What was I thinking!? I thought to myself as I stood inside one of the stalls in the small bathroom. Why was I so anxious? This moment hadn’t been a surprise. I had spent the last several weeks reading through all of the Facebook posts describing the details, the “what, where, when, who, and why” of this event. Each post made me feel alternately excited and depressed. I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do. I debated continually back and forth. I couldn’t decide if I really wanted to participate. Because I was so unclear, I sought advice from many different people to give me some direction. Unfortunately, I continually received the very same response from everyone without any diversion or counterpoint. “God, why would you ever want to do something like that? I never will. Why would I ever want to see Those People again.” “I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t stand Those People.” “ Well, you know, all of Those People were rude and mean. They treated me horribly. I never want to be around Those People again?” The answer was the same again and again though everyone was talking about a different group of people. But it was absolutely clear. Everyone seemed to hate Those People….no matter who they were or where they came from.
And for a while, honestly, that’s how I felt, too. It had been 35 years now seen I had seen Those People of mine! Why would I even think about going back? Well…maybe it was just curiosity…morbid curiosity, at best. Maybe I just felt a horrible need to belong somewhere. Maybe I just needed to reconnect with the past in order to move on with my life. Maybe I just needed some closure. Maybe I just wanted to show off that I had survived my teenage years…High school hadn’t killed me as I imagined it would at the time. Had it made me stronger? I can only hope so, but I do know this: for good or bad, I have certainly come a long way since my high school days. So, whatever the reason may have been, I was now standing, (oh, alright, I’ll be honest!), hiding in the bathroom of St. John’s Catholic Club in Kansas City, Kansas, as I psyched myself up to join my classmates for our 35th high school reunion.
As with most people, high school had been a traumatic experience for me. I always felt unattractive, stupid, and awkward. Gym class certainly didn’t help me gain any confidence. Instead, the class seemed to reinforce my negative feelings. Many times, I was chosen last when deciding teams but, honestly, I can’t blame my classmates for this. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone as uncoordinated as I was on my team either! I believe I was the main reason my team always had to run laps around the gym for losing volleyball matches. I would cower away in terror from any ball that came rolling, spinning, or zooming my way.
I fared no better in the actual classroom environment. I was extraordinarily shy and quiet. I never wanted to speak up in class and would continually play dead if the teacher called out my name. I just could never seem to find my voice in a room full of people. Giving presentations was torture for me. I usually pretended to be sick on presentation days. If that didn’t keep me out of the classroom, I would beg my teachers for any additional assignments to replace the presentation. Many of them refused; they explained that the experience would be a good confidence builder for me. It actually didn’t work. I would stand up in front of the class with my paper shaking and rattling wildly in front of my face as I mumbled through random information for the allotted five minutes of time. I didn’t care about the grade; I just wanted to get through the experience without being laughed at or teased by my fellow classmates.
My social experience of high school was routinely painful. I was the kid who continually seemed to have the runny nose, the drooping socks, and the untied shoelaces no matter how I tried to present myself. I was overweight and wore thick, heavy glasses. Every weekday, I just put on my green plaid school uniform, my sagging socks, and my arch-correcting saddle shoes (for my flat feet), and went off to school where I walked around with my head down and my shoulders protectively wrapped around my upper body.
In my senior year, I begged my mother to let me quit high school. I am relieved and grateful now that my mother rejected all of my arguments for dropping out. She refused to allow me to leave school until I safely had my diploma in hand. But for years immediately following graduation, I failed to see the benefit of this at all. I swore I would never go back to school or see any of those people ever again.
But there is one problem with the word NEVER. It has a friend named KARMA. Because no matter how much we hate certain experiences in our lives, they all happen for a reason. And no matter how often we say NEVER, life has a way of recycling lessons until we learn them. For example, even though I swore I was finished with my education, after a few years of working minimum wage jobs, I suddenly found myself drifting back to school. I began attending Johnson County Community College and loved the experience of learning so much, I transferred to the University of Kansas and found, quite literally, that the whole world slowly began to open up for me. Over the next several years, I found myself in all kinds of interesting jobs and positions. I worked as a model, a reporter, and a photographer. I traveled the world, even waking up one morning to find myself in Thailand and soon I was backpacking by myself across Malaysia. I lived successfully in New Mexico, Tennessee, and California. After high school, I went on a 35-year journey to find myself. I finally stumbled my way back to my hometown in Kansas last year.
I proudly put the information of my return on Facebook and was amazed that a lot of my old high school classmates reached out to me. That was fine. I could handle Facebook relationships. But four months after my return, posts began to appear about our upcoming 35-year reunion. I was surprised because it seemed a little ironic. How was it possible that I would return to Kansas the very year a reunion was scheduled? Maybe…just maybe…it was KARMA challenging my never-ending use of the word NEVER and my reluctance to see Those People again.
