Tuesday, April 24, 2007


THAT letter came in the mail recently. You know the one. The one that says (insert your high school's name here) 40TH HIGH SCHOOL REUNION.

I COULDN'T have graduated from high school 40 years ago next month. I must have been swept up in a tesseract (which, as Madeline L'Engle explains in "A Wrinkle in Time," is a folding of the fabric of space and time). One minute, there I was reading "Rebecca" in study hall and the next minute I've been transported to the other side of the universe. I've been married almost 33 years and I have a daughter who's nearly 25. I'm composing an essay at a computer, not a typewriter, and the "wrinkles in time" show on my face. How can that be? I'm still in love with Paul McCartney, aren't I? Don't I still tune to CKCK Radio in Winnipeg at 4:00 PM every day when rock music takes over the programming? Don't I still curl my hair in super-jumbo rollers? I'm still skinny, aren't I? Aren't I? (Looks down at her body) Oh, noooooooooo!

At first, my reaction was going to be to toss the reunion information in the trash and forget about it. I haven't gone to any of my reunions, and I could count on one hand the number of times I've seen a classmate since graduation. Well, that's not quite true. Every once in a while I encounter Tim Fay, my junior and senior prom date, in the aisles of K Mart or Wal Mart, usually accompanied by one or two of his four red-headed sons. We always have a good chat. God bless his mom. I'm sure she was the one who picked out orchids for me to wear to prom -twice. I was the only girl who had orchids, to be sure.

I turned my back on high school the minute I walked out the door after giving the valedictory address during Friday night's graduation. Saturday I cut off my long hair. Monday morning I started a job - a real job at a newspaper - at the invitation of the editor. I was going to blow that hick town and make a name for myself. Those kids I graduated with? Forget them. They were mean to me.

But this year I just might go, because I've had a change of heart.

Oh that I, at the tender age of 17, could have had the wisdom and maturity of my 57-year-old self. Those kids weren't mean to me. They didn't pick on me or bully me. The worst they might have done was ignore me. I think I saw them through the distorted mirror of my insecure self. They couldn't possibly LIKE someone like me.

Heck, they probably couldn't figure me out. The acknowledged class brain. A bookworm. Yes, I read "Rebecca" in study hall. And "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre" and "The Return of the Native" and "Les Miserables." I was tucked up into myself as cozily as one could get in study hall, and I tuned out the world. How could anyone have approached me even if they wanted to?

I LIKED diagramming sentences, drawing amoeba and learning that the assassination of the Archduke of Sarajevo started a chain reaction that led to World War I. How weird is that?

I saw myself as I thought others saw me, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with a not-quite-functional mother and a dad who wasn't my real dad. Inside, courtesy of all my reading and a rich fantasy life, I was a fairy changeling, switched out to live in reduced circumstances when I was meant to be an English Lady, newly arrived like Mrs. De Winter to take my rightful possession of Manderly.

I once froze up in French class when our instructor asked each of us to name the color of his/her bedroom. Just a simple exercise in rudimentary French, but to me an exercise in humiliation. I immediately flashed on the picture of my "bedroom." It was the living room of our one-bedroom house. We four kids slept in the living room - the two boys on the fold-out couch and my little sister and I on a twin daybed. "Bleu," I hurriedly mumbled, averting my eyes to avoid more questions.

Until I was a senior, I wasn't invited to a sleepover at someone's house. But to be fair about it, I didn't ask anyone to stay with me. I would NEVER have invited anyone to share that cramped, tiny, messy space.

I see now that circumstances came together to color my high school world. I went to a one-room country school in Larson, ND, where I thrived. When the teacher wasn't teaching my grade, I could go find a book from the (meager) library. Engrossed in a book, I was lost, utterly absorbed, in Armstrong Sperry's "Call It Courage," in "The Water Babies " and "Caddie Woodlawn." When I felt like listening to another class, I did, which probably reinforced the learning I already had. Occasionally I helped the younger kids. (In truth, I would sometimes impatiently grab the pencil from their hands and do the work myself.) After lunch, we would practice penmanship while the teacher read to us. No wonder I have such excellent handwriting and a love of literature.

