My nth class reunion was held over the weekend. I am a proud graduate of du Pont Manual high school, class of A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away from you, most likely.
The day started with lunch with my best high school chums, then on to the school for a tour. Ten or so of us showed up for the self-guided walkabout through the hallowed halls. The gothic building had been hit by lightning and repair work was going on, the front lawn littered with bits of broken spire.
For about the last ten years, I periodically have dreams that I’ve gone back to high school. Not that I’m back IN high school, but that there’s some kind of special alumni program where we come back and go to classes for a week or something. Invariably in these dreams, I am late to school or I end up in a math class where I either haven’t done the homework or am simply lost in the equations. So it was really strange to literally be back in the building wandering around. A very strange flavor of deja vu. Lots of little cosmetic things have changed but it’s still the same place.
Driving to the reunion dinner that evening, I was struck by how much this school affected my life. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but maybe not.
I went to the same school for kindergarten through eighth grade. With a few exceptions, I spent nine years with pretty much the same group of kids. By the time I hit eighth grade, I wanted OUT. Because I never quite fit in there. I was too bookish, too awkward, too whatever. If this was a nature program, the lions had found the weakest zebra in the herd and had gone in for the kill. Fifth and sixth grade involved a lot of what would likely be called bullying today – lots of stupid name calling and mean girl playground shenanigans. The ridiculous thing was, I was actually all set to go to the same school as most of those girls: an all-girls Catholic school. So that what….I could continue being an outsider? Until my mom said, “What do you think about Manual?” The school had been getting a lot of press lately and had been awarded National School of Excellence, which was kind of a big deal.
I went with my parents on a tour of the school. It’s a sprawling gothic building downtown, far from my suburban bubble. Walking up the sidewalk to the massive place, I was in awe and maybe a little scared. This was back when magnet schools were first becoming popular and this one had five: visual arts, communications, math/science/technology, performing arts, and one called high school university, which is kind of a catch-all for kids like me who didn’t fit into the other magnets. As we toured the visual arts wing, we saw a student with a bright orange snood on. My dad asked me if I, too, was going to wear pantyhose on my head if I became a student here. (He was kidding. He wouldn’t have minded if I’d literally worn pantyhose in my hair though.) After that, I was in. I wanted it. Kids apply to get into Manual, unlike other public schools. I was really lucky to get in, considering I was pretty average in terms of grades and stuff.
What followed was one of the most profound experiences in my life. Yes, of course high school is always a time of profound change, development, growth, but I still feel luck to have ended up in a place where I finally felt at home. I had friends for the first time ever. I did well in school and that was okay, nobody teased me for being brainy. In fact, I wasn’t really brainy enough at Manual. (To give you an idea, I went to school with a Teen Jeopardy! champ, twelve national merit scholarship recipients, and we had six valedictorians.) I fit in because we all fit in there. I found my tribe.
Last Saturday night, I saw people I haven’t seen in years but it wasn’t awkward or strange. It was delighting to see my peers, hear their stories, see their grown-up faces. And I felt lucky, blessed, and happy. I don’t want to go back to being sixteen, but I love that I was happy when I was.