Some of my favorite people from high school
I have been in total blast-from-the-past mode for the past couple of months. It started when I learned, via Facebook, that my high school was having its first official reunion, 30 years after our graduation day in May 1981. There was an “event” page and everything.
My initial reaction was that there was no way I would even contemplate attending such an event. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the very idea gave me hives. Not too long ago, in fact, in an attempt to eliminate clutter, I almost tossed my six yearbooks from The Birch Wathen School, which I attended from 7th through 12th grade–longer than any other school I’ve ever attended. The almost-tossing wasn’t because it was a particularly awful experience (certainly no worse than any other six-year chunk of my life, anyway), but because, for whatever reason, the yearbooks induced nothing in me except bemused detachment; they felt entirely dispensable. I’d spent the past few years processing my approximately 20 years with R and the stack of photo albums documenting our marriage and children and all that. High school? Completely off my radar.
But, slowly, as a result of the reunion’s FB event page, I reconnected with a few high school friends online and I began to wax nostalgic. I dragged out the yearbooks and flipped through them with newfound fascination–at the black-and-white pictures of people talking on pay phones, with dials, attached to the wall! Of me with my so-unfashionable-at-the-time curls tamed via vengeful blow dryer into something vaguely resembling the desired Farrah Fawcett hairdo! Of all the girls wearing our school’s required skirts, looking like the Orthodox Jewish women of today. Of the boys sporting resentfully-loosened ties and ill-fitting sports jackets. (All any of us wanted was to wear jeans to school. We got to during final exams and on “Grub Day,” a 50-cents-a-person fundraiser that occurred a few times a year.) Of me attached at the hip to my renegade, delightfully delinquent high school boyfriend, who is still, apparently, off the grid, with only seven FB friends and no photo, even. (Imagine!)
Then, last Saturday, my high school classmates and I finally reunited in person. I’ve stayed in touch with a handful, but most of them I had not seen since I was 17. I saw the guy with whom I went on my first date ever, as well as the friend who initially introduced me to R when they ended up as roommates after college. I saw another guy who impressed me with how much he has grown up in three decades. It was one big episode of Christina Frank: This is YOUR life. (The renegade did not make an appearance, which was mostly a relief, but sort of disappointing too.) The former girls, now women, were the best. The whole experience, was–for lack of a more old-school word–awesome (a word no one used in the 1970s, btw, certainly not for all things ordinary, as they do now. Nor would anyone have known wtf btw meant back then, fyi.)
I did not realize until I went off to college in the Midwest just how unusual my upbringing and high school experience were compared to that of most of the country. The Birch Wathen School was housed in a seven-story townhouse on the Upper East Side, across 71st Street from the Frick Museum. My graduating class consisted of 48 people. Our senior prom took place at The Plaza Hotel (yes, that one, where Eloise lived). Many of us grew up in sprawling apartments on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and their environs, with doormen and elevator men and handymen and–coincidentally or not–profoundly flawed, not-present parents. It was a strange combination of privilege and neglect that many (not all) of us knew, and it was comforting to again be in the presence of people who understood that very specific milieu during that very specific time. We hung out in Central Park. Our Huk-A-Poo shirts and Frye boots came from Bloomingdale’s. We bought our after-school candy (Swedish fish and Ice Cubes) at a store called Caviar-teria and thought nothing of it. In health class, we were warned about the dangers of Quaaludes and VD. It was the convergence of a certain slice of New York City at a certain time in history.
I didn’t even begin to comprehend the unusualness of how I grew up until I flew off to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, surrounded by girls named Millie and Muffy (really!) who belonged to sororities and dated frat boys. I was referred to as “the girl from New York” in my dorm, I guess because I wore black most of the time. (As one of my classmates said at the reunion: “WHY did our guidance counselor send me to Duke?? Why didn’t she know what she was doing? WHAT was she thinking? I was traumatized!”) Ultimately, I gravitated to those who passed for freaks at Northwestern and I love them still; for my junior year I transferred to SUNY Purchase, which felt like home again. Phew.
Reuniting with my Birch Wathen classmates was unexpectedly powerful. I felt like omg, those six years were the most formative years of my entire life–which is, I guess, what nostalgia will do to you. I saw most of those people almost every day for six years, after all–the years during which I morphed from unpopular, skinny, geeky, flat-chested girl to a prettier, curvier, more-confident one who had cool friends, a boyfriend, and who no longer cared what anyone thought of her.
I see now that The Birch Wathen Class of 1981 was a family of sorts, with assorted roles and personalities–the good, the bad and the ugly. It took me 30 years to understand the significance of that experience, but it was well worth it.