When I talk about my high school experience, I usually start by saying, “I was the homecoming queen.” But those who know me now don’t get the inside joke – that I was the anti-queen at the dance, dressed in a black gown with a beaded Cleopatra style silver wig on top of my hair.
When they handed me my crown, at the homecoming football game, I was dressed like a man in a suit with a drawn-on mustache and goatee. I kept my hand closed when I waved like a hard-plastic Barbie doll that couldn’t separate her fingers from her hoof of a hand. In my memory, cheerleaders booed. I was proud of myself despite the school guidance counselor who begged me to reconsider how I walked onto that field, swearing I’d regret it years later.
I don’t talk much about the rest of high school.
An invitation to the reunion
I finally felt included, a few months before my 20-year high school reunion, when I was invited to the Facebook group. I joked about feeling old, but it felt good to have been found and remembered.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend the event, taking place Sept. 24, 2016, but I wasn’t yet sure if I even wanted to go. The names of the people populating the private group rang some bells, but many brought back bad memories.
Most of my memories from school after first grade are bad. I don’t say this to hurt or blame anyone now, but to share my experience.
Some former classmates have shared their photos and memories recently, so I started thinking about the things I recall. Having started public school in second grade, I had some catching up to do. I didn’t know the cohort I’d be with.
But enough about me
What do I remember about these people now celebrating 20 years post high school?
I remember feeling floored when a fellow elementary school friend joined in with others making fun of me. I don’t remember and it didn’t matter why the kids were being cruel. Kids are cruel. When I asked the former friend whom I won’t name why she said such nasty things and “I thought you were my friend,” she said without missing a beat, “I guess you thought wrong.”
“I. Guess. You. Thought. Wrong.”
Maybe it only stung so much because I was young, naïve, inexperienced and too damn sensitive. Sure, we were kids and I’ve learned to brush off the comments I heard during childhood. But the interactions I had shaped who I am and who I became through high school.
Evil, little bitch
One afternoon on the blacktop outside Littleton Elementary School, all I wanted was to get on my bike and get home. Some stupid, faceless-in-my-memory, kids called me ugly. I was fine following my mother’s advice and ignoring them. Until a popular girl called out, “Hey Ellen, I think you’re pretty.”
My life brightened for a split second as I turned, honestly thinking in a fraction of a moment that someone was sticking up for me.
“Pretty ugly,” she finished.
To say it burned is an understatement. I graduated high school twenty years ago, but this moment from when I was no older than maybe 10 still stings. I feel that pain in my stomach. Tears well up in my eyes. And I’m grown. I’m a big girl with a family of my own.
I pedaled my two-wheeler the way some people drive cars in a rage, with no concern for the people or elements in my way. Later, when I met that nasty little girl’s mother, I remember vividly saying, “Oh that’s your daughter? I’m sorry.”
And I meant it. The mom made a face like I was an evil, little bitch. Maybe I was projecting. I felt sick letting that anger and negativity have a stage.
Just too sensitive
Perhaps my elementary school soul was just too sensitive.
I know I stumbled over the line between self-loathing and lashing out when I ended up in the principal’s office after lunch one day in third grade. I fashioned the aluminum foil from my sandwich into a ball and tried to scotch tape a thumbtack to it.
I must have threatened to throw it at those teasing me. I remember this in the context of hearing Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” years later. But in the moment I felt even more ashamed of my weapon’s design. Who would I have hurt with my ball?
The principal punished me by making me sit at a desk in the hall for lunch until the end of the year. I felt relief. Finally, they’d just leave me alone.
My mom swore to me things would be different when I got to Brooklawn Middle School in sixth grade. I’d have more people to befriend from different elementary schools. Things would improve, she promised.
I battled daily with trying to balance my desperate desire to be liked with my genuine interests. I didn’t know who I was yet. I had neither hobbies to speak of nor passions to pursue. Other than reading and writing, there was little I wanted to do.
The cool kids
Praying to be invited to the cool kid get-togethers while trying to choose the best outfits, I thought making friends was like breaking a code or learning a language. I’ve blocked out a lot of the middle school interactions that sent me home in tears, begging to be put in a different school.
I went to Newark Academy from eighth through tenth grade, and then returned to graduate from the public Parsippany Hills High School, home of the Vikings.
In writing my open letter to the graduating class of 1996, I’m giving a name to my early experiences. Confronting the pain. Standing up for myself. I’m not blaming anyone because, after all, we were fucking kids.
Most of the kids I would have called friends those last two years of high school were the junkies, freaks and losers; the true high school dropouts of whom many are now dead. I’ve made my peace and forgiven much more than I’ve forgotten.
A ‘gothic hippy’
By the time I returned to my public school cohort, this “Class of ’96,” I decided who I was. I was a misanthrope, a “gothic hippy” in flowing pattern skirts and black lipstick. I was far more interested in studying people than having them know the real me.
I sunk deeper into reading books and writing poetry.
In not wanting friends and choosing instead to stay to myself, I became more or less notorious. “My music” was recorded by Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Tool and, by 1995, I discovered Marilyn Manson. I gave myself a mask of makeup, wore a cape, and carried a cane to help me with my “emotional instability.” I was only half-kidding.
My closest female friend went to a school 30 minutes away, but I had a boyfriend I loved deeply. He’s the one who wore a gold lamé suit at the homecoming dance when I was queen.
Meredith and I are still extremely close, despite the fact that for about a decade after graduation, I teetered on the edge of self-destruction. We reconnected via Facebook, the way God intended.
On the day of my 20-year high school reunion, I’m celebrating my career. I’m proud of my hard work and my thick skin. I’ve earned degrees in psychology and communication, focusing on journalism. My success is self-defined and I’m genuinely happy.
Though I stay open-minded to making friends, I prefer avoiding people outside my immediate family. My husband is my best friend and I credit him with saving my life.
My beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter started Kindergarten this year, after her preschool teacher awarded her “Most Articulate.”
She earned “student of the month” 11 days into the first month of school because “She’s such sunshine,” the teacher said. My daughter’s sensitive, but she’s confident and I think she has much of what I lacked at an early age.
When I think back on my early education, I remember how quickly my wonder and natural curiosity were tainted. Kids can be so cruel. That likely won’t change and I know far many had far worse.
In forgetting my perspectives and forgiving those who misunderstood me, I’ve made friends on social media with classmates I never really knew. I’ve most certainly moved on and I don’t long for pity, apologies or explanations.
In sharing this open letter, I want only to give voice to my thoughts in the hope that those who saw a different me than I remember, choose to teach their kids to be kind. I tell my daughter she doesn’t have to like everyone, she doesn’t have to pretend, but she does need to treat everyone with respect.
I respect my hometown and the kids who got a chance to grow up. I’m thrilled to be one of them.