When I consider my high school experience, my mind often conjures up a particular nightmare scenario. I’m standing in a dim and deserted corridor, just around the corner from my locker. This particular stretch of hall is unguarded by any teachers from the adjacent science or business departments, and even the principal’s office, one floor below, is just out of earshot.
I don’t recall being particularly afraid of that specific area back in the mid-90s. It doesn’t carry the same uncomfortable weight as my memories of gym class or the girls’ locker room. And yet, it makes sense that this abandoned hallway features so prominently in my unsettling dreams of those four years. All of the adults were so near, but so oblivious to any potential danger I might be facing.
Perhaps if I had been blessed with good looks, a natural talent for social climbing, or an early understanding of human hierarchies, high school would have been a breeze. Maybe I wouldn’t have woken up in a cold sweat after nightmares like mine. Or perhaps not – high school was a waking nightmare for most people, regardless of their popularity or athletic prowess.
Who you went to high school with is mostly a matter of geographic happenstance, unless you attended a private school. It was all about where your parents could afford to buy a home, which border was drawn a certain way, or a hundred other small decisions made by adults that led to you spending four years with a disparate group of teens who might only share a zip code in common.
This made sorting ourselves into various social groups all the more crucial. You could be a jock, a brainiac, a drama geek, a band nerd, a future farmer, a pothead, a "smart kid" or one of those who’d never amount to anything. Naturally, the politics of making and keeping friends was complicated, especially since everyone was growing and changing so rapidly.
For most people, high school was a horror show of hormones and humiliations. It was a four-year endurance test that consisted of daily slights and occasional physical threats. Learning was secondary to fitting in and maneuvering for social status. Once the "popular" clique was established, it was nearly impossible to break into its ranks, which made everyone else scramble to maintain whatever limited social capital they had.
Unpopularity was more contagious than a common cold, and something to be avoided at all costs – even if it meant cutting off longstanding friendships. This is something that’s been depicted again and again in high school movies, from "She’s All That" to "Mean Girls," from "10 Things I Hate About You" to "Can’t Hardly Wait." Even "Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion," which celebrates lifelong friendship, serves as a reminder of the cruelties inflicted upon the unpopular students.
So why do we keep attending high school reunions, even if we weren’t the popular kids? I can only speak for myself. This year was my 20th reunion, and despite being older, heavier, unmarried, and childless, I eagerly drove three hours north of New York City just to see what would happen.
To be fair, I also attended my 10th reunion, which was hastily organized just before Christmas. I was invited by a woman who had last spoken to me in our senior year, when she threatened to beat me up for altering the text under her yearbook photo. In 2005, I agonized over what to wear to give off an air of success and sophistication without trying too hard. When I arrived at Clinton’s Ditch, the designated bar, the organizer hugged me. I didn’t know what to make of that, so I ordered a drink and struggled to explain to a former classmate that yes, I did drink alcohol at the age of 28. Even a decade after graduating high school, my goody-two-shoes persona persisted.
Ten years ago, we were all curious about each other’s lives – where we lived, our marital status, and what we were up to. Thanks to the convenience of Facebook this summer, all those questions were answered with a quick glance at people’s profiles. However, the real unknown was how we would all interact with one another.
Although I didn’t fuss over my outfit this time, my hands trembled slightly as I applied my eyeliner. It felt a bit nostalgic to have my dad drive me to a party with people who had once made fun of my hair, pointed out my bra, or whose money I had taken while working at a mall selling clothes I couldn’t afford. Even though I’m content with my life now, it’s easy to imagine what the meanest girls would say about me, causing me to revert to my teenage self.
But one of the best things about being an adult is that we can legally mitigate social anxiety with alcohol. At my high school reunion, I followed the crowd to the bar and handed over one of my drink tickets for a steady but mediocre glass of wine. I worked on my cocktail party skills – greeting guests with cheek-kisses, asking about their children, and listening to their stories. I even ate some terrible chicken massala while listening to the local band play.
Only two guys stared at me as I said hello, reminding me of high school social hierarchy, but I didn’t let it bother me. It became clear that almost no one else cared about that social ladder either, except for two individuals who found themselves near the bottom of it.
The high school reunion was devoid of any grand reveals or sensational stories. Instead, there were a few teachers, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, an affordable housing developer, a newspaper editor, and an acupuncturist, among others. We caught up on our lives in a terribly hot room with mediocre wine. Despite all of this, we still managed to have a great time and we look forward to another reunion in the next ten years.