There’s nothing much more awkward than walking in to your high school reunion and seeing all your old classmates sitting at a long table, deep in various conversations. Taking that first step inside is the hardest. Should I have worn jeans instead of a dress? Did I get here too early? Too late? What if we all have nothing to say to each other?
I step inside and fill out the form at the front of Bar Beach bowlo. I’m flanked by my husband, Simon and my best friend, Angeline. ‘Do you live in Newcastle?’ the guy at the door asks us. ‘No, Sydney,’ I say. He looks at Angeline. ‘Byron Bay,’ she says. He’ll get similar answers from a lot of people tonight: our classmates have fanned out far and wide across the world, many of them returning home for Christmas before leaving again. All in all, I think about forty of our one-hundred and fifty year group made it.
Filling in the form gives me something to do while I think about what I should do next. Do I go straight to the bar? No, not a good idea. So who do I talk to first? The people physically closest to me? The people I was, or still am, friends with? The people I literally haven’t seen in ten years and am most interested in finding out what they’ve been up to? I will always be grateful to Zoe, who fits firmly into the category of people I’m still friends with, for standing up and saying hello and making me feel less weird about the whole situation. Once that first awkward moment was over, the night flowed relatively normally.
The title of this post is a lyric from the song playing on my laptop right now, by Nada Surf. Because in many ways, after I graduated high school, I didn’t look back. I stayed close with my core group of friends. I occasionally caught up with others. I ended up living with Carl, who graduated the year before us, but our friendship was forged in our band: outside school walls, not within them. But although I kept these relationships, I never really thought about high school or its role in making me – making all of us – the people were are today.
Almost as soon as our Year 12 closing assembly was over, and I’d burned my HSC notes in the bonfire in Angeline’s backyard, and drunk too much beer at the end of year parties, I left Newcastle behind me. High school became a distant memory.
My boyfriend at the time and I packed my old red car with camping equipment and decided we’d drive north, as far and as fast as we could. He was already at Newcastle Uni studying music and had three months off; I had nothing to do except wait for my HSC results. We didn’t have a destination. We also didn’t have any money. Sometimes we would sneak into campsites at midnight to set up our tent and wash under the taps; leaving before dawn so we wouldn’t be charged the camping fee. That was how broke we were. We drove from national park to national park, eventually washing up on the golden shores of Airlie Beach in north Queensland. It was so hot we couldn’t sleep in our tent anymore and had no choice but to blow our remaining savings on a boat trip to get out on the water where it was cooler.
After that holiday I moved to Sydney and my life kind of took off. I loved catching up with my school mates. But I was somehow too busy – for the next ten years – to really think about school as an institution and the role it played in my life. The lessons I learned aged 14 – 18 that I consciously kept with me were all about activism, and the Merewether Greenies, and the campaign to save Stockton Bight. And when I’d been doing that work I hadn’t felt like a high-schooler. A lot of it was with, and through, The Wilderness Society. They never treated me like a kid.
For a while, in high school it was like I had a split personality. I was an activist and a high school student at the same time. Sometimes they overlapped but often they didn’t. I guess everyone probably had that feeling about something (or someone) they were involved with outside of school. When I set up the Merewether Greenies, my high school environment group, it was an attempt to fuse these two parts of my identity – and it worked, to some extent. It was actually very cool to have a group of people at school who shared my values and were willing to campaign for social and environmental justice . It definitely honed my skills as an organiser and campaigner. It also made school a lot more meaningful.
When a group of pro-active people organised the reunion on Facebook, I was excited. For the most part I liked high school. And the people in my year were generally pretty lovely. But I didn’t know what to expect. The defining image in our generation’s minds when you say the words ‘high school reunion’ is of Romy & Michelle telling their old school mates that they invented post-it notes. But I suspected ours would be more down-to-earth: more like ten year casual drinks than an overblown reunion. No speeches; no ‘class of 2001’ banners, no cake, no drama, no craziness.
