Sometimes, it can seem like pop culture is converging on real life: romantic comedies highlight a vein of unproductive thinking, a movie about an aging parent highlights the path forward through a dilemma, an origin story makes certain bits of psychology make sense, even if they lead a character to different and more dramatic ends than our own. So it was with me and high school reunion movies this year. In addition to shooting guns and kissing girls, Channing Tatum starred with his wife, Jenna Dewan-Tatum in the reunion drama Ten Years. The folks behind the American Pie franchise decided that Jim, Michelle, and company had let their reunion slide a couple of years, and held their ten-year reunion thirteen years after Paul was ushered into manhood by Stifler’s mom. Ben and Kate broke with Thanksgiving’s traditional dominance of sitcoms—though there was a turkey-stealing cold open—and sent its characters back to their high school days. Even when I was in high school, I suppose I was looking forward to who I’d be a decade or more after graduation—after we got back from senior prom, my friends and I somehow ended up watching Grosse Pointe Blank*. But even for someone who was born looking forward to adulthood, being reminded that I actually was going to go back to be a grown-up with people who knew me when I was 17, and seeing how awkwardly it all played out on screen proved to be a little much as the actual day approached.
But I survived! And as someone who is in recovery from the social deficiency elements of my geekiness, if not my affection for cultural ephemera that, when I was in high school, carried less social capital than Dawson’s Creek, the experience left me with some insights. Because so many of you were so helpful in preparing me to go to a suburban hotel and drink not very good bourbon with people I haven’t talked to in ten years, I thought I’d pay them forward for those of you in the audience who are contemplating returning to your hometowns in the year to come, but are as nervous about it as I was**.
1. You Weren’t As Bad As You Thought You Were: Most of my memories of high school are of it as a place I was eager to get out of, mostly so I could start over in place where (almost) nobody knew how awkward I was. It turns out, though, that I’m a pretty unreliable narrator of my own life, as I suspect many of us are as well. And it turns out we’re more generous in our memories of each other than we are in our memories of ourselves. Walking through the door of that hotel, I remembered things I hadn’t thought of in years: marathoning Wild Things and the Usual Suspects on weekend afternoons with a friend I’d lost touch with while we were in college, dancing at prom with another, passing notes—these things we Olds had before cell phones—so thick it was hard to fold them up small enough to palm or slip through locker slots. Going to my reunion let me have back good things that I’d forgotten, including my sense of who I was in high school.
2. No Power In The ‘Verse Can Make You 17 Again: As the evening wore on, one of the guys in my class and I confided to each other that there was something supremely strange about revisiting a part of our lives that none of the people we’re close to now know much about. But the thing about going back is that it didn’t transform us: he didn’t get his long-surrendered hair back or lose his awesome wife, and I didn’t suddenly revert to my high school pixie cut and standard wardrobe of a short-sleeved t-shirt over a long-sleeved t-shirt. Our high school selves aren’t people who are lurking in the shadows, waiting to take over our bodies with all the force of demonic possession. The past, in this case, is pretty much past. And we can revisit it in safety.
3. The Things That Made You Geeky Then Are Your Superpowers Now: Okay, this may be more literally true for me than most people. But while not everyone is going to turn their high school obsession with the Star Wars Expanded Universe into a paying job, the number of former geeks in my graduating class elevated by their passions, and the number of formerly popular people who ended up pursuing geeky professions is impressive. They’re working as camera techs on great television shows, actually making music full-time, doing amazing biology research, even working as literal rocket scientists. This isn’t really a Revenge of the Nerds scenario: it’s that after graduation, no matter where we were in high school, we came to a common consensus that sincere enthusiasm is an asset. It’s not about who’s cool and who’s not anymore: it’s about who’s interesting.
Now, none of this will help you confront your high school mean girl or bully, or consummate some unfinished business with a high school crush, or kill it on the dance floor, because I didn’t do any of those things, and I don’t really think they’re essential checkmarks on the reunion list. But the easiest way to trip yourself up in anticipating your reunion—and I certainly did this to myself—is to think that it’s some sort of climactic rebellion, an emotional Battle of the Trident. But the truth is the war is history, and reunion’s just a tournament: done right, everyone survives to go home.
*We also may have gone to IHOP for late-night pancakes. My sense of adventure in high school was calibrated to the same frequency as Liz Lemon’s.
**Which is to say really, embarrassingly terrified, given there was no chance that, unlike in American Reunion there was no chance I’d end up in front of my high school friends in fetishwear a la Michelle and Jim.