There’s a television commercial running that shows people contemplating whether or not they should go to their high school reunion. If I had to guess from looking at the balding, slightly puffy actors, I would say they are about 20 years removed from their Alma maters. One woman is shown peering into her closet and scrunching up her nose at her wardrobe choices while another man slides his hair piece up and down.
It made me think of my Breakfast Club high school experience. I related so much to all of the Brat Pack movies. They had drugs, alcohol, sex, insecurity, popularity, neediness, confusion and want in slightly different proportions than I had. But nonetheless, there were clear parallels. If I had to pick a character to identify with, I’d like to say it was Demi Moore or Molly Ringwald in most of the movies. But in reality, I was more like Ally Sheedy – the dark, brooding girl who talked little and smoked much. I was the one who hid behind her hair and scared people just a little. I didn’t wear black. Instead I disappeared behind a collage of tie-dye, ripped jeans and wool Baja jackets – sometimes concealing an homage to Ziggy Stardust or Michael Jackson. Shhhh – I was all Grateful Dead on the outside.
But despite the visual differences between me and Ally Sheedy, there were several not-so-subtle similarities. I walked with my head down for the second half of my high school sentence. This was after I had finally clawed my way into the preppy crowd and then was matter of factly dismissed for becoming friends with an unpopular girl. Who, by the way, after having had indulged in my friendship for a summer, later became the center of the popular crowd. It was then that the carefree and quirky spirit of my childhood bunched up into a tangled web of insecurities and not good-enoughs. My hair was never big enough and my thighs never small enough. I was either too smart for the intellects or not quite flexible enough for the cheerleaders. I was a turd on the buffet table. Nobody wanted me.
There were other turds, although they were more like caviar or tartare. They were wholly unappealing on their own but when placed at the center of a rather vanilla menu, they stood out like tasty delicacies. These were the super smart ones – that wore horn-rimmed glasses decades after and before they were cool. These were the ones that brooded in a more stylish way – that attracted rather than repelled. These were the kids who appeared just as screwed up and lost as me – but were totally okay with it. They honestly didn’t care one way or another whether they were part of the in crowd. They were the secure, self-assured nuts that held the whole popular machine together.
When high school ended, we scattered like colored leaves, each in our own unique directions. Some of us went flying through the air across states and countries. Others drifted around for a while and finally landed securely on a soft bed of lush grass. And some of us just dropped, wet and soggy, sticking firmly to the dull ground below. But something happened to those soggy leaves, this soggy leaf, in the years after the commencement. My insecurities and not-good-enoughs grew with each passing year. Instead of emerging from my straight-jacket cocoon and discovering my butterfly beautiful self, I wriggled around like a bug trying to get out of a jar. I kept taking flight only to hit the ceiling and fall to the bottom more bruised each time. I would scurry from edge to edge and peer against the glass prison of my life and wonder how to get to the other side, to the world of living, breathing things that had what I wanted and were where I wanted to be.
I spent years with my bug face pressed up against the glass. I tried to change my outside, trading my Bajas and yarn bracelets for toned biceps and toe rings. I cut my hair – oh did I cut my hair, time and time again only to be disappointed that the girl underneath was still the same. I gathered other bugs and some ruffage to make the world inside the glass hell look like the vibrant world outside. It didn’t work. Instead it got very crowded and humid inside and things died and smelled. So I lost my mind in a haze of alcohol, depression and self-deprecation. I smoked, drank, and did anything I could to stay barely alive, not necessarily in that order. The sides of my glass got heavy with condensation and I couldn’t breathe. I tried valiantly a few more times to break through the tin lid, mustering up all of my Ally Sheedy defiance and hoping to look like Molly Ringwald as I sailed through the top. The lid came off. But instead of Molly Ringwald, I looked like the drunk girl in Sixteen Candles.
From the outside, it would appear that I had accomplished everything I had ever wanted. I had the clothes, the figure, the home, the family, the cracked smile. But on the inside, I made no sense and my hair was stuck in the door. And I didn’t care anymore. I wonder how that girl in Sixteen Candles turned out by her 20th, 30th high school reunion. Did she care what others thought of her? Did she get drunker and turn into a complete disaster? Or did she turn out like me? Did she wear the mask and put on a good show for a few decades only to find herself drunk on the floor again?
That’s where I ended up. I found myself stuck in the door but this time with no laughing friends willing to help me get out. I had to grab the scissors myself and cut my hair free. I had to pull myself up to a crawling position and make my own way to the front door and break through the glass. I had to do the walk of shame into the rooms, slide into the chair in the back and reveal my Ally Sheedy-ness in all it’s glory. It took time to brush the hair from my face so that others could see I had a broken smile. It took work and effort for my tense knot of lack to unravel and become more slinky-like. It took years of drowning in myself to learn how to swim out of my head and into the light of my loving God and the arms of other misfits. It took decades out of the classroom to finally learn that I can live outside of the glass once I’m willing to set myself free from myself.
I don’t go to high school reunions anymore. I never found my place within that group of people 30 years ago and I doubt I would now. My mom and dad still go to their high school reunions, 50, 55, and 60 years later. They told me that as the years went by, the reunions got better and better. People dropped their pretentiousness, their expectations of themselves and others, their facades. They were more real, more human as time went by. Maybe it’s because they experienced more life with all its hurts, pain and disappointments. Maybe they stopped taking themselves so damned seriously. I know that I did.
I wonder how many of my classmates changed. I doubt too many were privileged enough to experience the metamorphosis I did. I bet many of them are still stuck in their flat, airless, self destructive glass prisons. I hear that I am one of the lucky few. I got to suffer, struggle and squirm so that I could emerge renewed. It took me all those years to grow from a turd into a smelly fish egg. And today, I wouldn’t trade my place on the buffet table for anything in this world.