23. Rethinking high school

Retirement, with lots of time to sit and stare and think, is a good time to reflect back on things we’ve always assumed were a certain way… until we have reason to suspect that maybe they weren’t.

I attended my 55th high school reunion recently. Throughout high school, my life centered around a group of friends – boys and girls – who hung out on weekends at one girl’s house. We were all close friends, and our activities were pretty tame: eating chips, drinking sodas, and listening to Ray Charles, Peter Paul & Mary, and Diana Ross. And lots of heavy discussions about life. Some of us drank in high school, but never at this girl’s house. Her mom made sure of that.

The two core members of this gang were the girl who lived there, and a guy who lived down the street from her. They’d been close friends their whole life. He died 10 years ago, and she died just a few weeks ago.

At the recent reunion, I had two unsettling conversations about these two close friends.

The guy was the very bright student council president, known for his sharp, sarcastic wit. We had all been the object of his sarcasm countless times. His sarcastic wit didn’t bother us, and we assumed it didn’t bother others.

An example. Someone enters a room in which he and a group of people are chatting away. He stops talking, looks at the person who just walked in, turns back to the group and says, “Quiet, here he is!” Is that funny… or cruel? I always thought it was funny, even when I was the target.

We understood this kind of humor because we all did the same thing. But what about a new, shy kid who walked into the room, and heard, “Quiet. Here he is.”  Back then, I never wondered about that kid.

At the reunion, I was paging through the countless high school pictures. One classmate, whom I did not know well, pointed to a picture of this guy. “God, he was mean!” she said. “He always called me a name I didn’t like. Every time he saw me in the halls, he’d laugh and call me that name! I tell you, when he died a few years ago, I wasn’t at all sad.”

Whoa. There was a lot of anger in those words, a lot of hurt. Enough to last 55 years.

The second conversation was with a classmate who is a close friend of mine, but who wasn’t part of this particular group. This conversation was about the girl at whose house we hung out.

You need to understand that she was an outgoing girl with a big heart. She had lots of friends, both boys and girls, but to my knowledge she never had a boyfriend in high school. She did have this very close group of friends who hung out at her house. She was important to us, and I always thought we were important to her.

At the reunion, my good friend asked me if I ever thought that our group had taken advantage of this girl, and ultimately treated her in a hurtful manner. Coincidentally, I had recently wondered the same thing myself.

The fact is, when guys in the gang had dates on a Friday or Saturday night, we’d take our dates home, and then come by this girl’s house. We’d hang out, drink sodas, listen to music, and talk about everything, including our dates. We assumed that she enjoyed everyone hanging out there, eating her parents’ food, and hearing about our dates.

What were we thinking???

Looking at that scenario today, I can think of nothing more insensitive than the way we – especially the guys – treated our very close, very important friend.

She never married. She had a successful career as an elementary school teacher, and retired comfortably many years ago. I kept in touch with her through e-mail and Facebook, and saw her every few years in St. Louis and at reunions. Her high school friends still in St. Louis kept in close touch with her. Our high school group friendships have been maintained over the years.

High school years can be torturous, especially for kids who are in some way different. We’ve always known that; it will probably always be the case. When I was 12, my 19-year-old brother warned me that I’d soon go through an awkward, pimple-ridden phase called adolescence. I’m still waiting for that phase.

Thanks to friends like these two, and many others who were part of the gang, my high school memories are mainly happy ones. But now I’m wondering if, due to my teenaged lack of sensitivity, I was not as good a friend as I could have been to this girl and others.

Sadly, it’s too late to have this conversation with her. Except… she was one of the first subscribers to this blog. Maybe she gets free wi-fi.

11 thoughts on “23. Rethinking high school

  1. Larry, thank you for that. I was part of the “cool kid” group most of my high school years. The fact that I was awarded “The Dating-est” as my Senior Superlative Award tells you a lot. But when I had the life-shattering loss of my daughter last year, one of the first to come to my aid was the girl who was not popular. Her home life was hidden and sad. She never married and I believe she is now happily with a female partner. She was quiet, didn’t go to parties or dances. Yet, she had an amazing Gospel Mass said for my daughter at a very progressive Church near where she lives, taped it and sent it to me, along with many messages of encouragement and an invitation for my husband & I to visit anytime. My point being that I believe those kids were maybe morally stronger than I was, they had more empathy because they needed understanding. I can tell you that she means the world to me now and I wish I had appreciated her then.

  2. I’ve always wondered who I made an impression on in High School. I know for certain I wasn’t a bully, and I had friends in many of the different cliques, but I wonder if those friends I had in those cliques are remembered poorly. I think my skin was just thick back then; I was concerned only with myself and a few close friends and everything else just washed over me. I would be interested to hear about the experience of others in the same setting, though.

  3. It wasn’t just him, anyone who wanted to be popular like him, joined in. I lost friends who didnt want to be associated with a “loser”.
    I was asked by some to join a Tri-hi-y group. When I entered the room a very popular girl came up and asked what I was doing there. I told her who had invited me and she said,”no, you certainly don’t belong here, get out.” I heard snickering in the very full room.
    I ran down the hall crying and was stopped by 2 girls from the “bad crowd” who became lifelong friends.
    I never knew what I had done to be so unacceptable. Yes, it has stayed with me for 60 years. I had no issues in grade school. This started at the begining of 7th grade and continued through high school.
    Bullying hurts and is hard to forget. I’ve always felt uneasy in new groups.

  4. Larry,
    Thank you for for a very thoughtful post reflecting on High School relationships.
    Unfortunately that still happens today but I feel that as we age we hopefully grow stronger and are able to move on from the hurtful ways of others.

  5. Grade school & High school can be tough for many. I did not live where the cool kids lived, I was not part of the cool kids cliques. I was made fun of and it was hurtful but I guess I got over it or moved on. I recently went to, and was part of the organizing committee for our 50th grade school reunion (on the committee since I had organized 2 high school reunions). On the committee I felt fully accepted and, at the reunion one classmate who was particularly rough on me, apologized for being so hurtful. I guess thay my point is perhaps your friend had forgiven any hurt she may have felt…I am sure, by reading your post, that it was not intentional. The fact that you kept in touch over the years says she harbored no ill will.

  6. Thinking ‘Z’ man? I was only there my senior year but I understood his humor and felt comfortable with him. I certainly understand how some could have been hurt. At that age, sensitivity ruled many.

  7. Did nit fid.

    I’ll try again: Larry, tho I was not really on the inside of that special group, I do nelieve that ‘in those days’ we all found our own ways to ‘fit in’ and to feel as good as we could in our own ways.

    I’m pretty sure that if our descibed special gal had regrets or bad feelings from back then, she certainly would have told you. Getting married is just not what made Everyone Happy although we knew it was the norm.

    It only took me 50 years, not 55, to realize that Everyone knew that I was singularly of a different religion. Duh.

  8. A lovely essay, my friend. In my mid-thirties I dropped by a gathering of seven or eight of my high school class of 21. I sat there in shock as they described crying themselves to sleep, being miserable and upset, and suffering other traumas. “What are you talking about?” I asked in disbelief. “I had a great time in high school.” In unison they said, “We know YOU did.” Really. In unison. Hindsight is quite an interesting view.

    1. Similar experiences with classmates from our class of 400+, Barb. Many classmates describe their high school experience as painful. I suspect that was probably true in my daughter’s high school class (’90) and my son’s (class of ’07) as well.

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