I can’t believe I’m posting this the day before Memorial Day. That’s because this entry is not about Memorial Day. Yet as we are so temporally close to the moment when we, a grateful nation, bow our collective head in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, I am compelled to offer an acknowledgement.
My wife, who is my greatest critic (other than me), frequently complains that I do not come to the point quickly enough—kind of like I’m doing right now. While I believe I am a master of the parenthetical, wielding it as a Samurai wields a sword, my wife believes that I waste her time with unnecessary verbal clutter. To you, dear one, I say, a) be patient and b) what follows is more of an obligatory nod to those we honor tomorrow than a paragraph flanked by parentheses.
If you have a loved one who served and was lost in the line of duty, I salute his or her sacrifice with all the sincerity I can muster. Please know that the smart-ass who sits behind this desk and uses a keyboard to express opinions and tell stories is also someone who deeply respects and greatly admires the sacrifice of your loved one. God bless you both.
In addition to Memorial Day, I have also been thinking a lot about two other things that happen at about this same time every year: graduations and class reunions.
In June, my high school class is hosting its 35th class reunion. I will not be attending, but my FaceBook feed has been rife with buzz about the upcoming event. The coordinator, Mary Jane, has been hounding people to RSVP to the invitations she sent out. She has also been heavily promoting the event by posting high school portraits of my classmates. I sit by, lurking in the shadows and watch the comments, occasionally making an appearance to offer a trivial but thoughtful tidbit about some interaction I had with a few of these individuals.
This behavior is fitting, because it is emblematic of my high school experience. My dad moved us to the tiny berg of Mineral Wells, Texas when I was 15, during the first semester of my sophomore year. Here’s the thing about small towns in the South: they are a living dichotomy. Southern gentility requires a soft politeness that embraces you and makes you feel welcome, which is at odds with their organic mistrust of outsiders.
I was speaking with a high school friend named Danny who had recently become reacquainted with another mutual friend. He sent me a photo by text message and I replied “Who’s that?” He refused to tell me so I called him. We talked for a few minutes before he spilled his guts explaining that the photo he sent me was our hot-rod buddy, Terry. Hot rods. You never hear that term anymore. If you’re in your 20s you might not know that hot rod is a term for a car that has been tuned for high performance.
Now Danny and I did not own anything that could be called a “hot rod.” We each owned a Mustang, but were also broke and could not afford to tune anything except an old guitar. Terry on the other hand was the son of a mechanic who restored vintage cars, and that proverbial apple did not fall far from the tree. The point is we were close friends because of a common interest.
Danny and I spoke for a few minutes and then he broached the subject of the upcoming reunion, wondering if I was coming. I responded: “The thing is Danny, I don’t have the attachment that you do to our high school class. You grew up with these people. You’ve known them since you were very young. I didn’t. I spent two and a half years there, and it was really impossible to get to know most of them in the way that you do.” “Yeah; I get that. I just thought you might want to see Terry.” he replied. “I’ll pass man; have fun.”
I hung up and thought about high school and how different my experience was from my classmates. In that moment it occurred to me that, like small Texas towns, your teenage years are also a living dichotomy. At that age we had insecurities and low self esteem, but we covered them up with bravado or an attempt to insert ourselves into situations that would buy us the precious currency of popularity. As it turns out, high school is just a continual quest for social capital. Even the most beautiful girls and the most braggadocios boys are victims of this phenomenon. The most popular people at every high school face the same insecurities and self doubt as those at the bottom of the social ladder—and that is exactly how I perceived myself at that time.
I dated a very pretty underclassman named Linda during my senior year. About ten years ago she found me through classmates.com, and I was surprised when I discovered over the course of our correspondence how differently she perceived me than I perceived myself. She described me as gregarious, courageous, and socially deft, while I saw myself as shy, frightened, and socially awkward. I suppose somewhere between those two extremes lies objective truth—but we will never know.
I look at the photos and read the comments, and with each new post, I have begun to see these people in a new way. The veneer of their high school brand has been stripped away and I think I see them for who they really are or, rather, who I believe they have become—and you know what? They’re really nice people, who love, care, and support each other as they attend college graduation ceremonies and announce weddings of their own children, and post photos of their grandchildren.
I now see them in a way I never did before, and although their high school experience and mine were vastly different, I find myself wanting to celebrate what this upcoming event means to them.
Schools are fertile grounds for cliques, and all schools have them; my school was no different. They begin with common interest, evolve to account for mutual social and physical attraction, and plateau as a galvanized playmate collective.
In that sense Terry, Danny, and I had our own clique of which we were very protective—but we didn’t perceive our collective as a clique at all. I’m guessing neither did the cheerleading/athletic clique, the Z club, the drama club, and countless other segments of my high school population. Everyone was simply trying to get an education and learn good social graces while trying desperately to fit in with everyone else; I doubt anyone was really trying to shun anyone else.
Still, because of my late foray into that small Texas town, I never felt as though I was really embraced in quite the way the other kids embraced each other.
No; I’m not attending my high school reunion. There’s just really nothing there for me, but I think I would like to write a letter of appreciation to those attending:
“Dear Class of ‘77,
Remember how you tried to hide your insecurities in high school? Remember how, as you grew and matured and experienced life, you began to cope with them and to teach yourself that you really did have value? Remember that pivotal moment when you finally began to sense your own worth? Congratulations; you finally graduated from the school of life. You’re all grown-ups now and the curve of your evolving emotional and mental maturity has become asymptotic. Every day you learn and evolve a little more, but at an ever-slowing pace.
I, on the other hand, am still as infantile and as stuck in my teenage angst as I was my sophomore year. Fortunately, I have the luxury of scotch and therapy.
Have a blast! I’m celebrating for you in abstentia.”