Denise Day Spencer

July 30, 2006

Thirty years the wiser

Filed under: Personal reflections — denisedayspencer @ 2:47 am

In the summer we always have our annual Homecoming at Oneida Baptist Institute. Our Homecomings are different from most high school reunions. Anybody who has ever attended OBI (and former faculty and staff, and friends of the school, and pretty much anyone else who would like a great BBQ lunch!) is welcomed and encouraged to come. We recognize classes celebrating 5, 10, 15 (etc.) year reunions, with a special emphasis on the 50th anniversary class.

It all reminded me of last summer, when I attended my 30th high school reunion. It was the first reunion I had ever been to. I guess it took me 30 years to get up the nerve.

Actually, it took me quite a while to care. The first, oh, 20 years or so, I really had no interest in going back. I still remember walking across the parking lot after my graduation and thinking, “Thank goodness high school is over. I’m ready to move on.” I went to college, made new friends, and pretty much cut all ties from my high school days.

High school was for me, in many ways, not the happiest of times. Middle school was even worse. (Come to think of it, elementary school wasn’t all that great, either.) You see, I was an introvert. Getting involved in drama in high school helped me come out of my shell a bit, but I was still so shy that it hurt. I had a few close friends, and I wasn’t some kind of weirdo who everyone shunned or laughed at, but many days I felt like I might as well be.

I remember all the other girls flirting with the guys. They made it look so easy! But it was as if they were speaking a language unknown to me. What did they say to the boys? What could they possibly talk about? How did they do that? If I tried to even say “Hi” to a boy, the word seemed to clog my throat like a hardened lump of Cream of Wheat.

I hung out with both guys and gals, particularly in our little church youth group. I just…um…never said much. I was invited to other girls’ birthday parties and slumber parties. I was just…well…really quiet. Even in girls-only situations, I felt awkward. I couldn’t start a conversation, and I could barely contribute to one. I tried to fit in, but I knew–I just knew–that they must have invited me to the party because they felt obligated to. Perhaps their mothers had said, “Now, you are going to invite Denise, aren’t you?”

So it was with relief that I went away to college. I needed to start over. I wanted to change. And I did. I met new friends. I joined the Baptist Student Union choir and the BSU revival team. And I had good guy friends for the first time in my life! With never a backward glance at high school, I moved forward.

I had gotten other invitations to reunions through the years. At first, I had no interest in the idea whatsoever. But by the 20th, I think it was, I began to be mildly curious. Who showed up for these things, anyway? Hmmm…What would it be like to see old So-And-So again? I almost wanted to RSVP “yes,” but a conflict prevented me.

By the time I got the invitation to my 30th, I was primed. I had promised myself that I would go to the next one if at all possible, and it was. This had somehow become important to me. I needed to prove something to “them,” whoever “they” would turn out to be. Most of all, I needed to prove something to myself. I wanted to show the popular people and the unpopular people and the in-between people that I was no longer the wallflower I once was. I wanted to smile and mingle and start conversations. I wanted to feel good about myself.

Little did I know what a surprise was waiting for me.

First, I was one of a handful of folks who accepted an invitation to tour the high school that Saturday morning. The others who showed up were classmates who I remembered as some of the more popular people in our day. “They won’t even remember me,” I thought as soon as I saw them. But they did–and they were glad to see me. I was one of them as we walked along and talked about old times. As we strolled down the quiet halls and looked at pictures of co-curricular teams and groups from their glory days, one of my companions said, “You were in choir, weren’t you, Denise?” When I said “yes,” they were all suddenly excited. “Look! There’s your picture!” They spotted me before I did. Sure enough, there I was, smiling out from a huge group of kids who sang our way to winning a big choir festival in St. Louis.

The popular people remembered that I was in choir? They were happy for me? This thing had just started, and it had already way exceeded my expectations.

The big reunion was that night. Again, I was overwhelmed at the number of classmates who recalled the shy little wallflower named “Denise.” They hugged me. They were glad to see me. Again, even the popular people.

The wife of one of those boys I could never talk to was particularly thrilled to meet me. “You’re Denise?!” she exclaimed. “I’ve always heard about you!” “Uh…really?” I stammered. “Oh, yes!” she continued. “Jack talks about you all the time! He tells our boys how he had the biggest crush on you in first grade!” Oh, my goodness. Now this was getting surreal.

Emily (one of the girls who I always suspected was forced to invite me to her birthday slumber party) was genuinely happy to sit and re-live old times with me. I recalled how nice she always was to me, and I began to think that maybe she had come up with her own guest list after all.

I had gone to church with Sally all my life, but she was another kid who I assumed was basically just tolerating me. Her eyes twinkled as we sat and chatted. She recalled so many details of our times together that I had long ago forgotten. And–get this–she even remembered my birthday. Crazy. Absolutely crazy.

When Jack’s wife joined us, Sally began talking about how shy she felt in high school around the guys. Wait. This couldn’t be. I thought Sally was Little Miss Popular. She was on the pom-pom squad, for crying out loud! But she shared honestly how as she waved her pom-poms she felt so inadequate and insecure. “We all just knew the boys were up there in the stands laughing at us,” she chuckled. Even Sally? It wasn’t just me?

Then there was the little man who had had too much to drink and began hitting on me. I didn’t think I knew him from Adam, but he remembered me well. “You used to have such long blond hair,” he said a bit too slurrily. “It came all the way down to here.” And with that he put his hand on my back to show me where. “Watch the hand there, Buddy,” I was thinking. But at the same time I smiled. Nobody ever hits on me. Nobody ever did hit on me, even when I was 17 years old, 110 pounds and kind of pretty. As long as all the guy wanted to do was reminisce about my hair, this was fun!

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Frank. Talk about your popular people. I had gone to school with Frank since first grade. But his dad was the town mayor. He grew up to be captain of the football team, and he married the cheerleading captain. Frank was always way, way out of my league. Silly me. I felt that if I could only muster the courage to just say “Hi” to Frank, my whole evening–maybe my whole life–would be a whopping success. But every time I got close to him, he was engrossed in conversation with someone else.

Oh, well. I was sure he of all people would never remember me. Or if he did he wouldn’t care. The night wore on. I crossed the patio one more time, mentally taking stock of all the classmates I had chatted with. Forget Frank. I had more than achieved my goal. Then a voice behind me called out, “Denise!” I turned, disbelieving. Frank.  And so we stood there (as the drunken little man marked my hair length yet again) and talked. Frank asked me questions, and seemed genuinely interested in my answers. Then, with a wink in my direction, he convinced my besotted admirer to leave me, sit down and enjoy a bottled water.

At last I was driven back to my parents’ house and the big event was over. But long after that night I relived the experience in my mind and tried to sort it out. Was it possible that reality was, in fact, nothing at all like my perceptions? That people I thought could barely tolerate me actually liked me? That I was not the most forgettable human on the planet, but actually memorable in some way?

And still I wonder: How could my self image be so distorted for so long? And why? The whole experience was absolutely mind-boggling for me.

It all began with wanting to prove something to “them.” But it ended with the realization that I never needed to prove anything at all–except, of course, to myself.

It may have taken 30 years, but it was worth the wait.

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