I am going to let you in on a little secret. Brace yourselves because it’s probably going to come as quite the shock.
I haven’t always been this cool.
It’s hard to believe as I’m commandeering a mini van filled with screaming children around town, but there was a point in my teenage years when I could have passed for a middle aged man.
For the most part, my life has been uphill from there. I mean, I hate to brag but I own a Sonicare and once had a date describe my propensity for eating buffet food as “impressive”. Mailing in my RSVP I was pretty sure a lot of people were going to see me and kick themselves for missing out on this hot action twenty years ago.
“Which sounds more enviable – recording artist or gymnast?” I asked my friend Heidi as we wound down our three-hour road trip and neared the town limits. I had strong armed the one person from high school I keep in touch with into going with me because while I was feeling brave about facing my past, walking in by myself was another whole story.
I inhaled and adjusted my Spanx.
The first item on our weekend agenda was the Homecoming parade. Our class had a float and we were going to be on public display atop hay bales on a flatbed truck. A few minutes before arrival time we received instructions via Facebook to meet at the Smoking Tree.
The Smoking Tree is a large elm which unfortunately sprouted roots about ten feet away from the high school. It is technically off school property which meant kids were free to gather around the ashen black trunk and chain smoke there during breaks. The administration was fine with this, as it meant students were no longer taking up valuable seats in the on-premise smoking lounge.
I was shocked that thing was still standing; I am sure if its branches could have reached the local gun store it would have happily grabbed a rifle and put itself out of its misery.
The float was parked near the tree, which was not only standing but had regenerated and miraculously healed itself. Approaching it I pushed my self-esteem boosting therapy sessions to the front of my mind and prayed my Oil Of Olay was doing its job.
“Hi! Hop on up!” A handful of people had arrived and were waving us onto the flatbed truck.
“Okay! Where’s the ladder?”
“Well… there’s sort of a step back there…”
The “sort of a step” was a tiny rung about three inches below the flatbed, which itself was chin level. I don’t know who they had in mind when they engineered such a way to hoist yourself onto a 5-foot tall flatbed, but clearly it wasn’t a 38-year old mommy blogger trying to convince a group of people she was physically superior.
“There is no way this is happening,” I thought to myself as I glanced over and noticed Heidi gracefully leaping onto the truck, sticking her landing on a hay bale.
I looked over at the car; there was no turning back now. My fantasies of sashaying into a ball room and setting off a standing ovation/collective slow clap quickly vanished as I running leaped belly flopped elephant sealed my way onto the truck with two men grunting as they heaved me up by the wrists. Like nothing happened, I stood up and brushed god knows what off my shirt, wondering how I could pick my Spanx out of my bowel without anyone noticing.
A few minutes later someone else arrived and I saw the same look of terror as they sized up their entrance possibilities and mentally shuffled through a few scenarios, all ending poorly. One by one, middle aged balls of nerves were hoisted onto the float like catfish being pulled from a river. And that’s how we started the weekend, with everyone in the same place – face down, ass up.
The trailer bed lurched forward and we slowly rolled past the high school cafeteria where our prom was held. The woman next to me squinted ahead and laughed nervously. “You know, every time I come back here I realize how much I love this town. For everything it is… and everything it’s not.” I threw a box of candy Nerds into the crowd, to a little girl with outstretched arms. I was suddenly very grateful I was there.
Uuuggggarf. The sound of air being unexpectedly being from lungs as another alumnus hit the flatbed. “Sorry I’m late!” Everyone cheered.
I had a friend tell me she didn’t attend her high school reunion because she had no desire to see “those people” again. I hated to break it to her, but sister – we are all “those people”. Everyone struggled their way through high school, and most emerged into the world better for it. You. Your mail man. Your best friend. The woman in front of you at the grocery store. Your spouse. Jennifer Aniston. Steve Jobs. Mother Theresa probably got her clock cleaned in gym class dodge ball.
That night I discovered that proving anything about the person I had become wasn’t the reason I’d made the journey. As the night wore on I learned that there is something simply ethereal about having an adult conversation with someone who knew me in the raw, before I shed my baby skin and grew a protective layer.
For some, high school was the highlight of their lives. For others a low point. For everyone, it was a major part in forming who we are as people. For better or worse, for four years we were tethered together, growing as one before each branching off in separate directions. Spending the rest of our lives trying to recover. Sort of like the Smoking Tree.
The next morning I drove back into the present. My mind wrapped itself around the conversations I’d had the night before, slowly digesting every word. Just a few hours prior, my memories of high school included desperately screaming for acceptance and marching band. Throughout the night I learned others had different memories of me, memories that my mind had selectively erased, possibly in an effort to fit the story I wanted to remember. Impossible classes, dramatic relationships, gut wrenching away games. All told from the perspective of those who had evolved to appreciate the absurdity of the social dynamic that is high school.
As I drove into the city, the residue of whatever ghosts still haunted me from long ago had been dusted off.
But that’s the funny thing about life. Sometimes in order to move forward you have to take a step back.