Three years. It’s not a long period of time; heck, nowadays more time passes than that in a blink of an eye. When you’re a teenager and three years is an appreciable percentage of one’s life though, it means something. Three years may as well be decades, lifetimes forming and dissipating every few months in a cosmic dance. Three years is all the time I lived in Roanoke, Virginia but after returning to this hazy blue city in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia, I fully realized just how impactful those three years were on my life and how they still resonate today.
Driving to Roanoke is in no way interesting or exciting. From Washington, DC there are a variety of driving options, some marginally more interesting than others but the fastest way is to take the great interstates that criss-cross the nation, and bisect Virginia especially well. I first traveled that road when I was 14 years old. My family moved there for my father’s job and I had the unenviable task of entering a new high school in 10th grade, hopelessly out of place without a friend in the world.
I never appreciated just how adaptable kids can be though and before I knew it I was fully entrenched in high school life with activities and enough friends for me. A few of these friends persisted over time and an even smaller fraction became lifelong friends, but all of them, everyone I went to school with resonated with me on some level. That’s what life is like as a teenager, everything means something.
There are any number of influences on our lives. Moments both minor and colossal that coalesce to form our very unique personalities. It’s of course an ongoing process, but there are important life experiences that cast long shadows. Births and deaths, marriages and divorces and, I think, any number of small encounters we have as children and young adults.
Maybe it’s because our brains aren’t permanently formed or maybe it’s because the world is so new to us in our youth that everything matters. And it does and whether we like it or not these precious few years create the adults we later become.
None of this occurred to me as I tried to use my now adult brain to remember how to navigate around a city I haven’t visited in 5 years and which I haven’t lived in permanently since 1994. When I went to college I WENT to college, coming home briefly for winter breaks and not much else. It’s not the city’s fault, although I have been known to criticize the unofficial capital of Southwestern Virginia for a certain lack of charm and sophistication. But no, it’s not Roanoke’s fault; the same reason why I make fun of it is the same reason why I never moved back. I didn’t particularly like the person I was then.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a bad guy. I’d like to think quite the contrary. I did well in school, had friends and spent far too much time at the local coffee shop consuming what must have been thousands of cups of coffee over those three years. I never really thought about it before a few days ago, but I never felt like I lived a full life in Roanoke and that’s something for which over the years I have unfairly blamed the Star City.
I did what many of us tend to do, focus on selected moments. Instead of remembering the countless positive experiences in Roanoke, I remembered only the negative. Almost to the point of a psychological disorder, I had forgotten a lot about my high school life, the friends, the moments, the secrets, the teenage angst. In its place was familial pain and lost opportunities. I realized that as I sat with my two closest friends in the world. Friends I developed that first week after arriving in Roanoke back in 1991. We sat in the same restaurant where we enjoyed dozens, maybe hundreds, of meals. We ate the same sandwiches we loved as growing 16 year olds and we did what we have always done the best, we talked.
I had forgotten how very much we loved to talk back then. About out families, the latest crushes, teachers we didn’t like or classes we loved. About our fears, our joys and dozens of dramatic episodes, the likes of which only a moody teenager can produce or endure. I forgot about all of those. I somehow forgot about all of those wonderful hours spent laughing with people that didn’t just understand me, but who connected with me on an almost psychic level.
Driving around town on the way to the reunion, I didn’t see a blighted, long forgotten city. I saw a lovely town full of lovely people and a community that is rightly called one of the top places to retire to in the country. I saw new shops next to places I couldn’t believe were still in business; establishments that are mom and pop in every sense of the word. But more importantly, for the first time in 20 years I saw not the reflection of regrets and a youth marred by self-loathing, but I saw the bright three years of a happy person. I saw my life, in its entirety and not the selected bits I had previously decided to focus on.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked into the restaurant in downtown Roanoke owned by a classmate and the site for what was perhaps one of the most informal 20 year high school reunions the world has ever seen. But somehow, it made sense. I don’t know how many people showed up, out of a graduating class of 200 perhaps 25% or maybe even a third made the trek across town or across the country to reconnect with people they admittedly may not have though a lot about over the last couple of decades.
Some hadn’t changed a bit while others had transformed in any number of ways. Casual conversation that at one point in time centered around the football team now focused on kids and health issues. Is tart cherry juice really a great homeopathic cure for arthritis? Did your kids like the summer swim classes? Crash Test Dummies rocked from the local band hired to add some ambiance and for a moment I could believe it was 1994 again. Then I saw the photos of the 13 year old kids of my friends and that illusion was permanently shattered.
