I had an interesting experience yesterday. I went to lunch with a high school classmate. We weren't really close in school, but we were involved in some of the same activities, and our class was so small (36 kids) that you knew everyone no matter how much you liked them, disliked them, or were indifferent to them. Anyway, we have both since married and had children and jobs and all the other adult stuff that makes you realize how silly high school really is, so I was looking forward to the lunch, figuring that at this point in our lives we would be a lot more similar than different. I had reason to think this: our 20 year class reunion was this past summer, and that was overwhelmingly the experience, at least from my perspective. We were all older, we were all wiser, and even though we were a fairly diverse group in terms of politics and opinions, our shared history created a kind of sameness or kinship that was much stronger and much more obvious now than it was back in the days when we spent 40 hours a week or more together. Weird, but true. I left the reunion feeling a much more genuine sense of family and friendship and regret that it would probably be another 5-10 years before we all saw each other again than I felt at graduation.
Now, when I was in high school, I was in possession of the most massive inferiority complex ever known in the realms of humanity. I thought I was ugly, I thought I was fat, I thought I was ridiculous looking, I thought I was boring and awkward and strange. Looking back, I know none of this was true. I was actually quite pretty, I was lucky in terms of acne, and at 5'1 and 95 pounds I was definitely not fat. I was stocky and round-faced, and because I was so short, I always read that as silly-looking. My family was poor, so I never had good clothes, which is a big deal at that age, so that made me less secure in myself. Add to that the problems I had at home--abuse history, broken home, being the oldest of six with an exhausted mother and an indifferent stepfather--and I was not a happy-go-lucky perky type of kid. I was pretty good at hiding the misery, because I had learned early on that letting the misery show just resulted in a lot of awkward attention from teachers and social workers, and I wasn't interested. I just wanted to live my life, ignore my problems and hope they went away once I moved to the big city. (Spoiler Alert: They didn't.)
I was a smart kid, so I joined the Quiz team, which is kind of like competitive trivial pursuit, eventually becoming captain of the team. So now you have a short, poorly dressed nerd. Bully bait, right? Well, I got lucky there, too. While there was some picking on me, mostly by older boys, I was spared the mean girl bullshit, which, at that age, is usually much worse. Also, despite my height, I was a good athlete. I played three sports a year, so I had some jockyness to protect me. I had a boyfriend for a big chunk of my school years, so I didn't have boy anxiety to deal with. Overall, I've always thought I was kind of a middle of the road kid. Not popular, but not unpopular. Not bullied, but not completely unscathed by the social pecking order.
Now, Let's-call-her-Joanie had a slightly different experience. She was extremely religious for one thing. Her family was part of a very small, very strict protestant fundamentalist movement. She was very smart and very driven--she was obsessed with becoming valedictorian, and even when we were freshman this goal was very clear in her mind. She was pretty, but not in a way that counts in high school--she wore glasses, and because her family wasn't any richer than mine, they were cheap and unflattering and she dressed as badly as I did. She was disdainful of the rest of us, and borderline rude about her intellectual superiority. She didn't play sports, because they would interfere with schoolwork. She did participate in Quiz, which was a never-ending source of frustration to her, because she simply wasn't as good as it as she thought she was, and she was consistently passed over for a seat on the main team. She was also deeply conservative, while most of us were rather liberal, thanks to the idealism of youth, and she would say anything to win an argument. Today, she's a tea-party republican, so that should give you an idea of her conservatism. I'm a left-leaning moderate with some conservative ideas, so I can generally get along with people of any political stripe--I just keep turning the conversation in another direction.
So, there were some differences between us, but I had always felt that our high school experiences were more similar than they were different. I saw as both as outsiders, both as girls who were not quite pretty enough, who were too smart and too socially awkward.
Apparently, I was wrong.
All through lunch, though I tried to talk about work and families and present day life, she kept turning the conversation back to high school. She commented about the slideshow we watched at the reunion, which one of the guys had put together from our graduation video and various snapshots taken our junior and senior year, mixed in with yearbook photos. It was fun, and there were a lot of jokes about our 90's era big hair. But at lunch, Joanie said she thought it kind of sucked, because it seemed like the same few people were in all the pictures. I said I could see feeling that way, that it was just like the yearbook--there's always certain people that always seem to be in the candid shots more than anyone else. She laughed and said "Well, in the slideshow you WERE one of those people. You were in a ton of the shots." I felt like this was kind of an odd statement-she was laughing, and acting like hey, no big, but there was a bitterness in her tone that made me uneasy. So, I tried to laugh it off, saying "Well, I hung around the pretty people as much as possible. I'm like some kind of photographic collateral damage-they couldn't avoid getting me in the shot." She shook her head. "No. You were one of the pretty people." Now I'm really ill at ease, so I made some kind of throwaway joke about having insecurities you could see from space.
"No. You shouldn't have. You were the smartest person in our class. You dominated Quiz, you were good at sports, you were pretty and popular and everyone loved you and you DANCED your way through high school. It was like 'The Kera Show.' "
What? No, really. What the actual fuck? Because I swear to you: IT WAS NOT LIKE THAT.
An awkward silence descended on our table. I finally said: "Well, I don't remember it being quite like that, but I do know that I was fairly self-absorbed. I look back now, and I wonder if everyone around me was in the same position. I know I said and did things that I feel bad about now, but didn't feel bad about then, because I just couldn't comprehend that anything I said or did would be important enough to affect anyone. I know I've been very forgiving of things that hurt me then, because I've assumed since then that the people who hurt my feelings were just like me...unsure, unhappy, and just trying to get by. I didn't think high school was the high point of my life, but I didn't dislike school either. Most of the time, I kind of enjoyed it."
She snorted. Yes, she did. "The popular ones always do."
Me: "Huh. Well. Like I said, I had my own issues that I was focused on, so..."
Joanie: "Like what? What problems could you have had? "
Me: "That's really personal. I don't want to talk about it."
I was on the verge of saying well, nice to see you, good luck in life and running the fuck away, but the food showed up at that point, and Joanie suddenly changed topics, chattering about her child and her job and her husband, telling me about a funny episode of "The Middle" that she had watched, and it was just so bizarre, that I found myself making small talk and trying to act like this was a normal, fun-filled lunch with girlfriends. I left as soon as possible, citing school pickup. At my truck, she asked me to message another of our classmates and try to set up a group activity. I said "Yeah, sure, sounds like fun, (SUCH A COWARD, OMG) well, I'll see ya later!" And then I got the hell out of dodge.
I feel really odd about the whole thing, and vaguely guilty. I can't even explain the guilt. I just feel like I should feel bad about something, but what? I'm sorry if her high school experience sucked. Maybe I should have reached out more, but I really don't think it would have mattered. She routinely batted away any friendliness that came her way. She was too busy striving for that perfect GPA, and too busy imagining all of us sinners burning in hell while she and her father stood on Jesus' right side shouting "Yeah, Jesus!! Smite those evil bastards!! Smite 'em good!" I know this, because she didn't imagine it silently. She was pretty free with her religious opinions. When I think of her in high school, I always picture her with a haughty expression--all of my memories of her involve her looking down on people.
Fuck, I don't know. I don't know if I did anything wrong back then. Maybe, maybe not. But really, I don't care anymore. Maybe our weird, bitter lunch yesterday got something off her chest and she'll move forward, happy and secure in the knowledge that she took me down a peg. I don't know. I do know it will be a cold day in hell before I socialize with her again.
Also, she didn't make valedictorian. She was salutatorian.