Stories of high school reunions are steeped in revenge. Think of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, where two titular outcasts concoct fantastical lies in the hopes of impressing the mean girls who made their teens living hell. Sometimes the trope is averted, like on 30 Rock when Liz Lemon attends her high school reunion and discovers that she wasn’t the bullied nerd she thought she was but was actually the bully herself. But usually, it’s played straight: the jocks and mean girls are dejected; the nerds and outcasts are rich or successful or interesting. The end.
The enduring revenge narrative wasn’t of particular use to me when I decided to partake in the post-high school ritual of the 10-year reunion. I was never bullied or harassed on a regular basis. But, like nearly all American teens, I was subject to the tensions unique to high school. There were people my friends and I gleefully designated as our so-called enemies: The boys we thought were dicks who occasionally made us the target of mockery. The girls who never terrorized us like some kind of Carrie hellscape, but made sure to let us know they didn’t regard us highly. The exasperated, glazed-over look that a mean girl gives you when you do something deemed uncool in her presence sticks with you.
Still, I had no true revenge to serve up: My post-high school glow up largely consists of contact lens, eyeliner, and a bra that fits. My old enemies didn’t appear to become miserable burnouts, but instead seemed rather successful and content.
But in the end, it never mattered. With no clear mission, my 10-year high school reunion led me to something far more fulfilling: I confronted the myths about my teenage self that I’ve long preserved. I realized, too, that almost everyone outgrows the narrow confines of their high school selves.
My teens were spent attached to roughly the same friend group, a collection of overachievers, pop culture geeks, everyday nerds, and a sprinkling of theater kids. We found profundity in Harold and Maude and our humor in Degrassi. We were never particularly popular, but most of us were performatively unconcerned with status and prided ourselves on being weirdos in the distinct try-hard way of teenagers. We were the human embodiments of that infamously cringe-worthy spiel that Jughead dished out on an episode of Riverdale: “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. I don’t fit in. And I don’t want to fit in.”
My tiny, progressive Los Angeles private school didn’t have a cafeteria. So at lunch, we hung out in a secluded garden area of our small campus called Cadena, where we were free to be weird, not fit in, and not want to fit in. I spent most of 2018 flip-flopping over whether or not I’d go to the reunion in October, largely because my friends had made themselves busy doing anything else besides returning to our old haunt.
But I find value in sentimental tradition. Missing my 10-year high school reunion would have meant missing something I considered a rite of passage, a delineation of my lingering sense young adulthood and adulthood.
So I bought a red eye from New York to Los Angeles and spent a few hours the next day figuring out what to wear. I settled on something I knew my teenage self would appreciate: Houndstooth print pants, a colorful t-shirt covered in illustrated condom wrappers, and a bra that mostly fit.
This doesn’t jibe with the teen weirdo narrative at all, but I’ve spent the last decade convinced that my high school years were great. I view it as an overall positive experience, all things considered (those things include fried hair, unrequited crushes, questionable style choices, my arduous relationship with academia, and my position as the token middle-class black girl in a sea of white wealth). But there were hiccups that broke this sheen of teen tranquility; hiccups I spent years telling myself didn’t ruin the experience.
In the summer leading up to 11th grade, some of my friendships began to fracture due to a combination of unexpected life events and diverging interests, the latter of which I pretended was a non-issue, convinced that loyalty outweighed them. These relationships were established years earlier when we were 12-year-olds experiencing our first brushes with zits, thongs, and Juicy Tubes. They were formative, but rapidly growing anemic.
Still, I was convinced that everything was mostly fine, because to acknowledge the contrary meant uncovering an ugly reality I didn’t want to face. At 16, I didn’t have a lot going for me. My grades were just okay, I had no love life, and I wasn’t considered particularly attractive. The one thing I did have going for me—the thing that staved off any true teen angst—were my friends, and the most important ones were slipping away.
Half of my friends upgraded to smoking pot and embarking on the borderline incestuous intra-friend-group relationships; making out, dating for a month, and having bad sex. I had no place in this equation: I told myself that I was indifferent to my own romantic prospects. I avoided drinking and drugs, certain I was too afraid of disappointing my parents; doing anything I felt broke their trust was sacrilege.
I remained an extroverted big mouth, someone who thought dancing on the tables after art class was a very cool thing to do (it wasn’t). Some of my most beloved friendships were established in the last two years of high school. But there was a void, and it needed to be filled. I ended up spending more time online, blogging and talking to the friends I made on Livejournal through fandom circles instead of focusing on homework or hanging out with friends. I watched a lot of television and spent time reading and writing fan fiction or browsing forums. I went to concerts, but I rarely went to parties.