I had significant reservations about attending my reunion, I wasn’t sure what good could possibly come from it. I intellectually told myself that I already talk with people I want to talk to and many others are connections on Facebook. I didn’t see what chatting with them in person could actually do for me. And once again those people who touched my life in the early 90s did so all over again.
Warm hugs, swapping stories about moments in time I had completely forgotten about and kind words, so kind that I was embarrassed to hear them. I began to gradually understand that yes, these individuals impacted my life in any number of ways. But I also impacted theirs. Just as those moments spent together in 1993 wove together to form my personality, my laughter, my advice, my actions did the same for them. It wasn’t an ego boost, that’s not what I’m trying to say, instead just as it was important for me to see them, they thought it important to see me. I had never considered that before and I realize that over the years by not returning and not staying in touch with many them, I deprived myself of friendships that could have continued to evolve, that could have continued to be great.
Life though is best seen in hindsight and I’m not here to wax poetically about lost opportunities or to make false promises about staying in touch with people. Most of them I won’t stay in touch with and it may be that I never see most of them again. But I understand now. I understand why reunions exist and why we go to them. It’s not about showing off new spouses or to brag about jobs. It’s to pick up again that thread of connectivity that we form throughout our lives, but a particular thread that is so important to our personalities and the people we later became that it IS who we are.
So like it or not, Roanoke (really Salem) will never leave me. I’ve tried running from it, disavowing all knowledge of it and traveling around the world many times to distance myself from it. It hasn’t worked and it never will. Salem is the reason I am the person I am today, warts and all and in order to become the best person I can be, to realize an even brighter future it was time for me to remember exactly where I came from.
4 thoughts on “Afternoons & Coffeespoons: So I Went To My 20-Year High School Reunion And…”
Really great post Matt. I was loathing my 20 yr but then realized we aren’t having one so all that stress is gone. :) High school wasn’t bad and there would be some people that would be great to see again, I guess my attitude is different, I’m not where I thought I would be. Sure I could glamorize the whole travel bit but it’s all the dirty truths, no real money, no house, no kids, just a want for the open road that I can’t even completely satisfy because I spent all my travel money paying my parents debts after my dad spent 3 months in the hospital the first year I took off to travel. I came from a really small town where everyone knows everyone so the fact I left at least is something and I like your idea about connecting the threads. Just don’t know I could do that now but I really loved your story. Very moving and I don’t know, i guess it just touched me. :)
Great post Matt . In 2011 – I met some of my high school classmates after 35years and it felt great . As you said some remains unchanged ( just older looking ) while others transformed in many ways . We now remain connected thru FB and occasional outings .
Life took a different turn for all of us and in the end at the end
it’s not the years in your life that counts but the life in your years .TGIF and have a great weekend .
Nice post. My class (1992) has never had a reunion. We’ve talked about it a few times, but it has never happened. A bunch of us do keep up with each other through Facebook, and some of us occasionally bump into each other at things like Christmas Eve church services, but that’s about it. We lost a classmate quite suddenly a few months ago due to a heart attack, and I’ve since lamented the fact we never a reunion. I hadn’t seen him since a chance encounter more than 10 years ago. Who knew back then that would be the last time we’d talk?
I grew up in a very small town, in a very rural area. When I left for college, I really got out. I went to college nearly 300 miles away, which might as well have been a different continent when compared to where my classmates that attended college went. I came home for holidays and breaks, but generally kept to myself. I ended up back there for a couple of years post-college while working for my father’s business and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, but high school relationships didn’t really rekindle during that period. I had moved on, mentally, even if I was back there, physically.
It is interesting how people do or don’t change over time. Some of my classmates are pretty much where I’d expect them to be, still in that corner of Southeast Texas. Others, like myself, really moved on. I probably ended up the farthest away. But, for those of us who do keep up with each other, the common bonds of growing up in that small, backwoods town in the middle of nowhere have given us something to hold onto, even as our lives have taken us to very different places and experiences.
I’d still gladly go back to a reunion, if we had one. I’d even drag my partner along, and he’d be a good sport and not complain too much about it (instead he’d probably relish the crazy stories he was accumulating to tell our DC friends about the experience).
Hi Matt! I’m a longtime fan of the blog. I’m so glad you went back for your reunion. Facebook is OK but there’s nothing like going back and visiting The Ones Who Stayed Behind. I know when I left Virginia for DC and other cities I definitely missed my roots. Plus, Roanoke is awesome!
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