I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I would at my 40th high school reunion, but I cried a bit more than anticipated.
You think you remember a lot from high school. Actually, you do. But you’ve forgotten a lot, too, so be prepared to have your historical constructions rearranged.
As my son prepares to graduate --- in the spring, I hope he can look back four decades later, as I have, and come away grateful for his life and appreciative of the privilege of still being on the planet. Not everyone makes it this far.
First, if you’re planning on going, give yourself a pat on the back for taking a brave step. Also, keep expectations low. It’s probably not the time to right old wrongs. Be prepared to accept one of my sayings: Life is cumulative. Your decisions and actions result in something. Be ready to be grateful, even smug at times, but also to understand regret if it stares you in the face.
The way I got through it all was by taking my oldest and dearest friend along. She moved away before high school but had known many of my friends. Plus, she has an uncanny ability to recognize faces changed by years of who knows what -- roads taken or not, decisions made or put off, and too many diets that succeeded or failed.
When I got notification of the reunion, I had recently concluded my lifelong to-do list. It included being a Washington reporter, getting a Ph.D., having a couple of kids and buying at least one brand-new car (that was eight years ago). So, I wanted to see how my list stacked up against my classmates’. I imagined lots of joking and do-you-remember whens.
I knew I had my friend convinced to go when I got the list of attendees. On it was a name we had repeated often over the years: Steve Walters.
Think 14, white-blonde hair, piercing blue eyes with black lashes, calculatedly cool motor scooter, ID bracelet waiting for a “steady” date. My friend and I had both possessed that coveted chunk of silver at different times. He was our first boyfriend, and he was going to be at the reunion.
When we walked up to the check-in table at the meet-and-greet fish fry at Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club in Shreveport, LA, we got so caught up in the hugs and “Oh-my-Gods” that I actually forgot about Steve. But my friend was scoping out the room, and then, in the middle of my bite of catfish and hush puppies, said, “I think that’s him.” I didn’t know whom she was talking about, especially after I took a look at the short, bald fellow who wore Western jeans of an odd green color.
“Oh my God, Steve?” I asked, finally catching on. “No, that can’t be him. I think he’s that nice looking, gray-haired guy over there,” I added, noticing for the first time that there was a sea of like-colored heads among the room of about 100.
After a stealth mission involving getting close enough to read his name tag, my friend had somehow seen beyond the years to identify the Steve we had giggled over for decades. We gathered our wits for what turned out to be a disappointing encounter – one in which Steve remembered nothing about either of us, and, yet, seemed eager to want to get reacquainted, possibly immediately at a nearby hotel. It was a short conversation.
We couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mother, who amazingly, also remembered Steve Walters and his motor bike.
On Day Two, we did a walking tour of my high school after a ceremony for those who didn’t live to see their 40th reunion, and there were quite a few of those – Linda Inglehart with the beautifully streaked, waist-length hair whom I used to walk behind and try to imitate; Paul Winters, who took me to prom junior year; Debbie Stinson, of course, whose house was near mine and didn’t live through senior year due to a car accident; and Steve Brandeis, whom I once kissed briefly and illicitly.
As I walked the same hallways they used to walk, I started to experience a parallel universe. I went into the girls’ bathroom and could have sworn I saw myself, staring into the long mirror, measuring the progress of my bangs as I grew them out junior year. I had a four-decade-old urge to sneak a cigarette.
But it was on the way home that the real out-of-body experience occurred. On impulse, I pulled the rental car into the circular drive at our former middle school.
My friend of 43 years and I walked to the outdoor breezeway, taking courage in each other’s presence. The memories came slowly at first but gained momentum with each step.
Shocked at the state of the low-slung utilitarian buildings, which seemed stuck in time, we said nothing as our brains churned out images faster than we could put them into words.
We hurried our pace, trying to keep up with the memories -- turning here, then there, accurately predicting the names of the rooms as we approached: Choir Room. Cafeteria. Gym.
We peered through a window to see that the hallway flooring was the same mottled asbestos tile that was old when we were students, chunks of it missing. The home economics room still had its kitchenette where we learned cooking and witnessed a classmate lose control of her bladder and run out of the room, mortified and teary-eyed. Neither of us had remembered that moment until we were there, through the looking glass of our former lives.
We turned to see the playground’s splotchy turf, and I stared at the worn sidewalk with the once familiar runners of St. Augustine grass crawling across its cracks. Then, we cried, too, at seeing the then and now so starkly and the sudden understanding of the enormity of all that had occurred in our lives since we had left that place. We had far exceeded its innocent expectations and that made us both sad and grateful.
If you’ve ever watched one of those movies in which people return to their pasts and you’ve pined to do just that – I advise going back, preferably with an old friend. I took the journey with a spirit of forgiveness for my struggles and mistakes. Look at me, I thought, as I stared at a mirage of myself in the corridors where I had once walked, never imagining where I’d be in the world 40 years later.
There's something about being in the same physical space in which you once lived such an intense daily existence — rife with new experiences — that allows you to feel the full force of the years gone by.
This is Part One of a two-part series.
Danna Walker is a Patch regional editor in Maryland. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Shreveport Times. Some names have been changed.
About this column: An occasional column featuring a personal essay from Patch writers and community members