The best way to effectively describe high school-Michael is, “confidently self-conscious.” Sure, I was super involved, class president all three years, while constantly putting myself out there; however at the core of my high school-identity, I was scared, lonely, and desperately afraid. Few people knew this about me, outside of my guidance counselors, Boys and Girls Club staff members, and the parents of a few close friends. High school-Michael was incredibly nervous, with an anxiety and a desire to connect, impact, and engage. I went 1 million miles per hour (which, some might argue has not changed), and at any given point had my hands in around 5-10 different projects or organizations outside of merely being a student.
As the summer commenced, a new reality started to remind me of my aforementioned perceptions of self. Summers typically mean a high school reunion for many, and for others, it means, “no thanks, not happening, not interested.” I teetered between these two perspectives this summer. As a former Student Council advocate and kid who thought he had hit his peak at eighteen years old, this remark may catch many off guard. The truth is that I was terrified. What if I wasn’t in good enough shape? What if I hadn’t achieved all that my peers expected me to achieve? What if I was the only single, non-kidded attendee? These thoughts bounced around my head for several months before making the decision to attend. Specifically, these thoughts bounced around my head until I actually did attend…this past weekend.
After making it safely to Oklahoma City, or #OklaHOMEa, as my friend Nate and I put it, I decided the entire weekend would be dedicated to my glory days. Of course, I showed up to our first event an hour early, which pushed me into driving around the city where I went to high school, which then lead me to some super reflection. This is where I played soccer, totaled my first car, learned to be independent, drive, act, thrive, and the list goes on and on. At some point over the past ten years, I lost the knowledge that this is where I developed some of the core of who I am (look it up, “social penetration theory”). I drove by the high school, which became an unexpected tough moment. In addition to “forgetting” this idea of my core’s-development, I had also blocked that, even though I had a really great high school experience, I also had a really shitty high school experience. I was bullied, picked on, and tormented by several, and found getting involved and creating barriers between myself and deep-relationships to be the way in which I survived.
Thankfully, there were two teachers in particular who created a safe space for some of my peers and I to come and be whoever we wanted to be during transition times like pre-1st period and lunch. This was long before I officially came out, however I think both of these teachers knew someone like me was better off under the protection of their watch. But also, I was super mature and felt like I could keep up with my two gal-pals. Don’t get me wrong, this “space” was not reserved just for the closeted gay kids who needed the journalism or theater rooms as an out (no pun intended), it was also for those who did not necessarily subscribe to some of the same norms as our probably-less mature peers (at the time, of course). The purpose of this paragraph is a bit tangental, however I felt that in this moment, it was important for me to note these feelings, and to also challenge some of my teacher-friends and followers that the “down-time” space they create for some of their students can actually save a life, or at least inspire an understanding of mentoring and support (this goes for anyone in education, really). When visiting the high school on my second day back in town, I was sure to walk by these two spaces, taking a moment to appreciate the two women who took time to invest in and support my emotional health. They knew I was being bullied, but early 2000s-Oklahoma was not the safest of places for a young gay kid, let alone the supporters who wanted so desperately to defend, protect, and support (not a lot of separation between church & state, which may be another post in and of itself). I didn’t understand it then, but this past weekend really put that role into perspective for me.
We toured the rest of the high school, and toward the end of our visit, approached a brick courtyard, where upon graduation, students could purchase a brick with their name and year to be forever memorialized at the institution. As I looked through my class’s bricks, I found my own and realized that under my name, read, “MR MCHS 2004.” I laughed out loud as I discovered my own pretention, and took a moment to sigh with the person next to me (who, ironically, was someone I went to college with and competed with in a rival fraternity – this moment was also particularly impacting to me, as we both had this, life-is-short-and-you-move-on, attitude, especially as it relates to a fraternity rush frustration). I needed to see that brick, I needed to have this moment. Some of the things you (we, I) did in high school will more than make you feel like a total ass when you grow up. And that’s okay.
The day progressed and as I prepared (physically and mentally) for the actual reunion event, I realized that I was probably not alone in the anxieties that existed in my mind and heart. And, aside from the others who would be in attendance with similar anxieties, there would also be many whose anxieties were so grave that they would not be in attendance as a result of that self-pressure. The reunion commenced, and instead of posting a play-by-play of my experience (which turned out to be a really positive time), I am choosing to post the status of an attendee and a friend who I matriculated with from junior high school to high school, summing up many of my own feelings following the event:
Reshaunda was right, especially with #10: “have fun at these events. It’s not that serious.” I had been so into my head that it took me an hour or so to actually loosen up and realize that not everyone was concerned with my personal endeavors and happenings. And also, people grow up. And I did, too. In addition to a “share” on Facebook, Reshaunda also inspired me to create my own list, and now following the reunion, I am left with the following tips for all those reuniting this year, reflecting on their own reunions, or preparing for one in the years ahead:
1. Live your truth. Social media, and people’s ability to find shit out, has eliminated nearly all opportunity to be someone you’re not. And that’s probably for the best.
2. It’s okay to be stressed about your reunion. It’s also okay to be really nervous.
3. Smile. People assume a lot about those who are smiling.
4. Assume nothing. No amount of Facebook creeping can fully prepare you.
5. Don’t feel guilty about moving on. It happens. Life happens.
6. People who missed your “big life moments” may still want to hear about them and celebrate them. Don’t be afraid to share, and don’t be silenced by time.
7. The people who called you, “faggot,” every single day of high school are probably not going to apologize for it. And you don’t need that apology to move on.
8. Tell stories. Reminisce. Laugh. Laugh at yourself.
9. Being single and/or kid-less does not make you a failure, even if Oklahoma prescribes this as an expectation of adulthood.
10. And finally, Michelle Lawrence will always come through.
*in place of “Michelle Lawrence,” insert your Student Council president and/or super go-getting classmate who tended to be the most-balanced and dedicated graduate
Without projecting my own experience upon others as a norm, I conclude my reunion-reflection with a realization discovered while filling out my “where are you now,” questionnaire offered at each of the events. “What is one thing you wish you would have known when you were in high school?” This question fell between, “Who do you still talk to from high school?” and, “Tell us about your family,” and has since resonated with me. My answer was brief and simple…
“I didn’t know it all.”
That was relevant for high school-Michael, and it is certainly relevant now. I’m embracing this. I’m celebrating this. I’m giving myself a break, and I hope the same for you. Whether reuniting this year or not, someone in your life is or will be. Support them. Push them. Most importantly, validate their experience. What does your high school-self’s brick read? Be okay with that. And be okay with your high school-self’s self. People grow up, people change. And so do you.
Here’s to the next Mr. MCHS,