I was NEVER going to attend a high school reunion.
For years, I had agreed with Jase Robertson of Duck Dynasty when he said, “Do I go to high school reunions? No. If I haven’t talked to you in over 25 years, there’s probably a reason.” For the 10, 20, and 30 year reunions, thankfully, I continually had the excuse of being “out of town” to avoid the events. But now, I no longer had any excuse. So there I was on Saturday night, April 23, 2016, in Kansas City, Kansas, at my 35-year reunion, hiding in the bathroom at St. John’s Catholic Club. Of course, this brought back even more unusual memories of my high school experience.
Once a month, my school sponsored a mixer for all of the students on a Friday night. I never wanted to attend these dances with Those People. My mother forced me to go. She thought it would be good for me to get out and mingle with my classmates. I hated it! I wanted to stay home and watch Donny and Marie. I had a huge crush on Donny at the time, which I think my mother considered somewhat unhealthy. It would be a good thing for me to get away from my teen idol for a while. Mom and I would argue about the mixers before and after the events, but every month, I was expected to attend. Once I was at the dance party, I would spend the first few minutes standing around the refreshment table before retreating to the bathroom where I would hide in a stall until it was time to go home. I never danced and I never talked to anyone. I would just stay in the bathroom and wish that I was at home watching Donny. Though I have seen him in Vegas, I no longer watch Donny now. I have traveled all over the world. I have published. I have modeled. I have had my own business. I have taught struggling students. I have had an amazing life. But here I was, at the reunion still huddled in a bathroom stall instead of facing my former classmates.
I took a deep breath and willed myself to leave the bathroom and yet I continued to linger. I may have stayed in the bathroom all night if I hadn’t thought of Janice and began to feel terribly guilt. Janice had been a good friend to me during my awkward elementary and high school years. I was fortunate to reconnect with her several years ago on Facebook. Janice had confessed to me that she too had debated about attending the reunion. But then she said something that really got my attention. “If I don’t go,” Janice had stated, “I’m afraid I’ll regret it later.” Her statement made complete sense to me. What if this was my last chance to make amends? Janice was right. We decided then to go together so we would each, at least, have someone to sit with during the event.
Since I was still relearning my way around Kansas City and, especially, Strawberry Hill where the event was taking place, Janice offered to drive us to the reunion. Because sections of the I-70 were closed, we got a little lost on the way to St. John’s and ended up in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. If I had been driving alone, I would have used “getting lost” as an excuse to just go back home. Janice took it all in stride, though. She stayed completely calm; methodically and strategically, she found the way back into Kansas. She did a great job navigating the one- way streets and the closed roads to find St. John’s Catholic Club. She never gave up. She never got upset. I need to be more like Janice. Because now I realized that while Janice had gotten us to the reunion, I had suddenly deserted her to go hide in the bathroom. What a horrible friend I am!
With that thought in mind, I forced myself move out of the stall. I walked over to the sink and washed my hands while I stared at myself in the mirror. Oh, God, what have I done? My make-up didn’t look too bad, but my hair was a stiff, unnatural, badly blended mess. I usually don’t fuss with my hair. I tend to just brush it and run, but tonight I wanted to look good for the reunion. So before I met up with Janice, I had taken the time to carefully curl and style my hair, which is something I never really do. Once I had my hair in the design I wanted, I had grabbed the hairspray and didn’t stop spraying until I was sure not a single strand of hair would dare to move out of place. Though I began to choke on the fumes, the spray hadn’t been enough to ease my hair anxiety. I also had a can of spray-on hair dye to touch up my roots. (Yes, I dye my hair to cover the gray…what of it!) I didn’t have time to dye my hair earlier and I didn’t want any of my (gray!) roots to show. I thought I would just touch up my hair with the red spray. I had tentatively tried the dye on a thick strand first, and when that looked okay, I went crazy spraying the dye in a solid line down the center of my head. Oh, my gosh, it wasn’t until I was at the reunion that I realized that the spray-on dye didn’t match my hair color at all. The color from the can was much darker than my normal (I said normal, not natural) lighter strawberry blond color. The spray had turned the center of my scalp horribly bright red. I looked like I had a badly oozing wound on the top of my head. Seriously, it looked like I had split open the top of my skull and blood was seeping out. But I couldn’t wash it out now. I would just have to make sure that no one could stare down at the very top of my head. Man, I need to stay away from hair products when I’m in the midst of a panic attack. Hair products are the bane of an anxious woman…well, at least for me. I always go overboard in order to hide my scars and imperfections. I try to save myself from ridicule but just tend to make everything worse and much more noticeable. So, now, I was already at the reunion and had no choice. But what was I really worried about anyway? I just needed to get through tonight and then possibly NEVER see those people again.
