Friday, January 20, 2012

Then and Now

High school. Days filled with classes and tests and pop quiz’s. Coach Dreher, Mrs. Cates, Burley. Gossip shared in the hallway. Lunch breaks on the bleachers, or the stage, with a Coke, Mt. Dew or Sun Drop and a bag of some kind of chips. Laughter and tears. Bullies. Homecomings and Proms. Basketball games, national anthems. Senior play rehearsal. Pizza day. Sneaking off the the Pool Room for a Pool Room burger. Rides to and from school with friends, the cassette player blaring Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” George Michael’s “Faith,” or Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”

I’ve got a few shoe boxes in a closet at my parents’ house that contains high school memories. Sometimes when I go to Kentucky for a visit I open the boxes. I did so again recently. The picture to the left shows prom memorabilia. Stuff. Junk. Things. They were important to me at the time. That’s why I kept them. I have the prom tickets to all three of the proms I attended. There are framed pictures of me with my date from a couple of those proms. The bow tie's from both of the Homecomings where I was an escort are in there. One even has a partial boutonniere attached to it. I have my Junior and Senior prom books. I have the mugs that went with them. The colors and themes bring it all back. It makes me shake my head, the left corner of my lips curling into the slightest smile, that I still have this stuff. I just can’t bring myself to throw it away.

I’ve written about my high school days in tiny portions here and there. Most of it has been about the bad times, the bullied times, etc. There were good times though.

In recent years I have opened the door to let people back into my life. Let me explain. When I graduated and moved away to college I went as far as I could go. That was three hours away. I applied to two Universities and was accepted to both. I chose Western Kentucky University because it was where I really wanted to go and because it was the farthest of the two from my small town. I wanted to start fresh. I wanted to remove the possibility of coming home every weekend. I wanted to be far enough away that I could explore my life without the prying eyes of my parents, other relatives or family friends.

I was away at school for five years and, aside from holiday visits, I think I came home for a couple of summers to live once again. After that I started performing in summer stock or just staying in Bowling Green. I had no desire live in Arlington. Or as I like to call it - Population 600.

I’ve now been gone from Arlington for more than twenty years. I’ve been living in New York for almost fifteen. When you’ve been gone for that long, friendships and faces slip away. You may never fully forget them, but they don’t hover at the surface anymore. They’re hidden. Filed away. You have to click the spotlight in the upper right corner of your Mac and type a name and find out where you stored it.

With the advent of Facebook, I made the decision to accept friend requests from some of the people I went to high school with. It was a decision I had to weigh before making. You see, I have never hidden my sexual orientation on Facebook and I knew that by saying, “yes” to those particular friend requests I would be officially outing myself. That was a big decision for me to make. Small town gossip and all that Peyton Placeish behavior, you know. It didn’t matter that many of those people had assumed for my entire high school career that I was gay. This access to my information was confirmation of said assumption. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but I made the decision to start saying, “yes.”

Slowly I began letting former friends back into my life and in turn I got to be let back into theirs. My fears were not justified. I now have people back in my life who can say, “I knew you when” and who genuinely care about what’s happening with me now. How amazing is that? We can just accept each other as people and be comfortable and happy in each other’s presence.

I was scared of the opening up and letting in. That’s the truth. I started public school as a freshman. My classmates and I had to get to know each other even though we had lived in the same small county together our entire lives. I had not gone to school with them since kindergarten. I might has well have been a new resident from some alien planet. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted friends. I wanted to be popular (who doesn’t). Those things didn’t come easy. High school is a tough crowd. Breaking into years-formed cliques is difficult.

I was never popular, but I did make friends. I made some wonderful friends that I’m fortunate to have in my life again now as adults.

Fifteen months ago, I was in Kentucky visiting my family and gave in to a gathering of some of those friends. I was nervous; I’m not gonna lie. My nerves were quickly soothed when I got the house of the host. There was nothing but smiles and hugs to greet me. I set myself up for failure instead of embracing that reunion as an incredible possibility. Those nerves were stupid yet I didn’t learn from that experience fully.

I recently initiated another of those gatherings. I wanted to see these people, my high school comrades, again. This time I reached out to the friend who hosted us last time and she took it from there. More people were invited. Different people. My wall went up a little. I felt I had to protect myself. Why? Why did I need to do that? These people, like any others who are friends with me on Facebook, no about my life. They have the opportunity to read my status updates and my blog. They can see that I’m gay and where I stand politically. That didn’t stop any of them from coming to hang out with me and each other.

We’re not in high school anymore. We’re all 40-year-olds. There are marriages and divorces and remarriages and re-divorces and children and jobs and growth. We’re not the same people that we were in high school. It has been my great privilege to get reacquainted with these people from my years as a moody teenager. It has been my abundance to receive by opening my heart to them again.

High school memories can make us laugh, cringe, roll our eyes, maybe even cry, but sharing those things with the people who lived it with you is a major coup. There is still gossip. There are new stories mixed with the old. There is still laughter. There is a knowing that comes when you’re from the same small place. There is an excitement to hear about what’s been going on. We’re not walking down those high school hallways anymore. We’re walking down the road of life. We’re sometimes wiser for our choices. Sometimes not, but they’re ours and we can sit around the table and share the experience as adults with only the faint image of ourselves in our baggy sweatshirts and Eastland’s in the background.