9/28/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

People react very differently to the word “reunion”, and particularly “high school reunion”. Some, especially those who still live in the same place and are still completely connected to those that were with them in school, are delighted and happy to get together. Some respond with curiosity, wondering what happened to everyone. And others react with pure horror.

I tend to belong in the horror camp, mixed with some curiosity.

My high school years, and really, the years before that, were unsteady and bizarre. My father worked for the federal government and he was transferred often as he worked his way up the ladder. I went to kindergarten in Berkeley, Missouri, outside of St. Louis. For first through fifth grades, I was in way northern Minnesota, in a little town called Esko. Sixth grade through sophomore year in high school, I was in Stoughton, Wisconsin. First semester junior year, I was in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. And second semester junior year through graduation, I attended Waukesha North.

High school was particularly rocky. My father was transferred to Milwaukee when I was in the eighth grade, but our house didn’t sell until I was a sophomore. My parents decided, this time around, to build a house rather than buy one, so they chose a spot in Waukesha. Near the end of my sophomore year, while the house was partway built, my father had his first heart attack, and all construction stopped while we waited to see what would happen. He was, I was told, the first recipient of open heart surgery in Milwaukee. Because he wasn’t completely recovered by the time school started, the house also wasn’t complete, and so we stayed with an aunt in Cedarburg, and I went there for a semester. At Christmas break, we moved into the new house and I finished high school in Waukesha.

But high school was also a nightmare for other reasons. I was born with strabismus, which caused my eyes to cross, and so this led to years and years of what we called “teasing” then; now it’s called bullying. I don’t know why my eyes made such a difference to people, but because my eyes made a difference to them, they made a difference to me too. I was in my late twenties before I could lift my head and look people in the eye. Early on, I was called Clarence, after Clarence the cross-eyed lion, in the television show, Daktari.

I hated that show.

I had five eye surgeries, the last two taking place in my sophomore year. When we moved away, I was relieved, thinking that, with my eyes as corrected as they were, I could make a new start in the new school. That seemed to be the case when I attended my one semester at Cedarburg. I seemed fully accepted, went to parties and dances, got my first boyfriend. After moving to Waukesha, however, I was totally crushed when I overheard a girl in my biology class saying to another, “That girl in class with the crossed eyes? She said she’ll share her notes with us.”

My eyes immediately returned to the floor.

In 1988, for the ten-year high school reunion, I contacted those in charge of the Stoughton reunion to see if I could attend. I’d been with the Stoughton school district the longest. And truly, I wanted to go for one major reason: I wanted to find the boy who made my life a living hell and punch his lights out. I wanted to show the entire class that I’d turned out just fine, thank you very much.

But when I attended, I was totally shocked when people began coming up to me to apologize. And when I found out that the boy I looked for died at age 19, it pretty much brought me to my knees.

People change. People grow up. And that had to include me. My eyes raised from the floor. I left Clarence behind.

(I wrote a personal essay about this, that appeared in Wisconsin Magazine, then published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That piece is still taught today, some thirty years later, in some high school English classes.)

And so now. My 45th reunion. I wasn’t planning on going, but my sister, who lives in San Antonio now, came back for it, so I decided to go along. A raffle was included in the event, the proceeds of which were to be donated. I offered a basket of my books, crossing the breadth of my work: a novel, a short story collection, a collection of essays, and a collection of poetry.

Believe it or not, I had fun at the reunion. I spent a lot of it, peering at nametags, trying to figure out who everyone was. And they peered at mine. But watching the crowd, I saw an amazing thing. All of the classic school groups, the popular kids, the jocks, the nerds, the weirdos, all blended. Everyone hugged everyone. Everyone talked.

No one was left out. Not even me.

My books were won by someone who was delighted to have them. I’d already signed them, but she asked me to personalize them. I have to say, I don’t think I was ever asked to sign her high school yearbook. But I was delighted to do this.

At one point, my husband leaned over to me and said, “You were at the cool kids’ table!”

And I found myself laughing.

It turns out that high school, and the effects of high school, don’t last forever. Would I like to go back to those days? Oh, hell no. But am I happy to be where I am now, and where I was last Saturday night?

Oh, yes.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

My high school graduation photo.
My article in Wisconsin Magazine, published in the late 1980’s.

Leave a Reply

%d