Thursday, August 30, 2012

Class of '94

Last weekend we attended the wedding of two old friends. It was the most fun I've ever had at one, save my own. While a group of us waited at the bar for the ceremony to begin, I spotted a young, thin blonde woman weaving through the crowd. I paused, and it came back that we mutually knew the bride and groom. But her sudden appearance still shocked me. Like I'd seen a ghost.

We had gone to high school together in Northwest Indiana 20 years ago. For the benefit of my wife and those of you trying to read between the lines, I did not date her, have a crush on her or harbor any romantic designs at any time. I didn't go out with girls back then, being in the lowest social caste at Andrean H.S. It was a coed school, but for some reason the usual allotment of goths, metalheads, stoners and other kinds of "bad girls" weren't sent our way. Maybe the uniform scared them off. So we were out of luck: a bunch of sexually frustrated young dudes with the sparse beginnings of facial hair.

The blonde lady at the wedding was one of those brainy people lucky enough to be admitted into a high social caste without playing sports. I always wondered how you got this free pass, but deep down I knew these elect had something at the time that I didn't. They were good looking and socially confident. At 14, I was shrimpy, shy and on the verge of a major acne offensive.

I resigned myself to my place those first two years and found some really good friends along the way, starting a healing process of the scars of junior high, which was far, far worse. By the time I left The Region in the summer of 1992, I had begun to embrace music culture, which has always opened its arms to society's outcasts. The high school I'd graduate from in suburban Buffalo would be like a dream compared to what I was leaving. My life would be better in so many ways, though I didn't know it as a moving truck pulled up to our house. That would take time.

The wedding reception rolled on and bled over to a dive bar across Milwaukee Ave. I saw the blonde woman here and there but never talked to her. I knew she wouldn't remember me, and I didn't want to seem like a weird stalker or anything like that. After a few hours she disappeared, and the thought of that place and time eventually dissipated. I was back in the present, drinking and dancing.

The human mind drains away much of the bad memories of the past. It's probably a coping mechanism. The years 1987-1992 were the toughest of my life, but now I look upon them fondly. My brother Matt and I have been planning a trip back to Merrillville to visit the old places and reminisce together, and I couldn't be more excited. Last year when we passed the baseball fields outside town on the I-65 — where I used to watch Matt play little league — my heart jumped.

But how many times back then did I sit in my room and feel alienated; feel like the last man on the list; feel like I had no shot at anything: girls, popularity, whatever. As painful as those experiences were, the memory of them has since left me like so much air. Or maybe it was absorbed and turned into positive energy — something that secretly drove my activities among the subsequent groups where I was finally accepted.

All I remember now of five years in Merrillville — or, rather, remember first — are the sunsets over the woods of the Turkey Creek golf course and the 1988 World Series. Yes, that's an exaggeration. I can remember much, much more about that time. But when it's something bad, the sting is nowhere to be found. Now I just smile and say, "Hey, I survived and things got amazingly better." 

And that's what I said to myself when I saw that young lady at the wedding. For a split second the whole pecking order reactivated in my mind, and I remembered what it felt like to know you're not allowed to talk to someone and that they will never, ever talk to you. That made me a little mad back in high school, but happily it hasn't mattered since, well, May 1994. The day I was set free on that graduation stage in the Williamsville (N.Y.) South High School gymnasium.

I've never liked being forced to do things with a group, so that's why I didn't like high school. But nowadays I feel some weird kinship because of that arbitrary imprint, all based on my birthdate. I feel we're connected for life: my classmates and I from Andrean and South, and also from the greater collection across America. The Class of 1994. I root for us all to make good: for our school, our age slot, our generation. We have something to contribute to humankind for the rest of our lives, in our way, imprinted by the schools and culture of our youth.

Was all this really going through my head, three drinks in, upstairs at Revolution Brewing? Maybe not so extensively (or lucidly), but the feeling was there. I found myself raising a glass of rose-colored beer, for my fellow graduates, my alma mater, my classmate and her bald boyfriend. Here's to you, Men and Women of '94. May you live as long as possible and be happy. Now go out there and make us proud. Go out there and fight!

That said, they're still going to have to talk me into going to the reunion. 

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