Missed opportunities

 I posted recently about my 35th High School Reunion. It was a honest piece in which I spoke directly to the healing that I have experienced in the years since I graduated.

I spent a lot of years blaming others for my own lack of visibility and satisfaction. Consequently, I developed an aversion to all things HS related, in particular Reunions. Fortunately, I grew up and eventually I went to a couple. What I came up with is that it was as much my fault as anyone else. That realization led to growth. So in my post I was honest to myself and issued a statement to my classmates. It was fairly well received on WP. But WP wasn’t the desired audience. As supportive as the community was, I felt that my former classmates needed to hear it. So I posted the link to the FB page of my HS class. I was nervous. I felt like I was in HS again, so afraid of being judged or ostracized by my classmates. But I knew that it didn’t matter in the big picture what they thought of me. I had put that monkey behind me. And I was further fortified by the possibility that I wouldn’t even be alive for the next one. I hit the “share” button. There was no turning back.

The response was amazing.

People that I thought never even knew my name responded. Friends who I had lost touch with for years told me how proud they were to be my friend. Comment after comment posted about how well I captured the experience of High School. Of how they could relate. Of how they remembered me. One of my classmates went so far as to say that my prose had inspired him to attend the next one.I received multiple FB inbox messages telling me how much my post meant to them. Friend requests followed. My blog received a record 151 views in one day. I was deeply humbled.

 I am a guy who walked out of  The Breakfast Club saying “I call Bullshit”. I never believed that the scars caused by the cliques of HS could be overcome by one 8 hour session of detention. When RUSH released the song Subdivisions,I immediately adopted it as the story of my High School experience.To say that I was jaded is an understatement.  

I carried this resentment for too many years. It was uncomfortable, cumbersome and it went on for too long. Based on the feedback, and in some cases support, of my classmates I now know that I had it all wrong. So many years living in my own head.

Sunday I am driving to MA to have lunch with a guy I went to HS with. He was the most recent of FB inbox messages related to my FB posting. He really wants to get together and get to know each other. Here’s the kicker. I never knew him in HS as a friend. I actually thought he disliked me. Apparently I was wrong. I look forward to making a new friend, even if it’s an old one I wasn’t aware of. 

So many missed opportunities. I wonder how many I can recover before it’s too late.

The Reunion

When the 5th Reunion invite arrived I immediately discarded it. Likewise with the 10th. I wasn’t ready. The scars were still fresh and sore to the touch. When I opened my mailbox to see the invitation to the 15th, I decided I would go.

I arrived, with my wife of three years on my arm and a bad attitude. I had caustically joked to her in the elevator that “the same people that didn’t talk to me in HS can have the luxury of not talking to me tonight.” I left that night not knowing if I was right or wrong, her father had a heart attack and we hurriedly left after only an hour.

I skipped the 20th. And the 25th. I was too busy, too tired, too fat, too poor, too unsuccessful…let’s face it…too full of excuses. I just wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t prepared to talk to people about my life because I felt like a failure. I had visions of regaling people with details of my remarkably mediocre life and then sit in the corner and drink until it was time to slip out the door.

I went to the 30th with a slightly better attitude. I reconnected with a few old friends and made small talk with quite a few people. But I confirmed that I was still largely a Ghost. The people that didn’t talk to me in HS didn’t talk to me then, my caustic joke  of 15 years before had proved correct. It would later occurr to me that I didn’t talk to them 30 years ago either. It was a sobering, powerful lesson. You get what you put into things. I decided that I hated reunions and would likely not attend another.

My terribly negative, yet persistent view of Reunions had clearly stemmed from my HS experience, or lack of therein. I left HS unfulfilled and unhappy. I had few friends, few prospects, and few memories. I tried too hard to fit in. When I failed to, I drew within. I walked the halls looking at my feet instead of making eye contact. I worked a lot. I dropped out of clubs and quit teams when I got the slightest bit of grief from classmates. I ran Cross-Country because it was a solitary sport.  For years to come I blamed others for my lack of fulfillment because I wasn’t yet mature or aware enough to put the blame squarely where it belonged, on myself.

It was liberating to stop casting blame. Reviewing my High School years with a clear, honest eye, I realized that it was mostly a giant missed opportunity. A regrettable one at that.

