What I Learned at My High School Reunion

The labels we wore back then — geek, jock, cheerleader, stoner — contained elements of truth, they just weren’t the whole story

If there had been a geek squad at my suburban Philadelphia high school in the late 1970s, I would have lettered varsity: editor of the school newspaper; president of the drama club; consistent earner of A's that marched in orderly columns down four years' worth of report cards.

That summer after graduation, I packed my Fair Isle sweaters and Lanz flannel nightgowns and headed off to Yale, where — surprise! — I edited the newspaper, fulfilled my science requirement with "Bio for Poets" and read 19th-century American novels.

But by the time of my tenth reunion, I'd strayed from the path of Most Likely to Do Exactly What's Expected. I'd left a plum reporting job at the Washington Post. I'd moved to Portland, Oregon, to live in a drafty house with complete strangers and to work with street kids as a VISTA volunteer.

And — oh, by the way — I'd come out as a lesbian.

My parents received that news with tearful anguish and a deluge of "why are you doing this to us?" letters. There were tense dinners on this coast and that one, the three of us hunched toward each other, lowering our voices whenever the waiter came around.

The disjuncture between the life I was supposed to be living — staff reporter at a prestigious newspaper, perhaps engagement to that smart red-headed boy I'd dated in college — and my actual life, in which I danced with women at a bar under a bridge, drove a fault line through my soul. For months, I walked around in a low boil of anxiety that occasionally burst into full-blown panic attacks: my heart cantered, my palms grew clammy, my fingers tingled and my stomach seized with nausea. At those moments, fainting seemed both inevitable and appealing.

As the reunion loomed, I came out to two close friends from that era, but I was still closeted about my panic attacks. I had my own duck-and-cover drill: I'd sip ginger ale to quell the nausea, avoid all food and excuse myself "for a little air" if I felt the walls darken and close in.

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Our reunion was held over Thanksgiving weekend on the University of Pennsylvania campus. I do remember that. But the details blurred, upstaged by my own clamoring panic. I think there were several conversations, all shouted over a pounding bass beat that matched my internal timpani: "YOU LOOK GREAT WHERE ARE YOU LIVING NOW WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

A mop-haired guy who'd been in my French class — a boy I wouldn't have trusted to babysit my gerbil in high school — showed me pictures of his three children. A former football player with a beer in his hand leaned down to ask me if I was married. I thought I might throw up.

It seemed I was the only classmate who hadn't gone to law school or med school or joined Daddy's business; plus, the only one living west of Pittsburgh. And certainly — or so I thought, in my petrified, hyped-up state — the only card-carrying queer in the bunch.

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While my heart galloped and my hands left moist streaks on my skirt, I scanned the crowd frantically for my friend and confidante. There. I tapped her shoulder. "We. Have. To. Leave. Now."

I skipped the 15th reunion, then the 20th. It was the path of least resistance: Portland was far away, the plane tickets expensive, the timing less than ideal. But the real reason I stayed away was fear. Even as my parents grew to embrace my lesbian identity — and, eventually, my partner and the daughter we had together — I still shuddered at the prospect of bringing my whole self back to the high school arena, to the place where I'd been pegged as Miss Predictability. How could I talk about the circuitous turns I'd taken? For a decade, I didn't even try.

And then the 25th rolled around. The world had changed. The U.S. Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, and Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriage. I had a four-year-old. We'd moved back to Philadelphia. I was writing, teaching and running half-marathons. I was happy. And thanks to a dozen sessions in the anxiety disorders clinic at Penn, I'd learned to quell my panic with deep breaths and reassuring thoughts.

This reunion was at a no-frills banquet facility in the suburbs. There was music, but not so loud that we couldn't hear each other. I introduced Elissa as my partner and no one flinched. No one even seemed surprised. While I was chatting with a classmate about gender expectations and raising strong daughters, Elissa quickly bonded with my best friend's husband. For the rest of the night, they sat together, clinking their wine glasses and making up wild stories about the alums they didn't know.

A woman I'd known only as a star athlete — tall, freckled, beautiful — told me she was a lesbian, too. Someone else was a professor of French. A few were divorced. Not everyone had children. Some had lost parents. At midlife, our stories were written on our faces, topographies of love and loss and struggle. Not much had turned out the way we planned. Including ourselves.

In the midst of it, I remembered the best two words of counsel I'd received in high school, from a teacher who, perhaps, had glimpsed something yearning and restless under my compliant skin. Mr. Wilk motioned me over one day from a teeming hallway, leaned down and said quietly, "Don't hide."

By the 25th reunion, I could heed his advice. And here's the irony about hiding: When you stop doing it, other people emerge from hiding, too. The labels we wore in high school — geek, jock, cheerleader, stoner — weren't untrue, they just weren't the whole story. Each one of us was a palimpsest of a person, layer upon layer of doubt, ambition, risk and regret. We lingered at that reunion, talking and talking over cucumbers dipped in ranch dressing and bottom-shelf Chardonnay, until the banquet staff turned on the lights and brought out the vacuums and shooed us out into the unpredictable night.

Tags: memoirs

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