I made it as far as the parking lot of the restaurant for the Friday night meet-and-greet. “I’m not sure I can do this,” I told my husband, Joe, who had just scored a newly vacated parking space for our rental car.
Having purposefully missed the fifth, tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth reunions, I had agreed to attend the fortieth, ostensibly because a dear friend was on the committee. But at that moment, even after flying a third of the way across the country, I wasn’t so sure.
I had been bullied in school. It started in first grade and didn’t end until June 1977 when I, the nervous, tongue-tied 17-year-old valedictorian, left high school. Everything deemed me a target, especially anxiety that made me a cry-baby in elementary school and still attacks me now, but never with more than a ripple across the surface of a well-practiced poise.
I’ll admit I checked the reunion list in advance: Not one of my former adversaries was attending. Plus, Facebook has come along since the old days. My high school classmates who have connected with me are welcome in my circle—and I in theirs.
Still, I was experiencing an emotional flashback to the times when a small knot of peers could completely undo my confidence. I’d trip over my own tongue, say the wrong thing, and land in a puddle of shame.
But that’s not now, and that’s not me. I repeated this all the way to the front door of the restaurant. Two recognizable, smiling faces greeted me; hugs engulfed me. These were gracious, friendly people, many of whom I hadn’t seen since I was 17. Within minutes, I was having a great time.
Then sometime during the evening, a yearbook from our freshman year appeared. Discomfort tightened my insides through page after page of cooler kids—albeit in a lot of plaid—and then….me. Having a November birthday, I was only 13 when the photo was taken: scrawny, in a skirt, vest, and (who knew why!) saddle shoes; a mop of dark hair and little dark round glasses—a prototype for a female Harry Potter, but without the whimsy.
I’d like to say I felt warm and fuzzy toward this younger self, that I suddenly wanted to time travel back to 1973 and assure this scared little girl. Instead, I wanted to trade her for one of the cool kids. Even after all this time, I still cringed without an ounce of compassion for her.
Then it struck me: I was clinging to a past I wanted to hide from, dragging it around like my own shadow. I smiled and charmed my way through the evening and the barbecue the next day. But I needed to reconcile my painful memories and embrace my younger self who still embarrasses me and occasionally resurfaces when I feel awkward and unsure of myself.
The insights came on the Sunday morning after the reunion, on a walk Joe and I took along the river that cuts my hometown in two. It occurred to me that, as a Great Lakes port, the town is used to letting people go. I left at 21 and chafed at the moorings that remained. But as I appreciate what I love about the place—my family, the natural beauty there—I can celebrate where I came from without getting stuck.
I am who I am, thanks in large part to where I came from and the experiences, both positive and negative, that shaped me. Attending the reunion helped me realize that the only bully is my own toxic perfectionism.
I watched a cluster of foam riding the river and imagined it pouring into Lake Ontario, then the St. Lawrence Seaway and finally the Atlantic Ocean—every drop swallowed by a greater whole. It was time: I closed my eyes and felt those old hurts start to seep away.