The Past has Purpose
With summer comes reunions. Whether its a family or high school reunion, I’m sure we all have experienced knots in our stomach as we prepare to see people we haven’t seen in years. Have I accomplished enough? What will so and so think of me? Will they remember that awful time I did that stupid thing? A million crazy thoughts run through our heads hoping we will measure up. For me, the thoughts were a little bit different as I prepared for my 40th class reunion.
Leading up to my flight to Iowa, I almost made myself physically sick dreading the moment I’d come face to face with some of my high school classmates. You see, 40 years ago I was the only black girl at Urbandale High School, so many of memories are not so fond. Some people were kind, I will cherish them forever and they know who they are! Especially my bandmates and softball team, but some were unbelievably mean. Others appeared to accept me, but always seemed to subtly remind me that I didn't belong. I remember overhearing my guidance counselor tell my parents not to waste their money on a private elite University because I would probably be better suited for a job as a flight attendant or clothing model. No shade on either profession, it just wasn’t for me and boy was she wrong! For years, I’ve suffered in silence, but its time for me to share my truth and share a glimpse of what helped define my life’s purpose.
Talk about an emotional roller coaster. Weeks after attending the two-day event, I’m still reeling with emotion. As I sat down to reflect on the events of the class reunion and my experiences in high school, I asked myself what it truly meant to me. I didn’t want to think about what my classmates viewed as reality or how they would feel reading my blog. I wanted to have a real, raw review of what high school was like for Marietta. No rationalization. No justification. No seeing it through their eyes. Just my perspective and how I felt living the life of the only black girl attending a school where racism was delivered in the form of subtle messages, accidental bumps in the hall, my hair being pulled, or someone questioning the size of my lips. Subtle things that made me question if they were real or if I was over-reacting.
During my reflection, I realized a lot about my upbringing, what I endured, and how it has impacted, as well as shaped, who I am today. Throughout my life, everyone has told me I’m stronger, wiser, and edgier because of my life experiences. As much as my parents believed in their hearts that they were doing what was best for me, 50+ years later it is evident to me that I paid an incredible price. The good news is that I somewhat understand the value of my experiences and hope in time it will fuel me to be a better person as my life continues to evolve.
I look back on the two events of my 40th Class reunion — the happy hour at a local tavern owned by one of my classmates, and the actual class reunion. At the happy hour, it was GREAT to see a set of people I honestly adored. I felt if the entire weekend felt like this, I perhaps saw things inappropriately. Of course some folks showed bitterness masked as fake graciousness, there conversations were trite, superficial, and at times peppered with some humorously recounted event from our high school days. Some thought it was a time of less stress and strain. To them it was just a time of our mischievous youth. For me, I felt anxiety that I simply couldn’t pinpoint. I realized I needed to survive, not enjoy, the upcoming events. Lyrics from Chandelier by Sia kept playing in my head.
Party girls don’t get hurt
Can’t feel anything, when will I learn…
I push it down, push it down
1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink!
Throw em back, till I lose count
Instead of drinking, I just rambled through the evening taking pictures with that smile I had become so accustomed to. As I recall my inner thoughts, I acted like every interaction was a photo op, and I was an exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo… Caged!
Upon my arrival home, my Mom anxiously waited to hear how the night went. She was just as excited that night as she was when I was in school and mastered something, won an award, or was recognized for an achievement. As I had done for years , my response was void of emotion. “Oh, it was fine”, I said when she asked how the night went. And, as usual, her response was “that’s great! You know they really do like you.” That was just another example of how I learned to mask my true feelings and tell them what they wanted to hear. That’s how I survived many of my high school years….
That night, I went to bed anxious, as I had so many nights before. I dreamt of a 4-year-old girl with pigtails. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see that she was in a beautiful blue and white dress. She kept running and running and running. I wondered who she was and what she represented. Little did I know, before leaving Iowa the moment of truth would stare me in the face.
So…. its the big day. My 40th class reunion. I’m still reeling from a conversation I had the day before with someone very close to me. But, I tell myself I can’t fixate on that. I just needed to do what was expected of me - survive the night. I got dressed and headed out.
It all is sort of blur. I immediately stepped up to my task of helping to orchestrate, collect funds and order appetizers. WHY, because that’s what I do. I am the master of busy. It allows me the luxury of not feeling. As I look back on greeting my classmates, I recall hugging some, shaking hands with others, and some just “staring” at me. Nope! It wasn’t looks of admiration. It was looks of disdain. They saw me for who I am, and I saw them for what they are.
The anxiety was high. Really high. Oddly, I felt normal. People asked the typical questions…. are you married? Do you have kids? And then there were the trips down memory lane… Everyone laughed except me. To them everything was funny, but to me it reminded me of the constant bullying. I remember interrupting someone who was telling a joke and asking them if the joke sounded funny. I’d frequently ask them if they remembered how I responded because the story sounded so cruel. Instead of responding, the person telling the story just stared blankly at me. Before I knew it, I bluntly said, “well if you did that BULLSHIT to me now, I would kick your ass” OMG! Did I say that? Something took over, and it was 1977 all over again. At that moment, I realized that my protection mechanism was to smile, take whatever comes my way, never feel until I’m seemingly forced into a corner. At that point, I would lash out like a caged bird.
Unfortunately, the night was still young. I went to the next location, which was a bar. You may be wondering why I would not just call it a night… Well, I had to do what was expected of me. The encounters at the bar were very similar. Drunken stories of cruelty and ignorance. My saving grace was the band and a sweet soul selling raffle tickets. They were playing classic 70s Rock, so it made up for the stupid stories. When I got home, my mom was waiting for me, again. Before I could say anything, she reminded me that they always liked me, and she was sure that everyone had been glad to see me. Wings clipped I said nothing and went upstairs.
Events of the reunion crystalized the essence of my life and the choices I’ve made. I now understand why I have fits of rage or poorly placed outburst. When feeling caged or bullied, I pretend I don’t feel anything, because I’m the little girl in the pretty blue and white dress running from the hurt and pain. I keep myself busy until I get so overwhelmed that I lash out. Now that I’ve realized how I’ve dealt with the experiences of my youth, I’m appreciative of the opportunity to attend my 40th class reunion. It has given me closure and the opportunity to evaluate my past, acknowledge my emotions, and use my experiences to fuel my future. This has been truly a cathartic experience for me. I’m on a healthy road to being the best me yet!!!