I took a deep breath, turned away from the mirror and walked out of the bathroom. I stepped into the main room of the Catholic Club. The lights were down low and a soft golden glow filled the room. Ten tables were lined up parallel on both sides of the room and covered with white tablecloths and black beads. There were several people standing around in small groups up by the stage. And suddenly to my surprise, I began to smile…and it felt natural…and it felt good. My smile did not feel faked or forced or strained. For some reason, there was an energy about the room that made me feel excited and happy. I don’t really know what brought on this feeling. I had expected to find myself standing on the outside of any gathered group and out of my own comfort zone, but that’s not what happened.
Instead, I felt relaxed and happy when Cindy walked up to greet me with a hug. I felt comfortable in her presence, but in all honesty, Cindy wasn’t a challenge. She looked radiant and her personality always sparkles and shines as much as her physical appearance does. She has always been welcoming and charming. She makes everyone feel like a friend. Cindy was my very first Facebook friend from high school and continually communicated with me through that medium for the last six years. We had already met for dinner twice before this reunion, so I already thought of her as a friend. I was pleased that she was the one of the first people I saw at the reunion that night. That situation helped set the mood for the rest of the evening.
After a moment, Cindy moved away and I found myself talking to Gregory. His soft, gentle voice and easy-going manner put me right at ease. After talking to Cindy and Gregory, the rest of the evening suddenly became easier and, to my shock, I found myself connecting, hugging, and talking to many people I hadn’t seen in over three decades! The conversations came easily, the hugs were heartfelt, the emotions sincere. I talked to more people that night than I did in my four years of high school! It was a surreal and unusual situation to see everyone again. Most of the people looked just like older versions of their high school selves. I felt completely disoriented whenever someone’s seventeen-year-old face suddenly superimposed itself over his or her current, older facial features. Remember, I had never seen the adult version of any of Those People. I only knew them as teens. I felt for a moment as if I was in a time-travel movie. Maybe I was actually traveling forward in time. I suspected that I would wake up the next day and it would be 1980 once more. But for now, it was fun to see everyone again after so long.
There was Julie looking as young as she did in high school. And Mary who always had a great sense of humor. She was a little more serious now, but still putting out positive, good vibes. Joan still retained her good heart and sweet smile. Teri continually displayed enthusiasm and pride in the school and her classmates. Karen definitely had to be the most honest of all of us. She confessed that she didn’t remember Janice or me at all. Her candor made me laugh. While some of us ran around the room trying to remember everyone, and cheating by deviously reading name tags first (well…I did…), Karen was refreshingly open and straightforward, which was greatly appreciated. I couldn’t help but smile when Brian suddenly sat down next to me and talked about his family. And I was comfortable when Jeff did the same later that evening.
Most of my former classmates gave me sweet compliments on the way I looked that night and congratulated me on publishing my first book. The most consistent compliment I received from Those People, however, was for my Facebook page. I was completely stunned to hear people mention this. After a few months of posting comments and statements about my life, both positive and negative, I decided that I wanted my Facebook page to be encouraging and motivating. I have posted only positive quotes and stunning artwork on my page for the last five years. I am not trying to be pretentious. My Facebook page is my creative attempt to keep myself inspired and focused on the optimistic aspects of life. I was thrilled that so many of my classmates, especially Therese, Terri,and Melissa, expressed their appreciation for my posts and asked me to keep the positive thoughts coming. I was pleased that so many people felt inspired by my Facebook page.
Everyone happily conversed and engaged with each other, but sitting in a small group of five women later in the evening was a surreal moment for me. I never had children and so as my former classmates talked about their families, I had nothing to add to the conversation. But that didn’t matter to me. I didn’t care. I was absolutely fascinated by their words. Thirty-five years ago, the conversations had been about tests, classes, homework, and teachers. It was an unusual experience to listen to my classmates talk about their grown children. “They just don’t get it.” “I have been encouraging them to move on.” Every comment was made with a mixture of joy, love, concern, worry, and stress. There was no doubt that these people absolutely loved their children and wanted the best for them. It was incredible to hear these same sweet teenage voices discussing grown-up issues. I just sat there mute and quiet as I usually was in high school. Only this time, I was fully attentive and could have listened to them all evening.
