Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Preparing for my 35th High School Reunion - am I nuts?

It's the strangest thing - tomorrow I'll take off for my 35th high school reunion to see people I haven't seen in at least 25 years, some more than that.  I've gotten reacquainted through the magic of FB.  I look forward to the trip with lots of excitement and a bit of trepidation - what'll we talk about?  what'll they think of me?  What will I think of them?  Will we like each other?  Will there be cliques?  Will I fit in?

I'm starting to remember what it was like when I first went to high school there - I'd been in another high school in Norfolk, VA from 7th - 10th grades and was about to transfer to Culver Girls Academy in Indiana because my father had a new job there.  In Norfolk, I was sadly at the bottom of the popularity rung due to a most unfortunate accident - I'd had the audacity to faint - and to fall on a girl!  One of the guys in the class, someone who was in my carpool - yikes! - decided that meant I was a fag.  I had no idea what a fag was, but the way he said it over and over again, to everyone else in the class, made me know it was bad, and I was it.  I began walking around with my shoulders drooped, my head down, afraid to make eye contact with anyone for fear they'd laugh at me for being a fag.  I instantly lost whatever social standing I had had and was relegated to the depths of our 80 person class.  Boys began snickering behind their hands when I walked by.  Sometimes I'd find them stuffing notes into my locker.  I don't even remember what the notes said.  The humiliation of seeing them do it and laugh is all that remains with me right now.

Braces, glasses, a poor haircut, and the moniker of fag were all I needed to know I was lost for good.  The rest of seventh, eighth, and ninth grades were a blur as I scurried around hoping I wouldn't be noticed and worked to excel academically.  Thankfully I was successful in the latter endeavor.  I also found a friend in eight grade - a new girl - Julie.  I saw her the first day of school and knew I wanted to be her friend.  I saw her looking around a bit awkwardly and decided to get over my shyness and to speak with her immediately, before anyone could tell her I was a fag and turn her, too, against me.  We hit if off right away.  We became best friends.  She rode the same bus I did so we would sit next to each other on the bus and talk all the way home.  As soon as I got home, I called her up to talk another hour or so.  I've never been so happy to have a friend in my life!  I don't think I ever told her about my reputation, and thankfully I don't think she suffered from knowing me and liking me.  She told me later that, as the years progressed, our classmates matured and all became very close, even so much as to invite everyone in the class to parties, not just a select few.  I remember doubting that I would have been included even then, but I was glad to hear it for the rest of the rejected ones.

That was the context within which I was getting ready to enter Culver the middle of my tenth grade year.  I was absolutely delighted when my father told us we'd be moving and going to a new school where he'd be the Chaplain.  I was crazy about my dad, so it didn't bother me at all to be a student where he was the minister - I'd already had plenty of experiences being called "Minister's Daughter" and it no longer galled me.  Dad and I were set to drive up in January, leaving the rest of my family behind until the house sold, and so the two younger kids could finish out the school year before moving north.

Dad and I packed up the hard-topped jeep with our most vital possessions and headed to Indiana in the middle of the winter.  Thankfully I was working on knitting a shawl - it was the only thing that kept me warm as the wind whipped through the poorly sealed doors, windows, and top.  Dad loved that rugged car, but I was less enamored.  Nonetheless...  as we drove through Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, then entered Indiana, I knitted and purled and had time to think about how I wanted the next two and a half years to be.  I decided that it couldn't be a repeat of the previous three and a half or I'd be utterly miserable.  I'd just gotten contacts to replace my glasses and had gotten a nice haircut so I was feeling prettier. As I kept up the steady stream of stitches, it occurred to me that I could change my life - no one at Culver knew me.  My reputation couldn't precede me.  I decided with complete conviction that I was going to take Culver by storm!  I was going to love it, and they were going to love me.  I'd get there and be friendly and make friends right away.  I'd smile at everyone I saw and would be nice no matter what.  I would join clubs and speak up and love being there!  It was a solid decision and one I acted on right away, the minute I stepped out of the car.  I walked around the campus smiling broadly, happy to see people, and enthusiastic to get to know them.  I had the advantage of being one of very few new students at the semester, so everyone wanted to see who I was, and they were curious to see and meet my dad. 

Me at Culver
Within a few hours of arriving, I'd already been asked out on a date by Dad's Aide to the Chaplain, a very nice person.  Considering that I'd never been on a date with anyone from my school in Norfolk, that made me ecstatic!  My plan was working!  The next two and a half years truly were some of the happiest of my life.

As I think back to the young person I was in Norfolk, I feel great compassion for how lonely I was, how segregated I felt, how confusing it was to be called a name I didn't understand.  It was a lonely existence, made better only when I met a girl who didn't know to dislike me by reputation and who would give me a chance.  Culver was the best thing that had ever happened to me at that point.  I did, in fact, make many friends.  I joined every club that interested me, and then some.  I partook in classes with gusto.  I found people with whom I could connect.  But most importantly,  I think, I learned that I was a likeable, normal person, not a social pariha.  Deciding I would love my life made it so.  That is a lesson I use still.

As I've gotten older, and since I've learned what a fag is, I've also come to feel complete compassion for gays and lesbians for the horrors they go through as people taunt them and treat them horribly simply because they are who they are.  I have become a strong advocate for anyone who is experiencing oppression.  A student asked me the other day how I became an activist.  I told him I didn't become an activist consciously - it was simply a matter of choosing to name what I see and to not be willing to put up with it silently.  I know how it feels to suffer at the hands of people who feel superior to me for whatever reason, and I am not interested in playing that game.  Plain, pure, and simple.

So now I'm preparing to get in the car tomorrow to take that very long drive again, to a place I haven't seen in 25 years.   My shyness and reserve are feeling in high gear.  I'm so used to being alone in the studio most of the time that it's sometimes difficult to change gears and to be around a lot of people for long periods of time.  But I'm going to decide to have a great time, to smile at everyone I meet, to put myself out there, to be my authentic self, and to love getting to know these classmates all over again!  Culver, get ready, here I come!

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