HS days for sure, so I vowed I would find myself a foreigner instead. And I did, dear reader, and married him. After emigrating to the US, I taught briefly in Arizona and Colorado, then took some time off to raise my kids and resumed my career in academia, writing and publishing. I had some level of success but can’t say I have peaked. If anything, I have failed on many levels. But I’m still in love with my husband and don’t know for the life of me how I ended up with kids whom I admire and respect and love more than I love myself. I find this humbling because the scar tissue from my HS days tells me I’m not worthy.

So… is attending a HS Reunion a masochistic exercise, and if so, why go?

As I’m writing this I’m reminded of that movie Romy’s and Michele’s High School Reunion in which two ditsy girls who haven’t quite gotten their professional lives together invent a story about themselves… at their reunion, they will tell everyone they’re the inventors of Post-It Notes. The premise of the movie alludes to the baggage of HS reunions… there’s a perception that only the successful people attend so they can brag about their career successes, fabulous spouses and obnoxious kids. Let’s face it: many of us didn’t feel quite cool or hip in HS, so the narrative you tell about yourself at a HS reunion serves as a correction of a past image we all like to erase, or at least improve on.

This is not the reason I want to go. I want to go because I want to make peace with my HS demons. For all I care, I may tell people I’m still the same loser, living under a bridge somewhere, while spending my panhandling income on nothing but meth and booze (I almost wrote “men and booze” but at my age that would be a success story in itself). I don’t really care about the story I need to present of life after HS. I want to go and find that kid I should have connected with and thank that teacher who sparked something in me that’s still with me.

And when all is said and done, I want to walk away from that school and say to myself, Wow, I still don’t fit in but I met some of the greatest people. Best day ever I had in that building. Life is good.

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