In 7th grade, it was time to move on to the "big house", otherwise known as the high school, the red-brick edifice that was the tallest building in Columbus, ND. 7th grade was rough. Kids from three country schools tried to blend in with town kids who had known each other since first grade.

Every morning when the high school came into view, my stomach flipflopped. When I had to read aloud, my voice trembled and shook. Thank God - again - for Mrs. Loucks, a wonderful, wonderful teacher who ignored the shaky voice and recognized my talents. She was my champion and cheerleader for many, many years after I left CHS.

I was an anomaly, neither a country kid or city kid. The town kids had piano lessons and Girl Scouts. The country kids had 4-H. I was the "In Between Kid." I lived in the village of Larson four miles from Columbus. By the time I got on the bus, all the good seats were taken. I had to walk to the back of the bus, no one moving over for me, everyone glaring at me, feeling all the time like Rosa Parks. (My God, how dramatic I was. My situation had nothing to compare to Ms. Parks' valiant struggle.)

So what if I royally flubbed my cheerleading tryout. I wasn't a cheerleader. I wasn't being true to myself. So what if Miss K. didn't let me be librarian in my senior year? So what if the annual staff left out (on purpose, I was positive at the time) all my accomplishments and achievements. Memory is selective, isn't it? I forget that my classmates once threw me - ME - a dance to celebrate the fact that I had won the regional spelling bee. All those stupid grudges (but that annual stuff really did hurt.)

I remember one time when our health teacher conducted a class survey asking students to rate other students. I got the lowest rating in the class. Now, get this, it was only one kid rating one other kid, not a mass rating, but I was so hurt I went home bawling to my mother. Poor Mom, sympathetic but having no clue what to do, certainly not going into town (she didn't drive) and bawling out the health teacher. That wasn't Mom.

As I said, Mom didn't drive and my stepdad was gone long hours at a job that required constant traveling. When my gym teacher suggested that I try out for gymnastics club, I had to demur, as honored as I was. However, when it came to writing for the paper, I insisted. I felt the call to write and I had to stay after school for paper staff no matter what the cost. That meant spending many hours in the Columbus laundromat waiting for my stepdad to pick me up. While the dryers whirred, I once again was engrossed, this time in the politics of the ballrooms and battlefields of "War and Peace."

By the time I was a senior, I had received a measure of forbearance, if not acceptance. The kids were growing up, especially the girls. I had fun with my "country kid" classmates as we tooled around town and countryside, not quite willing to go home after play practice. We had picnics at Wildwood Park and the senior girls had sleepovers in a grain bin and in an open field (I said it was North Dakota, didn't I?) Perhaps if we had had about three more years of high school, I might have been one of the in crowd. But of course if I had today's wisdom I wouldn't have cared.

Columbus High School no longer exists, having been bulldozed into oblivion. Only the gym is left, I am told. The kids are bussed to that dreadful new North Dakota entity, the consolidated high school. Another former Columbusite told me that all the buildings on one side of Main Street imploded and fell down one day.

But as Elton John says, "I'm still standing." This time, if I don't go to my reunion, it will be due to finances only. It would be fun talk about how truly weird Miss K. was, about why we didn't like Mr. Eagle Beak, and how our none-too-bright social studies teachers were hired because they were primarily coaches (except Mr. G.). How some kids t-p'd the giant Christmas tree in the middle of Main Street, and no one ever tattled. How Mr. King always teased Bonnie Steffenson, who, I learned to my shock, died in an automobile accident.

A couple of others are gone too, but it would be nice to talk to the guy who was Mr. Bad Attitude in high school but, according to his letter in the the last reunion catalog, turned his life competely around. It'd be fun to see Babette, the gal who has had an adventurous life in Alaska, or the guy we nicknamed "Puff" (from his character in a school play and no reflection on his masculinity). I'd even like to visit with those of us who stayed in North Dakota, including Mr. Tim F. and me, still standing and still living the good life in Bismarck. As they say, there IS life after high school.


Lila Rostenberg said...

What a cute photo!
How did we ever survive high school?

Lisa Oceandreamer Swifka said...

This was an absolutely fascinating post to read!
Great photo too.