What I Learned From My High School Reunion
And why I was afraid to go.
“No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other’s worth.” — Robert Sout
A few years ago I attended my 30th high school reunion. To be honest, I almost didn’t go. When I received the invitation, I quickly dismissed the possibility of attending, thinking that it would be an unnecessary exercise in social anxiety and a painful reminder that things haven’t turned out how I thought they would when I donned that cap and gown and sense of invincibility three decades ago. What changed my mind was a poignant Facebook post from a classmate named Dan, who explained why he was attending the reunion despite feeling “like an outcast” in high school. Recalling how he was bullied and struggled with guilt and shame, he wrote:
Yet at the same time while that pain is there, it’s amazing how much has changed…I have also learned that many of my former schoolmates have carried their own pains which were unbeknownst to me…We’ve all had our burdens…
When I read Dan’s words — and the many heartfelt responses to his post — it ignited a spark in me. I suddenly thought that maybe the reunion doesn’t have to be a superficial experience of cocktail party chatter, a mere exchanging of accomplishments like cheap trophies. Maybe it’s a chance to connect on a deeper level — to ourselves, to the very human and flawed people we were in high school, and the older and wiser but still vulnerable human beings we are now.
I bought my ticket and then noticed my anxiety beginning to bubble up. While I longed to connect with people and share our journeys in a meaningful way, it was hard to imagine how I would do that. My experience was different from Dan’s — he was someone who suffered deeply in high school but now was able to share how far he had come and how fulfilling his life is now. While I had my pains in high school, I had thrived, and my future seemed limitless. It was several years after graduation that a series of unforeseen events changed my life. As everyone at the reunion would be sharing stories of their families and careers, it was painful to imagine how my story would sound: “Well, actually, I got seriously ill at age 28 and had to give up a career I loved and my plan to have children, and then my husband had a massive stroke and our marriage failed, and now I’m dating, but nobody special, and I’m managing my chronic illness, and trying to make the best of it.” Surely that would send anyone who crossed my path running for the hills!
But that story is not who I am.
Like so many others who struggle with chronic illness, I’ve strived to make my life meaningful despite my limitations, and I truly believe that life can be worthwhile even in the face of heartbreaking losses and nothing going as planned. The question is how to be authentic, to hold both the good and the bad in one big messy package and be at peace with all of it.
I realized that just because I’m not who I thought I’d be doesn’t mean I don’t get to fully embrace who I was and who I am. This was what I truly wanted to experience at the reunion — to see my own life as an integration of who I was then and now, rather than to feel like my past had been “lost” like so many other things in life. Those dreams and achievements are still mine, as are the mistakes and hardships that I’ve learned from. I wanted not just to hear everyone’s “stats” and accomplishments, but to hear about the roads they’ve traveled, the hills and valleys along the way. I wanted to share real memories — good or bad — about the experiences that meant something to us in high school, and how we’ve changed since then. These are the things you can’t get from a Facebook post.
At the reunion, I met many wonderful people — some I had been close with and others I hadn’t had the chance to get to know. I found everyone warm and welcoming without exception. I got to hear what others remembered about me, things I might have done that had an impact, or insignificant stories that were simply so much fun; and I was able to share with people some of the things I remembered about them. There were many hugs and a lot of laughter. I even confessed my hopeless infatuation to my 7th grade crush.
It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I cringed when people asked questions like “What’s your story?” or “What have you been doing?” But most of the time it felt really good to connect with my former classmates. Whether I shared a little or a lot about my own story, I tried to be authentic, to resist the need to appear as someone other than who I am.
I know that many of you who are reading this won’t be able to attend your high school reunion, for whatever reason. But if you can — or if you have the opportunity to reunite with anyone with whom you’ve shared important history, I’d highly recommend it. There is something about taking ownership of past experiences and memories alongside the realities of our current lives — our journey as a whole — that helps to bring us home to ourselves.
Thom Singer, another of my classmates now an author and speaker, shared this advice for attending a reunion:
Time has a way of eliminating the importance of who was the cool one, the attractive one, the smart one, the rich one, or the athletic one. Show up and be the one who cares about the others in the room, and you will find most of your classmates are just like you (they care too, or they would not have shown up).
In fact, this is good advice for showing up in life. Whether or not you’re attending a reunion, it can be meaningful to reflect on where you’ve been and where you are, and to let go of the limiting beliefs that no longer serve you. Try asking yourself: what is my story? Our stories are not just the things that have happened to us, or what we’ve accomplished or failed to achieve. They are all of these things, but most of all, they are defined by how we show up in the world and our capacity to touch others in some way. Our stories are not just about the big milestones but also the small moments.
Brené Brown wrote, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” That practice of authenticity — often so frightening to contemplate, is what allows us to experience compassion for ourselves and to truly connect with others. When we are authentic, we allow and encourage other people to show up as their true selves. The results can be extraordinary.
Don’t let who you thought you’d be keep you from fully embracing who you are now. There’s no need to discard parts of yourself — the achievements and passions you held close to your heart — because they “no longer apply” to your life today. These things have made you who you are. It may seem like a reunion is only about people from your past. But maybe — just maybe — it’s a chance to reunite with the person you’ve forgotten the most about: you.