It is hazardously close to dawn. I have relieved three women of their recommended daily alcohol allowance, rheumatologist
This, however, was an evening marked by countless exceptions. This was the evening of my 20-year high school reunion.
I was not close to the site of my alma mater when the reunion invitation arrived. Actually, I’d put as much practical space between myself and high school as soon I was able. High school was over and I’d hated every Xerox-tinged second of it. I was never going back.
“Let the Class of ’84 Reunite!” screamed the invitation. Ha! Let it reunite without me, I thought. I could not undo the work of years and distance to honour a life phase that I found unspeakably painful.
“Come and enjoy a good laugh!” suggested the feverishly hot-pink text. Ha! A good laugh was monumentally impossible. Unless, of course, the good laugh was at my expense, as it had been for so many acid adolescent years.
“I am so not going to my stupid, sad, dumb high school reunion,” I told my closest friend.
“Wouldn’t you like to wrap up those unfinished joint histories?” she asked reasonably. “Wouldn’t you like to reconnect and just see how everyone turned out?”
I explained that, actually, I’d just like to pour pig’s blood on everyone, rather like the finale of Carrie.
“Just go! Expel your demons.”
She did have a point. The time to compost my bitter salad days was, quite possibly, nigh. I would efficiently end a chapter of torment. The adolescent stars of track and field would all be fat; the school hotties would have turned to seed and all those who bullied me would be enslaved to a shameful life of Prozac and other psychiatric restitution. I would resolve everything.
“You won’t resolve anything,” a woman named Robin Schiff advised me. And she should know. As screenwriter of hit US film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, she is uniquely qualified to dwell on both the topics of school reunions and narrative resolution.
“You want denouement of course, Helen,” Schiff says. “You want that neat resolution that is only possible in a movie. Let me tell you that resolution is an ongoing life process. The real opportunity you have in going to your reunion is to get a little insight into who you were and who your classmates were.”
If I couldn’t have a neat dramatic conclusion to the poorly produced movie of my life, I guess I’d happily settle for peace and self-knowledge. I would not, however, attempt this alone.
I contacted former fellow geek Kate Orman, reasoning that two pariahs are better than one. I found that this woman with whom I had shared “drama nerd” status was now a several-times published science-fiction author.
“I have a suspicion that the whole thing will not be dramatic, scary or cathartic, but gently boring,” she wrote to me.
Schiff concedes that her own reunion was far less volatile than she’d imagined. Her memories are of “a Californian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, surfer, volleyball-playing WASP ghetto. And I’m a dark-haired, dark-eyed, mouthy, funny Jew. And I felt really other. I felt as though the currency I had held no value in this country”.
Her reunion was far gentler than her high school experience. It is broadly accepted that one’s teenage years are marked by misery and turmoil. What is more mysterious is the persistence of these memories.
“That time in your life gets frozen like a snapshot. You may mature. But that time is resolutely sealed,” says Schiff.
An atmosphere of profound change and crucial identity development may account for the deep-freeze recall of the time your gym shorts split in full view of the under-16 hockey squad.
Sociologist Dr Janne Skinner says that a significant reorientation of identity occurs during adolescence. “There is a dominant idea in psychoanalysis that identity is formed in very early life. A critique of this theory is that identity is formed utterly within the family and takes no account of public narratives,” she says.
“It may be argued that because adolescence is such an emotional and formative time, memories are stored and recorded in an emotional way.”
Adolescent memories, she says, are often prompted later in life by an association with a particular emotion. This may explain the sense we have of congealed or frozen high school memories.
Determined to melt hardened recollections, I armed myself with a blow-wave and advice from Robin Schiff: “Go with an open mind and open heart. And wear something you feel unbelievably cute in.”
I’d long imagined what I should’ve said to that A group who’d tormented those of us without tans and sporting prowess. Yet I felt disinclined to utter any of these over-rehearsed, overdue rejoinders. Agreeable curiosity seemed to supplant angst as I demanded of Lisa, Rosie, Bozica and Yvonne: “WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS?”
Personal failures and feelings of otherness simply yielded to a genuine adult interest in the new lives of my classmates. By 11, I had told Kerryn that she was a wonderful, beautiful person who should be a model. By 11.30, I had told Chris that he was just like the Stiffler character in American Pie, only better looking and funnier. By midnight, I had told both Lynne and Michael that I wanted to be just like them.
My therapeutic euphoria lasted until dawn. The softening of durable memories, as promised, had occurred. Even when I asked the bloke with his hand on my bottom to f— off, I did so with a radiant and forgiving smile.
Reunions, says Schiff, act “like superconcentrate detergent. They condense the emotions down to this powerful elixir and honesty. They can really help you let go”.
The voluntary sacrament of the high school reunion had worked.
“One thing that sociologists can agree on is that rituals are important,” says Skinner. “We do not know why they are important, we just know they are. They’re a way of pausing, of stepping outside the hurly-burly and the unexpectedness of life. You know, to a degree, what to expect and you know there’s a process.”
As I made my way to my parents’ home through dimly familiar streets in a cab shared with former mortal enemies, I knew there had been no resolution worthy of Hollywood. There had, however, been a shift in the burden of memory.
Kate wrote to me in an email: “What I hope happens now is that the old pals, the positive part of my experience, become part of my present life. That would mean I’d salvaged the best part of it while letting the rest simply fall away.”