The Ghosts of High School Past

A 10-year reunion has me wrestling with shadows from my teenage years.

Two nights ago, about 40 of my old friends and acquaintances from Centennial High School’s Class of 1998 piled into a dark, cozy neighborhood bar in Baltimore to get together after 10 years. They came from across the country to have a few beers and catch up on old times over plates of hot wings. Or maybe BBQ riblets. Or maybe meatballs and mini-bruchettas.

I don’t know what they ate, actually — I was about 150 miles away, up to my elbows in bathwater while I scrubbed my 1.5-year-old and 3-year-old boys at our home in Bethlehem, PA. Then I shuffled them to bed, played a few rounds of an Internet game with my wife, and sat down to edit her latest essay.

We had planned to be in the Baltimore area this holiday weekend, before an illness changed our plans at the last minute (don’t worry; everybody’s on the mend now). But the truth is that even if we had managed to get down to Maryland, I’m not sure I would have made it those last few miles to the reunion.

It happens most often late of the night — when I’m peering at miles of dark highway stretching out in front of my headlights, or when I’m just staring through the blackness of my bedroom. My mind, seeking a psychic scab to pick at, dredges up my high school years and replays the failures, the betrayals.

I was smart, and I knew it. I nearly always succeeded in the classroom back then, and I found just enough social success to convince me that I knew everything about social interaction. I was never popular, but I worked my way up to a sort of semi-celebrity status as the student newspaper editor, a rock band frontman, and a high-profile nerd.

But far too often, my hubris left me to get blindsided. Like when people I respected, people I considered my friends, started making choices about relationships and alcohol that horrified me and my black-and-white morality.

Or the time in my junior year when I concocted elaborate, secret plans to woo my longtime crush into becoming my girlfriend after she agreed to accompany me to prom “as friends.”

Let’s just say prom wasn’t much fun that year.

The more powerful sting is from the times I hurt others through my arrogance. I tried to convince a friend not to take a high-powered academic course because I thought he might not fit in with the clique that dominated the class. I went behind the back of an adult friend in a ham-handed attempt to fix some social awkwardness. Later, I devastated my then-girlfriend by analyzing and picking apart the paintings she had poured her soul into, all because I presumed to know more about Cubism than she did.

Ultimately, my girlfriend was able to look beyond incidents like that, and we got married. But it has taken years for that wound to heal — and I still see the deep scar on both of us.

When I lie awake at night, I wonder if my other victims ever forgave me.

I was excited when I first heard about the reunion, but I couldn’t keep it up. I even forgot about it for months, never bothering to inquire about tickets or the guest list until less than a week before the event.

A few old friends helped put me in touch with the organizers last week — but glancing through the guest list only made things worse. A few old friends were planning to be there, but most of the expected attendees used to be in the more popular social circles, the cliques I had never dared to challenge. Many of my high school peers from Maryland are in California now, some with technology jobs that (I’m guessing) pay at least twice what I make as a reporter.

I contemplated showing up and bragging in my own way (“Hey, great to see you! By the way, I shook the Dalai Lama’s hand a few months back!”), but I couldn’t do it. That would mean giving up on 10 years of growth and reverting to the kid who had to pretend not to care what the popular crowd thought of him, who kept screwing up socially because arrogantly believed he could master this game.

That led to an even more frightening thought: Maybe there would be no need for regression. Maybe I still am that kid.

I dug up my high school yearbooks last night and paged through them. I found this note from a girl I knew well, written at the start of our senior year:

“I hope we’ll keep in touch for the rest of our lives. You are a kind thoughtful person [...] Dude — if you change, I swear I’ll beat you”

I smiled, but I had never realized until now how that trusty old compliment — don’t ever change — could be a curse.

High school was when so many parts of my personality calcified. I became the Writer, the Affable Nerd, the Computer Guy, the Boy Scout, the Night Owl. I became the Crusading Journalist, squaring off against my principal over freedom of the press. I became the Workaholic, staying well past dark in our windowless box of a school while putting out the newspaper. I became the Nice Guy, who handed out candy canes around Christmas and carnations to every girl I knew on Valentine’s Day.

Too often, unwittingly, I was also the Arrogant Jerk.

I can’t ever change who I was, but I’m starting to think the reunion would have been a good way to find out who I’ve become. I’ve dragged these specters around with me for 10 years; it’s time to see if they’re real or if they’ll vanish in the sunlight.

When another high school friend ran into me on Facebook last week, the thing that struck him most wasn’t that I’m married, or that I have kids — it’s that I don’t have a ponytail anymore. That’s how I looked through nearly all of high school; that’s how he’s always imagined me for the last 10 years.

I chopped off my long hair in late 2000. It’s time to see what else has changed.

Article © 2008 by Michael Duck