I attended my, ahem, 40th school reunion last May. To be clear, it was the 40th reunion of the preppy little private day school in suburban Virginia that I attended from 1965 to 1973, which at the time went only through the ninth grade, after which most of my classmates went off to various East Coast private and prep schools. I myself chose to leave before our glorious crowning ninth grade year for the uncertain chaos of the local, big public high school—a place that did not, unlike my private school, have uniforms, traditions, endless green playing fields surrounded by endlessly undulating wooded hills, and a who’s who of rich and powerful alumni. It was a step down, socially, but shucks, I was a rebel and by my teen years I’d had enough of the lily-white day school that educated the lucky children of the Washington, D.C., urban elite. And so I set off for the lily-white public high school that educated the children of the Washington, D.C., suburban elite.
Niceties aside, at my day school, I was a social outcast: a weirdo, a loser, a freak, a yuck, the girl who couldn’t catch or hit or kick a ball to save her life; the kid who was always put at the slow learning table; the one who always, but always, said the wrong thing, muffed the answer, or forgot her lines. It didn’t help that I was Jewish, one of the few, along with my siblings, at the school. Being Jewish didn’t help matters, but I can’t blame my tribal affiliation and Semitic genetics for my deep social retardation. I was just, you know, one of those kids: miserable, homely, allergic to all kinds of academic subjects that it was incumbent upon me to learn (like math, science, and languages), and not just indifferent to but flat-out terrified of the rigors of athletics, which were big at my school. If it weren’t for the even bigger losers of the geek hall of fame—the kid who picked his nose, the girl who spazzed out every time the teacher called on her, the boy who stuttered—I would have been consigned, forever, to the social dustbin, without hope, or faith, or light of any kind.
I couldn’t wait to go to my May reunion, though. I couldn’t bloody wait. Starting in February, I counted down the days. Not literally. Okay, literally. For one thing, this reunion was the first I was able to get to, and that’s because, until a few years ago, I lived too far away from suburban Virginia to even think about making the shlepp, not just to the backdrop of my many, many, many childhood and adolescent humiliations, but also to the same bedroom that I came back to daily, to cry into my pillow about all the mean things that the mean kids had done to me that day. Poignant, people! Poignant!
Actually, when I emerged from my car after five hours of bliss on I-95, my 85-year-old father greeted me at the door to my childhood home with a hearty, “You’re late for dinner,” which was followed, after dinner, by a stern warning not to stay out too late. He also exhorted me to sleep in the room that he still calls “Jennifer’s room,” rather than the room across the hall from it, once my little sister’s, which he still calls “Amalie’s room,” and which I prefer for its somewhat less bouncy bed. And on a final note of time-travel back to my thirteenth year, he told me that my cocktail dress was perhaps a bit too—er—he couldn’t say exactly, but didn’t I have something rather more shapeless to wear?
“You’re not going out like that, are you?” is how he put it.
And okay, I may as well admit that one of the main reasons I was so eager to go to my reunion was to say: hardy har har, you big meanies, because even though I once barely managed to be promoted from the sixth to the seventh grade, look at me now. I’m famous. Except for one little detail, which is that I’m not. Only one kid from our class, the actor Oliver Platt, grew up to be famous, and as far as I knew, he’d long since unleashed himself from any old school ties. My next-most-famous classmate grew up to be a U.S. Congressman, and, after him, pretty much everyone else was a lawyer. As for me, I knew I couldn’t do much in the way of out-and-out bragging, humble or not. Nor could I flaunt my three brilliant kids’ brilliant academic careers, because though my brilliant kids are brilliant at some things, such as complaining, not a single one of them is technically, or even kind of, brilliant. On the other hand, none of them had ever been arrested. On the other other hand, I did have a new right hip that worked so well that you’d never know that, before I got it, I couldn’t actually walk. That had to count for something, right?
Because if it didn’t, what on earth was I going to talk about with the cool kids?
Remember them? The ones who ran fast and scored goals, were invited to the good parties, and knew just how to toss their hair off their foreheads or turn a phrase or crack a joke and who were, in short, too cool for you? And where, oh where, are the cool kids now? And why on earth do I still, on occasion, feel that I’ll never be good enough, smart enough, sophisticated enough for them?
But according to the online invitation website that some young, technologically proficient person in the alumnae office had set up, the cool kids didn’t seem to be coming to the reunion at all, which called into question my own frantic enthusiasm for it. Because if you can’t demonstrate to the cool kids how awesome you’ve become, what’s the point?
Surely I jest: I mean, really, Jennifer, how old are you? Old enough to indulge in a little emergency cosmetic surgery? Just around the jawline, and perhaps the eyes? Do I really have to answer?
In any event, I went to my reunion, both nights of it, and found out that, duh, most people grow up to be grown-ups, meaning that the kid who once told me that my breath was so bad it could sink ships danced gentlemanly attendance on me when I momentarily felt a little dizzy, which is what will happen to a girl who is so agitated by her upcoming school reunion that she both doesn’t sleep and then decides to fight her fatigue by downing a really really strong cocktail way too fast. (I could give you other examples of fabulous middle age but don’t want to bore you to death.) So yes, it’s true that middle age has its upside, and that you really do get to grow up and out of your former self, that most people mellow with age, becoming less judgmental and more loving, and so forth and so on, except I have to say that there was another side of my reunion that caught me by surprise: pretty much exactly the same people—and yes, I could name names—who once upon a time I found dull, or sugary-perfect, or simpering, or just plain annoying, when I didn’t have the social standing, let alone the self-respect, to pick and choose, I still found dull, sugary-perfect, simpering, or just plain annoying.
We change, only maybe not so much.
I don’t know whether other aging adolescents share my mix of trepidation and sheer, outright weirdness when it comes to their own reunions. But as my college-age daughter, Rose, pointed out, when I explained to her what a bummer it was that the cool kids didn’t come to my own reunion: the cool kids never come. That’s what makes them cool.
Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.