Tomorrow I’m heading “home” for my 30th high school reunion. If you hadn’t guessed how old I am, I gave away the farm with that sentence. But if you’re younger than I am, don’t gloat. It goes quickly. Memento mori.
I have friends (dear, disappointing friends) who won’t be at the reunion because they’ve sworn off reunions altogether. Hating them is very common, I hear, but I love a good reunion. Not only do I leap at any chance to see the handful of close friends that I had in high school, but the older I get the more I feel like everyone there is my friend – even if I’m still too timid to speak to the ones that scared me in high school. There’s a certain solidarity that comes with getting older, with seeing that most of us are getting lumpier or grayer, or at least wrinklier. And our lives are aligning in simple ways: we are sending our kids off to college or watching them get married; we are becoming grandparents; we are losing our parents, and some of us are losing our spouses. Time is a great equalizer.
But here is what I wish: I wish that we could completely drop our guards at reunions and sort out what we were thinking, and why we acted the way we did in high school. Because a lot of us are still shaped by high school – still proving ourselves against the humiliations we suffered, still running off the fumes of our adolescent triumphs, still seeing ourselves through our classmates eyes.
At my 25th reunion, a classmate approached me and said, “I remember you! You were smart!” It’s hard to respond appropriately to that, and it would have taken too much time to explain to her how hard I worked to make people think I was smart, back in the day, because it seemed all I had to work with. I guess my efforts worked, at least with her (although my efforts didn’t extend to getting excellent grades: I rarely made the honor roll).
At the same reunion, as my friends and I were reminiscing together, one of the “popular” girls from our class said, “I see you all are still hanging out in the corners.” We laughed, and it took us a couple of seconds to react with, “Wait, what? Did she just insult us?” We were loss offended than surprised, because most of the “mean girls” had stopped being mean after the 10 year reunion. It was as if she hadn’t gotten the memo.
That brings me back to the truths I wish we could tell. I sometimes wish I could walk up to certain girls and say, “Hey! How are you? Remember me? You were horrible to me in high school. No hard feelings, really, I’m just curious if you remember what motivated you to behave that way.”
Bullies have always intrigued and mystified me. I wasn’t perfect, I know: I could be snotty sometimes.* But my image of myself was far too tied to being a good girl for me to consistently, intentionally, be unkind to other kids. That didn’t seem to be the case for everyone.
My senior year I took Honor’s English 4 with Mrs. Routsong. I loved her. She was tough and funny and once told a friend of hers – the mother of a friend of mine – that she thought I was a “brilliant” writer (I may still be living off those fumes, come to think of it). As I remember it, our chairs in her classroom were set in a U shape rather than rows. I sat next to a girl named Diana who told me the she was a witch. Maybe she was: I don’t know. Diana had dark hair, long and straight; a pale face and very dark lipstick. She almost never smiled. She was goth before goth was a thing, really. I remember that she once wrote a fantastic paper exposing the Smurfs as a Jonestown style cult. Most of the class thought she was bizarre, but Diana didn’t seem to care.
I was a bit afraid of Diana – the witch thing seemed a little too plausible – but not nearly as afraid as I was of the girls that sat across the U from us. That class had an unusually high concentration of rich, popular girls. The kind of girls who made fun of me because my polo shirts came from Kmart, not Izod. The kind who teased me about never going on a date. The kind of girls who would compliment me on a new haircut in a way that made it very clear that they were not really complimenting me on my haircut. I spent four years of high school trying to avoid those girls. Much of the time they acted as if I didn’t exist, and that was fine by me. When they did turn their attention to me it never ended well. They were like bored little boys smashing bugs to pass the time. And I, of course, was one of the bugs.
I hasten to add that I enjoyed high school. I had wonderful friends, and I was involved in drama and music. I also had many encouraging teachers like Mrs. Routsong. But those mean girls always baffled me. I was puzzled by what was required to be popular, but I was even more confused by the meanness that many of the popular girls exhibited. Why? Did they derive pleasure from it? Was it pack behavior? If I saw one of them alone, away from her friends, would she be kinder? Did they ever turn on each other, or was there some sort of code that kept the cruelty flowing down the social ladder?
I still have those questions. I’m now Facebook friends with a few girls who scared me in high school, and I have no residual bad feelings toward them. But I do wish that I could ask them to tell me what they remember about all this – not about me specifically, since part of being a bug is being forgettable. But do they remember that they used to pick on other students? Did they understand that they were the “mean girls” of the school; the ones with the power to make others miserable? How do they feel about that now? What have they told their own children?
Am I the only person who has this question?
Maybe this is a crazy request, but if you remember being one of the mean girls (or guys) in high school, do you remember why? Are you willing to try to explain it? As a parent I’ve worried when my children have been picked on, but I’ve worried even more when I saw signs that they might be picking on other kids. Maybe if I understood how being mean looks from the the inside it would help me when I talk to my children about this subject.
Or maybe I’m just curious, still. Either way, I’m not angry any more. I’m feeling very old and sentimental as I approach this reunion. I may even hug a former mean girl or two. But wouldn’t it be fun if we could talk – really talk – about the forces that made high school so mysterious and powerful?
Former mean kids! Now is your time! Represent!
*There were a couple of guys, a year or two behind me in school, that I gave a hard time. I’m still sorry I was a jerk to them. Oddly enough, considering that I want to understand other people’s motives, I still have no good reason for my own bad behavior. What if that’s true for most people? What if the answer to this puzzle is that there is no answer?