19 April 2011

Of proms and poodle perms

I got an email the other day about my 25th high school reunion. Twenty. Five. Years. Whoomp! I'm smacked in the face once again with the stark reality of age.

STOP LAUGHING. We all looked like this in the 80s.
I look back at that wrinkle-free face, surrounded in the poodle haze of a perm, and marvel. That shy, bookish 18 year old had no idea what lay ahead of her. And thank goodness for that. She'd be terrified. She had yet to learn how to cope with real life.

I didn't like high school all that much. I wasn't one of the cool kids – too shy and plain to be a cheerleader; too awkward to be sporty; brainy but not quite one of the brainiest. My high school years weren't the madcap whirl of football games, drama, dates and parties that you see in the movies – although elements of the American high school experience you see on the silver screen certainly were there.

In my high school years I did my homework, I worked part time in a shop (as soon as I was 16 my dad marched me off to get a job), I went to the movies a lot, I got crushes on boys and wondered what kissing felt like but never went on a date. I read Seventeen magazine, experimented with makeup and drank skimmed milk while stuffing myself silly with cookies. I wasn't anywhere near as fat as I thought I was, or as ugly as I thought I was, but that's the folly of youth.

My hometown was small and most of the kids in my class were kids I'd known since the age of 5 or so. By high school, the die of social placing had long been cast. High school social structures are rigid and unforgiving. On the bright side, though, the bullying that plagued me through earlier years had died down; the culprits were bored by then, or perhaps too worried about jostling for their own place in the pecking order.

Even in senior year, I never joined the other seniors in claiming ‘the balcony’, an area of the stairs overlooking the school lobby traditionally monopolised by the seniors – I wasn't ‘in’ enough. Although I was one of the best English students in my year, I didn't get on the yearbook committee, because I wasn't friends with the right people.

I also didn't go to the prom. This event is as much a rite of passage as you'll have been led to believe by the movies. Getting a date, getting a dress, getting a corsage, getting a limo, getting drunk. It MATTERED. But I was below the eyeline of the boys in my class. The night of the prom, my equally below-the-line friend and I went to the movies.

Don't get me wrong – I wasn't miserable. I had friends, and I had fun. I got good grades, enjoyed classes, had some amazing, inspiring teachers. The scaffolding for the more outgoing, sociable and confident adult I would eventually become had begun to be built. I still had an innocence and naiveté that helped prevent me from being bundled into adulthood before I was ready. But there was a sense of being outside, and of waiting for life to begin. And begin it did, when I moved away from my small town life to a large university, where nobody knew me and finally I could start afresh.

I haven't been to previous high school reunions. Part of me is curious – are the cheerleaders still beautiful and supreme? Are the football players still strutting their stuff? Have the brainy kids gone on to forge glittering careers? What happened to the class stoners? And of course, I wonder what they would make of me. Is their recollection of an 18-year-old Trish the same as my own? Would the fact that I live in London be enough to impress them?

And then I think: Why on earth am I still worrying about impressing them anyway? Why go? As you may have gathered, it's not a time I look back on with any particular fondness, and I'm not really in touch with the people I was friends with back then. I might have more wrinkles now, but I also have more confidence and peace with who I am. Not to mention a better haircut.


  1. I went to my 20th, and was frankly surprised that anyone knew who I was, as my goal in high school was to be invisible. You're much less likely to get rejected if you're invisible. The football players got fat. Not just their bodies. Their head were strangely large. Most of the super popular girls didn't attend, which I decided was because their best years were in high school. Most people, the nerds, the stoners, the cheerleaders turned out to be people. People whose recollections of high school were equally funny, painful, and confusing as mine. Apparently it wasn't as fabulous on the other side as we presumed it was.

  2. Its funny how many people feel that they are the only one whose life is miserable during their high school years. But then you realize that you really aren't alone. Like you said, we all had friends and still did things. When I moved to CA, I had been invited to their reunion since that was where I graduated but never went because I never really had a connection to the people here. I had always wished that my original HS would have invited me. I mean, I had known those people since childhood. But when I had a chance to look at photos from my original HS reunion, I realized that I wasn't missing anything. The only reason I would have gone was to see the friends who had meant something to me but they didn't go either :)

    ps. I loved having a perm back then but would not do it again :)

  3. Thanks both - yep, I wonder if anyone at all really enjoyed their high school years, or if it's all just a myth based on adolescent self-absorption and the movies.