When I received the invitation to the 35th Reunion I immediately decided that I would go. It was time to cast the monkey off of my back once and for all.

When I arrived at “The Shoe”, the place was full. I took a deep breath and walked in. I wasn’t concerned with “measuring up” against others, and I was genuinely interested in the lives of my peers without the burden of jealousy or envy. Fully prepared to say, if asked:

“Hi, I’m Bill. You probably don’t remember me. I was the color of the walls in HS. I went on to have a unremarkable career and a failed marriage. I’m on Disability. I lost almost everything to End Stage Renal Disease and I may not be alive for the next one of these. But I have 4 amazing children that I live for.
It’s goddamn good to see you though. Hey, where are you going?!?!?!?!?”

I never had to say that. Here is what happened instead.

Everyone looked great. Everyone was happy. Drinks flowed and conversation roared. The people that I recognized, I talked to.  I had a few conversations with people that I didn’t know so well. I saw most of the people that I had hoped to and definitely missed opportunities to chat with some that, after 35 years, were still strangers to me. I mused to myself, as I sat in the corner nursing a beer, the old proverb “A stranger is a friend you haven’t yet made.” As true as it was, it was a bit late for that with most in the room. I needed to be OK with that.

I left early. I didn’t feel well and was struggling with light-headedness and headaches all night. But I’m glad that I attended. For so many years I actually thought that I was the only one who had struggled in HS. That everyone else loved High School and would all grow to be happy, well-adjusted adults but me. It was when I realized that life maybe didn’t turn out for them as planned, that they maybe struggled in HS, and life after as well, that I finally gave myself a break. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned. All I can say is, I struggled for years to find myself, until I realized I was me all along.

It was great to see everyone. I wish I knew you all better. I wish I had made more memories to laugh and reminisce about. Alas, as the saying goes…there is no second chance to make a first impression.

 

People change

I had dinner with my wonderful oldest daughter last night. She seemed very preoccupied so I prodded her a bit to see what was wrong. She was very upset over a dinner she had recently had with her bestie from HS, Nicole. Nicole and my daughter have been best friends since they were 8 years old. I consider Nicole family. Her sweet, kind and generous personality masked the pain she has always endured from chronic illness. She has always had some kind of medical issue as long as I’ve known her and my daughter has been by her side the entire time. I admire her strength.

My daughter didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. She had a strong personality, refused to compromise her beliefs and behaviors and was, let’s call it what it is, a little bitchy. She had buddies, but Nicole was her only true friend.

When they went to dinner it had been a while since they had seen other. Nicole was finishing college and my daughter was working full time. She was pleased to see that Nicole had lost almost 60 pounds, was looking very pretty and feeling good for a change. She also observed, after what she described as a painfully long and unpleasant dinner, that Nicole was a different person. Self-absorbed, only talking about herself, monopolizing the conversation and saying uncharacteristic things. My daughter felt like she had lost her friend. Tragically, she asked me after telling me all of this “what did I do wrong?” I asked her why she would think that she did anything wrong? What if it is just a phase? Her next statement broke my heart:

“She’s the only friend I have!”

The only answer I had to offer from the bottom of my broken heart is that people change. Wait, where the hell did that come from? I never believed that!

In 1985, 2 years out of high school, I walked out of the theatre after seeing John Hughes’ classic The Breakfast Club and I called Bullshit. Sure, I liked the movie. I liked the cast, the score, there were some memorable lines i.e., “Does Barry Manilow know you raided his wardrobe?” and I appreciated the overall concept. I just didn’t believe for one second that those kids would be friends the following Monday. Sure, they shared a moment, but the Gollum we call the High School Clique would surely see that they were forced right back into their neat little boxes with their labels of Nerd, Freak, Jock, and Princess. I firmly believed that people don’t change.

I was severely traumatized by High School. I was bullied badly in the 9th grade and I crawled into the cocoon of obscurity for most of my remaining school years. I was a straight-A student until the middle of my Freshman year, I was pulling straight C’s at the end of the year. I became afraid to walk the halls for fear of getting slammed into a locker, I refrained from raising my hand in class for fear of being called Stupid and I somehow got it in my head that being invisible was the best way to go. I hung out in the Art Room whenever possible, Drawing and painting were my escapes from my own head. I would duplicate album cover art from the 70’s, I still have my drawing of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell album in a closet somewhere. Because being an artist wasn’t unpopular enough, I was also in the band. I had a few friends in the band, but I was consumed by the stigma associated with that also.

