Saturday was my twentieth high school reunion. I haven’t been in the country for the previous ones, so I felt lucky to be present for it.
Walking into the basement of the Iron Bar in Morristown was a surreal experience. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people with whom I shared the trials and tribulations of coming of age. It felt like a Netflix reboot – people I used to see every day were back in my life, all at once. Memories resurfaced with each person I interacted with. I could see the adults before me, but I could just as easily see their younger selves.
A girl who, in first grade, ate watermelons by smashing them into her mouth with excitement and glee.
A boy who, in middle school, nearly poked one of his gorgeous eyes out with a pencil.
A girl who said yes when I stomached up the courage to ask her to be my sixth-grade square-dancing partner.
A boy who, in high school, wore a silver thumb ring that he would spin on the lunch table, as if it were a coin.
A girl who, on a dare, ate a piece of formaldehyde-dipped liver in biology class.
A boy who smoked a lot and told me he was coughing up pieces of his lung. I believed him.
A girl who could catapult herself down a football field doing backflips like a superheroine.
There were so many memories, some fond and others not so much. Life felt very dramatic back then, with high school reminding me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s hellmouth. We all had our demons, and we could be monsters to ourselves and one another. We found shelter in our groups, segregated by interests, appearances, and backgrounds. One day you might feel welcomed in one group, only to be expelled from it the next. Someone who felt like a close friend one day could just as easily transform into an enemy the next, never to be spoken to again.
Drama, drama, drama! We were all trying to figure out who we were and what our places would be in the world, and many of the answers eluded us. September 11th didn’t make things easier. As the world order changed, so did our sense that we were safe and secure. We watched the Twin Towers collapse, on repeat, for days on end. It felt like an awful nineties action movie come true.
We were in our classrooms as the news came in. The police officer who taught us D.A.R.E. modules in elementary school dropped a note to my Spanish teacher. She went pale and closed the door, locking us down as the administration contacted the students whose parents worked in the city. Later, in the gymnasium, we exchanged rumors. Of presidents dying. Of World War III beginning. We had flip phones but no wi-fi, and there was no such thing as social media to keep us informed.
We went through this historic turning point as we were on the cusp of adulthood – entering a world that felt big and shadow-filled. And now we are navigating those shadows, trying out best to find the light, whenever and wherever we can. I have always been an optimist, but even for me, this light can be difficult to locate.
I loved seeing how people have blossomed, whether it’s through advancing in a certain career, discovering something special within them, seeking adventure, taking risks, creating or finding family, or tackling some serious BS head on. Every path is unique and special, and I loved that mine could be seen and celebrated among them.
Before the reunion, a couple of people asked if I could bring them a copy of Deficient. One was someone I met in freshman year art class. She would brighten my mornings with her stories and banter and made me feel settled when I was anxious about everything. She wore sneakers to our prom and danced freely to the rhythms in her brain, not seeming to pay much attention to the actual beats of the songs.
As the night went on, more people kept asking about Deficient – a story about high school-aged kids, one of whom feels completely powerless in a world of those who are superpowered. I wrote Deficient because that’s how I felt growing up as a queer kid in a heteropatriarchal world. Our school and society weren’t well equipped to handle certain types of diversity. Today’s buzzwords – empathy, equity, and inclusion – weren’t even on the radar because we didn’t yet comprehend their value, and those who needed them most yearned for them in a silent, unconscious way.
Before I knew it, I sold out of the books I brought with me. I grabbed a few more from the car, and those started to go too. It didn’t matter so much what the book was about, it seemed, but the fact that I was the one who wrote it. “We’ll always support you,” one person said. “Keep on writing.”
It reminded me of the final episode of Buffy, season 3. The mayor makes a speech on graduation day, and as he does, he transforms into a gargantuan serpent demon who is bent on destroying the town of Sunnydale. Instead of cowering, the students unsheathe the weapons they had been concealing beneath their graduation gowns. They fight the mayor and other demons, overcoming their divisions and recognizing, finally, that they were in it together from the start.
The spirit of the reunion felt rooted in this recognition. The realities of life are setting in for many of us. Many have lost parents or loved ones, several have struggled with identity, relationships, or bringing children into the world, and we’ve all been through a global pandemic. We’ve survived so much in a short period of time. A part of the reunion felt like a tacit acknowledgment of that. We’ve made it through a lot, and we have a long way to go as we wade through this big messy thing called life.
We’re in it together, somehow, inextricably linked by memory and a time when we were struggling to become ourselves, against the odds.
Hats off to you all, old friends. And forge forward! I look forward to learning more about where all our winding paths lead and hearing more of your stories when we next convene.