Monday, October 04, 2004

LA Stories (Part IX)

While I may not actually be saving the best part for last, my 30th High School Class Reunion is indeed the reason I made the trip to California in the first place. I had a great time, and the evening did serve as a fitting snapshot of my entire weeklong experience.

Like most (and who knows — maybe all) people, from the time one reaches early middle age, a tug-of-war ensues within the psyche: Who am I really? Where do I stand amongst my peers? What does that standing mean, and why?

If you believe in a higher spiritual authority, in whom you have faith to guide your destiny, you may either feel your life is blessed or cursed, but you really don’t have a choice but to accept it for what it is.

Alternatively, you may believe that life is all about you, and that you create your own destiny. In that case, by the time you reach your late thirties, chances are you’re either convinced that your “shit don’t stink” or you’re nearly incapacitated by the smell.

All these things play a huge role, in my opinion, in the decision one makes whether or not to accept the invitation to attend a high school reunion.

Reunions are all about reaffirmation. The reaffirmation of seeing old friends, the stepping back in time to a simpler, less stressful point in life. Even if you weren’t the most popular kid on campus, if enough people are going to be there that you really want to see, it’s worth the trip. The reaffirmation of being involved is activities, service groups, cliques, social clubs; any number of things that served as your touchstone of the high school experience. Reunions aren’t just for the “soches,” but for anyone who felt they belonged to anything or anyone in high school.

As for me, it wasn’t necessarily about seeing specific people, I was going back to capture the feeling that I knew would be there; a feeling that has been somewhat foreign to me over the past 10-15 years.

High school was the first victory as a would-be man that I would enjoy in my life. It may still have been the sweetest. It is where I learned that the system can be beaten, and is my touchstone, my reminder that it can be done again.

But it wasn’t easy.

Breaking Barriers
As we all know and have experienced, the playing field is not level in high school. At this point in our lives, we generally come into our first group encounter with quasi-adulthood supplied with only the physical gifts acquired from our parents as the calling card to announce our arrival.

To those fortunate enough to be inherently beautiful, tall and strong, the advantage was obvious. They were the ones everyone wanted to know, the ones whom you either adored and wanted to emulate, or hated for just being alive.

Then there were the kids like me; not necessarily a social outcast, but definitely at a disadvantage. I was pretty popular in Junior High, using my exposure and involvement in service clubs and student government as my vehicle for overcoming the fact that I was embarrassingly small, even at that age.

When it came time to move up to the next level, whatever social gains I had made in junior high were all but cancelled out by the fact that I was one of a relative few of my classmates to move on to the school my neighborhood was zoned for; one disadvantage of living on the outskirts of a zoning boundary in a city with five high schools.

Nobody knew me and I knew nobody else. I was starting from scratch in an environment three times as large and infinitely more competitive. To make matters worse, the growth spurts that most boys experience in their early-to-middle teens never happened quite happened for me. I did go from 4-foot-9 to 5-foot-1 between 9th and 10th grade, but would grow only three more inches from that point on.

That point couldn’t have been driven home any more clearly than when, on my first day of high school, I was walking across campus and a very tall guy (who I’ve always assumed was a senior) was walking the opposite direction. He reached out and stopped me, planting his left hand on my left shoulder. I was a bit startled as I looked up to see him glaring back and pointing his right hand westward, announcing loudly, “Hey! Jefferson’s that way!

You see, “Jefferson,” was another Junior High School a few blocks away.

Fortunately the barrier of my size was something that I was actually able to use to my advantage when I discovered gymnastics and excelled in it. I placed in both League and State Finals my junior year and won both my senior year. I took my place amongst the football and basketball jocks in campus society and wore my letterman’s jacket proudly.

Being the “Little Jock” might have gotten me into the party, but I was still never invited into the inner circle. But I can say that it never really bothered me. Just to belong to the extent that I did was more than enough. I had my own friends, in addition to the nod from the “beautiful people.” I had come a long way from “Jefferson’s that way!”

My social standing notwithstanding, after high school my experiences in life inevitably led to my asking myself those questions of personal consequence I mentioned earlier. The early answer to the question of, “Who am I really?” was simply, “I haven’t a freaking clue…and I’m too busy to try and figure it out right now, thank you.” I had dismissed my 10-year Reunion out of hand, for both the fact that we couldn’t afford to spend the $50.00 or whatever the cost of the ticket was, and because while it appealed to me, it was just too soon. There was no real personal draw at that point.

The 20-year Reunion was a different story however. We had recently moved to Tennessee and I was pretty happy with my life. My business was doing well and we had just bought our first house. At 38 years old, I was finally beginning to feel like a grown-up. The “Who am I” question was beginning to be answered, and I wanted to see my old friends again.

I was able to arrange to make the trip in combination with some other business I had to do in California so as to make it at least a partial tax write-off, so it all worked out pretty well. Michelle didn’t care to attend, since she didn’t know anyone I went to school with.

I had a great time and the charge I got from seeing my former classmates was such that I knew I had to come back for the next one.

Next: Redux (continued)
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