I graduated with little pomp or circumstance, firmly entrenched in the middle of my class. Very few people signed my yearbook and when I graduated I went to college as an Art major. I lasted about a semester and a half and I dropped out. I was way too busy at my mediocre, nowhere job at a supermarket where someone scrawled my name next to “Is a fucked up shithead” on the men’s room stall, and honing my skills at alcoholism and denial.

Flash forward to my 15 year HS reunion. I had skipped 5 and 10. My wife and I went and it was as miserable as I thought it would be. The same people who didn’t talk to me in HS didn’t talk to me then either. When my wife got a call that her father was rushed to the hospital, it was almost a relief as we made our escape. When my 20th came around, I declined the invitation. The head of my class, also the organizer of the event, called me and asked why I didn’t want to go. I told her, in not so many words, that I just didn’t need a reminder of how obscure I was in HS. We ended up having a nice talk, she told me how things, and most importantly people, change and that she would really like me to go. I again declined and she said, “how about a quote for the board then?” Without thinking, I replied:

“It took me 20 years to find myself, I then realized that I was me all along.”

She was floored, she loved it. As it turns out it was a huge hit at the reunion. Or so I’m told, I didn’t go. But that quote changed something inside of me. First of all, I don’t know where it came from (like a lot of things I say) but it opened a door. I started to take a hard look at some of the more traumatic and regrettable memories in school and asked myself if maybe some of it was my fault, or could I have at least done something different to change the outcome? Was it even as bad as I thought it was?

It was at that point that I began to embrace my quirks and peccadilloes instead of running from them. I came to the very painful conclusion that a lot of it was on me. I was just a confused teenager, who probably would’ve benefitted from having an older brother, who spent too much time in his own head. Once I embraced that, I needed to learn to forgive myself and finally give myself a fucking break.

When my 30th reunion rolled around, I RSVP’d yes. I was going with an open mind. I was in a good place, I had just recovered from my Transplant, my career was going well and I felt comfortable that I could go, face my demons and not have to lie about who and what I am. As it turned out, it wasn’t a bad experience. I saw a lot of people that I had forgotten about, some of whom were happy to see me. Some of the people I disliked immensely were now friendly and inviting. Sure, some of the people that ignored me 30 years prior continued the trend, but I didn’t need their validation anymore. I had found out who I am, I was me all along!

I can’t say with any certainty how many people I went to HS with grappled with the same issues I did. I don’t know how many of the mean girls are sorry, how many of the bullies are now failures, and I don’t know if they even think about this shit as much as I do.

But I do know that I have changed, so it’s entirely possible that others can as well. As for Nicole, I assured my daughter that it is only a phase, and they would become close friends again. Her situation, unlike mine, was not her fault.

I still call Bullshit on the Breakfast Club, however. All 960 times that I have watched it.

#What if…installment 2. If I could do High School over again?

I was chatting with a friend on messenger last night. She is yet another addition to the growing list of people I have reconnected with from High School via FB. She is also on a shorter list; people who I have become close friends with that I thought didn’t know I existed in HS. Nancy and I have become great friends through our chats. We talk at least 3 nights per week about our lives now and flashing back to HS. The problem is that I don’t remember being friends with her in HS. I knew her, but don’t remember her ever giving me the time of day. She vividly recalls memories of us, of my offbeat sense of humor and comical antics. I don’t remember any of it. Until last night, I hadn’t brought myself to tell her that. I reluctantly told her that I don’t remember most of it, that I have largely blocked HS out of my mind, that I was an emotional mess and very mixed up. She said, “I never would have guessed that.” I was stunned.  How could she not know? I thought everybody knew!

My memories of High School are as pleasant to me as Church in the 80’s is to former Altar Boys in Boston. It makes my ass hurt. I remember HS as a blur of being bullied, cliques, being nonexistent to the fairer sex, having very few friends, an average student, a sullen misfit who longed for school holidays and vacations. I hated getting out of bed in the morning, I truly dreaded going to school. So why do so many people remember me as a fun, independent kid?