I also enjoyed seeing Steve, Jeff, Duke, Aldo, Nick, Joe, Chuck, Keith, Michael, and Brian again. I think I talked to the “boys” more that night than I did through the four years of attending Bishop Ward High School. This was an extremely bizarre moment. What happened to all of the boys from my class? And why was every one of them so tall? They were not scrawny, little kids any more. Now, I was surrounded by fully grown, handsome, strong men. If I had realized that was going to happen, I would never have left Kansas 35 years ago! I smiled as I looked around at all of these incredibly tall, incredibly attractive, older men. I just prayed that none of them would suddenly look down on me and notice my “oozing” painted-red scalp. That became one of my challenges of the evening. I strutted around and kept moving just to make sure that my wayward vanity would not be discovered.
It had been a real challenge trying to make sure no one could look down on my red scalp. Maneuvering away from tall men became easier when I got out on the dance floor where I was now too happy to worry about my “bloody” hair. Now, I could shimmy and move and turn without looking like I had to go to the bathroom. Yes, I danced! I was actually out on the dance floor with several of my classmates as we threw our hands up in the air, spun around, and kicked our legs. I was not hiding in the stall now as I did at the mixers 35 years ago. I was wiggling around in the middle of the dance floor. I was actually dancing! Look at me, Momma! Look at me! And I didn’t care at all what anyone else thought of me. I didn’t care if I made a fool of myself.
The evening was perfectly summed up by Natalie’s comment about me. “When we were in school, Jamie, you were so shy and quiet, most people didn’t even know you existed. But look at you now. Look at all of the amazing things you’ve done! It’s incredible!” I couldn’t help smiling at her statement. I felt completely different than I did in high school. And as I looked at my former classmates, I realized that we had all grown into a successful, good-looking, kind-hearted group of people!
And that’s when I suddenly realized something. I was not the only one who had changed. All of my classmates had grown up, too. None of us were the same people we had been in high school. As much as I have grown and changed, so have they. How could I ever hold anyone responsible for what they said or did as teenagers? I wouldn’t want anyone judging me now based on my 16-year-old self and I wasn’t going to do that to anyone else. Those awful high school years when I felt so battered…well, I suddenly realized now that most of my scars had been self-inflicted. It was my own reserved heart and negative mindset that had kept me locked up and hidden away in bathroom stalls. But now, we were all (a little?!) older and a whole lot wiser. And we were beginning to connect on a whole different level. We were no longer the jocks, or the brainiacs, or the geeks, or the cheerleaders, or the nerds, or the loners. Those were just labels we gave each other as we all struggled to find the place where we belong, as we all strived to find our own identities. Those titles are laughable now and certainly don’t reflect who we have become…
And the strange thing was…I really wanted to keep partying with my former classmates because, on this night of the reunion, I truly loved those people…
So, at the end of the evening, I proudly gathered with my classmates for a group picture. I was a little concerned when my high school crush walked over to me. Oh, my gosh, he could still make me shiver as if I was sixteen-years-old again. I quickly maneuvered myself away from him, though, and moved to the other side of Janice. Well…okay, maybe a few insecurities still remain. I just didn’t want my old crush to think that I was still clumsy enough to injure myself. “Help, someone! Jamie’s bleeding from the top of her head!” So, yes, I definitely needed to move away from him. I may never see him again and didn’t want that to be his last impression he had of me.
Hopefully, that will not be the last impression anyone has of me.
So here is my advice. Do NOT go to your 10th or, even 20th, reunion. Wait for the 30th or 35th reunion. Do not see anyone from high school for at least 30 years. Wait until everyone has had the chance to experience life. Give everyone the opportunity to grow up. See everyone again when they are seasoned, when they are weathered. Become friends with high school classmates after everyone has had the chance to experience life. Give each other the chance to experience life as God intended. My classmates are people…real people. People who are raising their families, working their jobs, and suffering their losses. People who have cried and laughed and loved and hurt and grieved. We are all really not that different after all…
Even though we had originally debated about going, now Janice and I really didn’t want to say good-bye. We finally left the reunion around 10:30 pm because, unfortunately, I had to work early the next morning. As Janice and I walked out of St. John’s Catholic Club and into the dark night, we turned right to walk down the steep hill to her car. Suddenly, I gasped and had to catch my breath. I stared at the scene in front of me. From the top of the hill, I saw the beautiful, white, round moon shining down on the bright Kansas City skyline. It was an amazingly beautiful image. The sight filled me with wonder! I now suddenly realized I was home. I knew where I belonged. I was loved. I was safe. The past had been put to rest…well, it had been put into perspective. And the future, for my classmates and me, seemed even brighter now than it did 35 years ago. Beautiful days loom ahead of us. And though I may not always now where I am headed , I certainly now know where I have been, and where I come from…
I feel united and am proud to say I am one of Those People.