What’s crazy instead is that once I got there, I realised that most people are still so similar, despite ten years passing. Obviously we’ve changed, we’ve grown up, and we’ve had a million times more life experiences. Some have become parents and uncles and aunties; some are about to. Some have become husbands and wives. Some have become a lot more responsible: one guy I had worried would end up in gaol has now settled down with a totally solid job. But some things don’t change at all: the essence of someone’s personality, whether they are serious, sweet, kind, self-absorbed or quirky.
I realised, after a few drinks, that I had a lot of love for these people. I’d been through a lot with them. For the most part, in high school, everyone had just accepted each other for who we were. I had some friends who went to high schools in Sydney dominated by mind games and bitchiness and bullying. There was some of that, of course. I still feel awful for the autistic guy in our grade who could have done with a lot more support. But it wasn’t anything like the high school stories I heard about from some of my law school friends in Sydney. Especially the ones who went to private schools.
My memories of high school are, instead, of sitting outside near the basketball court with Mark, sketching. It’s so vivid I can almost still smell the pine needles on the ground next to us, and feel the dirt sifting through my fingers. I remember studying hard – the smell of the books in the library and the colourful folders I made, stuffed with notes. Or learning history with Jackie in her living room by pretending to be the characters from history we were studying. Looking back, I was way too stressed about what marks I’d get, but I guess it paid off in the end.
My strangest memory, looking back, was the terrifying moment in the middle of the night during a Duke of Edinburgh walk in a forest somewhere when my first boyfriend and I were caught kissing in a tent together. I was fourteen or fifteen, and outraged at the invasion of privacy (and even more so when we both got suspended). I thought most school rules was pointless – uniforms; boring compulsory classes like maths and science; the way our days were so regimented by a bell. But one of the few rules I was actually willing to break was the one about not being in the same tent as someone of the opposite sex on camping trips. Firstly, what a bunch of hetero-normative crap. If I was a lesbian it would be fine, would it? Secondly, we were in love (or so I thought). ‘Rules’ and ‘love’ have no place the same tent.
I soon learned that ‘rules’ and ‘love’ have no place even in the same sentence, as I kept tumbling in and out of love, or at least infatuation, with various people. For a while there my life became more dramatic than one would expect, even for a sixteen year old. At least we all got a chance to work out these kind of life lessons back then, when the stakes weren’t as high. We were all experimenting: with who we were, and who we wanted to be.
‘You know I love you to bits,’ a friend last night told me. I feel the same way. Because most of all, the experiences I had in high school opened up my heart and taught me to love without fear and regrets. That’s why the people I went through those experiences with will always be a little bit of a part of me.
There’s a lot of bullshit in life once you get older, especially when you’re peripherally involved in politics. People pretend a lot. It’s all about the 30 second soundbite and the image you create for the cameras as part of the way you’re taught to manage the media. You’re not supposed to appear vulnerable. You’re not supposed to be brutally honest. It’s not very real.
Last night, I was with a group of people who knew me back when I was still figuring out who I was other than a chubby teenager who loved to read and frequently got drunk on whatever alcohol we could find in our parent’s kitchens (ahem. Nicole. I still can’t drunk rum to this day). I figured I had nothing to lose. Two out of three of my high school crushes were there, and I told them both how I’d felt about them back then. Turns out they both felt the same way. One said he liked me too but thought I was ‘too smart for him’. This is exactly NOT what I would have wanted to hear as a teenage girl, but didn’t mind hearing now. He’s doing well, seems happy and told me jokingly to let him know if I ever got divorced. The other one went through a pretty tough time after school, but has come out the other side as a beautiful, resilient, funny, soulful and all-round lovely man. I reckon we’ll stay friends.
My favourite line in the song I’m listening to this morning? ‘I need you now/ like I needed you then/ you always said we’d still be friends some day.’
P.S. Sorry for the self-absorbed nature of this post. At the moment it’s as if the Universe is forcing me to take stock of my life so far.