Instead, I imagined the parties that my classmates were going to. Wild parties riddled with coke and the benign neglect imparted on rich kids, soundtracked to Uffie or whatever I thought cool LA kids listened to in 2007. I imagined my friends, smoking and making out, moving on to another stage of teendom I wasn’t ready for.
So I streamed episodes of Skins instead.
“Landslide” played on the radio en route to the reunion, something that I found cloyingly nostalgic to the point of absurd. But I had little choice in my music selection: My mom’s car just missed the ubiquity of USBs, the CD player didn’t work, I hadn’t owned a tape since 1999, and the oldies station is the only good radio station in Southern California. My most formative high school years were spent listening to the local indie rock station; but it—like rock, in my most cynical take—is dead. A regional Mexican music station replaced it. So I was stuck with Stevie Nicks’s pained crooning as I exited the freeway and was hit with a wave of nerves. I made my way onto the tiny on-campus parking lot and prepared to get out of the car, but I was terrified.
I stayed in my car for a few minutes, avoiding my classmates and coaxing one of my best friends from those years who lived nearby to come. I’m not particularly shy, and I was here, on this campus, almost every single day from 2002 to 2008. The people I’d see weren’t strangers, but I later realized that they might as well have been.
It was like I reverted to my teen self, someone who felt awkward navigating the world in my body.
But I finally emerged, quickly calling out to an old friend I hadn’t seen since graduation, and awkwardly greeting another who I never talked to in high school. Her son was in tow, the ultimate marker, more than anything else, that time had truly passed.
The reunion was an exceedingly normal affair. As I roamed my old campus, noting what changed—a building where I took most of my English and History classes was somehow bought by a doggie daycare and spa; peak LA)—and what had stayed the same. But what was most revealing were the conversations I had with people I rarely spoke to in the six years I knew them. In a small school with a class of about 130, where everyone knows everyone, that meant something. I befriended the fiancé of a dude I had designated as someone who was friends with the “cool guys” I loathed. He always seemed nice enough, but he was guilty by association. It turns out that he was a sweetheart, and likely always has been.
Still, when you’re a teenager none of this matters. You have the people you talk to, the people you don’t, and the people who exist in a gray area, a social DMZ where talking to each other is rare, but peaceful and uneventful. It’s unhinged, the extent to which we wall ourselves off in adolescence.
I think about this a lot with one of my classmates in particular: We both liked a lot of the same music, but didn’t—in my eyes—get along, all thanks to an incident in ninth grade. One I made sure to bring up when I ran into him that night.
“Do you remember us getting into a fight in English class?”
“Us? A fight?” he asked, incredulous.
“You said that Courtney Love killed Kurt Cobain, and I started arguing with you about it!” I said. I was deep in my Nirvana phase, so this was the most important thing on the planet at the time.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember that at all!” he said, seeming to cringe at the prospect of having that opinion.
But I cringed, too, because I had written him off. Maybe there were other things that I can’t remember now—maybe one stupid disagreement about a long-dead rock star and being in different social circles is enough when you’re 14. I was 27 and still recalling this moment like it was yesterday, while it was of no consequence to him at all. I wondered which of my other teen moments—stupid or otherwise—appear in someone’s mind with absolute clarity, moments that I’ve long forgotten. It put my lingering grudges into some perspective, reminded me that we are no longer our teen selves, thank God.
At the reunion, I broke long-held mythologies about my classmates, who remained frozen in time as 17-year-olds. But I also began to tear down the mythologies I held for myself.
I still look back at my teens with a score sheet of what I could have done better, of parties I wish I wasn’t too afraid to go to, of the friendships I could have maintained if I saw friendship as something we all have to work on, not something I’m entitled to simply because of the time spent and the secrets shared.
For years, I denied the fact that my mid-to-late teens were deeply lonely. I wasn’t so indifferent to the fact that I was never kissed. All those times that I said that I preferred to revel in the excitement of my friends’ relationships hid the fact that I never felt worthy of attraction, destined to be the sexless friend whose crushes were things of fancy, not rooted in reality. My trepidation towards drugs and alcohol had less to do with breaking my parents’ trust and more to do with the fact that I was a judgmental bitch who was chronically risk-averse and couldn’t accept that others weren’t. It was easier to tell myself that my friends were choosing pot over me than to admit that I had a stick up my ass and was jealous that they were having fun without me. It was a kind of self-centeredness that I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to acknowledge as a teen, but embarrasses me today.
As much as I viewed my most abhorred classmates as shallow assholes, the truth was that I was hardly better. After all, I was the one who spent 10 years holding onto my negative thoughts about my classmates, and to bitterness about the lack of closure given to my more fraught high school friendships.
As I accepted this alternate history, this truth, I took a deep breath and exhaled 10 years of lies.