The only explanation is that I got it wrong. I clearly didn’t maximize my opportunities. I didn’t see what other people saw. I have accepted my life for what it is and I don’t dwell on the past and I don’t want a do-over, High School was hard enough the first time. But I can’t help but wonder how different my life would be if I were able to correct some critical errors I made in my younger, foolish years.

I carried the weight of HS well into adulthood. I declined invitations to my 10th, 15th, 20th, and 25th HS Reunions. When I declined the 25th, I was asked by the coordinator to give a little quote about what I had been doing. I wrote,

“For years I tried to find myself, then I realized I was me all along.”

I was surprised at how fast I came up with that, it just flowed off the tongue. I stored it for later. Maybe it was a sign that I was beginning to let it go. Inspired by my new clarity, I dug a little deeper and found myself finally able to ask the big question, Is it possible that it was me and not everyone else? That is one of those questions that, even if asked of yourself, is a pretty big Matzo ball if you’re not ready for it. But Bingo, it was me. My entire HS experience sucked because I let it. So what did I learn?

Fight back. Against your situation, against your bullies, against your fears. I was a passive kid. I was an artist, a reader, a lover of music. I didn’t get mad, I retreated to my safe world of drawing album covers and reading books. Had I just once pushed, shoved or punched one of my tormentors I would have at least been left alone. Bullies want it easy. If you make them work for it they back off.

Stick with sports. When I think of it, I dropped off of the baseball team before tryouts were over because of the shit I took from some of the kids. But I was a pretty good baseball player. Now I’ll never know. I dropped out of Soccer because I was being made fun of by guys that I hated. They made fun of my cleats, they were cheap because we didn’t have much money. Instead of fighting back, or just ignoring them I quit. I wasn’t a bad player. I ended up running track. Chalk lines can’t mock you and you’re basically competing with yourself.

Embrace what I was good at. I was a good artist. It got me into college. But it wasn’t cool to be an art major. I was in the band. I love music and I was a good Trumpet player. But like art, being in the band wasn’t cool. What my dumbass former self didn’t realize was that I wasn’t cool either. Who am I trying to impress? And who cares about cool?

Try a little harder. After I was stuffed into my locker for the 100th time in 9th grade I was pretty much done. I became shy and withdrawn. It would affect more than my social life, it also affected my academic life. I didn’t participate in class. I began to be called stupid. I began to believe it. With the exception of classes that I really enjoyed I was a C student. Had I really applied myself I may have done a lot better.

Look at people as people, not at the groups they run with. Cliques, the eternal divider. I now know that the best kids in HS were the ones that got along with everybody. There are “jocks” that hung out with the “computer geeks” and there were “band fags” that played sports and there were “burnouts” that partied with the “jocks”. Life shouldn’t have been so compartmentalized. You can be the same person across multiple groups. I want to believe that the Breakfast Club could be real, that those kids somehow leaped an insurmountable hurdle and would walk into school Monday morning as cross-clique friends.

As I said, it was me. I can’t go back. I don’t want to. What’s in the past is in the past. It doesn’t matter now, only the lessons are intact. They served me well raising my children. I was able to give them sage advice through hard experience and I am so happy that their HS experiences were much better than mine. Had they endured what I had, it would have been much harder for me to make peace with my past.

I did attend my 30th reunion. I walked into this one relatively comfortable in my own skin but extremely nervous. Despite having a kidney transplant 8 months earlier I had been working out a lot and I actually looked in half decent shape but inside I still felt like that awkward, gangly teenager that walked down the halls not making eye contact with the same people that I was about to come face to face with. I walked up to the registration table and was greeted by multiple people who I barely recognized. Apparently, the news of my surgery had gotten around and I was a story. I exchanged pleasantries and went inside. The first person I ran into was my longtime friend Marc. My “sitting in the basement listening to music” buddy. I hadn’t talked to him in 28 years. He was genuinely happy to see me. We went inside and hit the bar. I talked to a few people, other than that the same people who didn’t talk to me in HS didn’t talk to me then as well. But it didn’t matter because the final lesson had occurred to me as I raised a glass with Marc…

It doesn’t matter how many friends you have, it’s the quality of the friendships. Less can be more. Quality over quantity. Seeing Marc made the whole reunion worth it. The rest of it was just facing a dragon. I emerged unscathed.