How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races – the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
When I graduated from high school in 1970 I swore I would never attend a reunion. I was never part of the in crowd and was often cruelly treated. I hoped never to see my classmates again. I threw my invitations to my fifth and tenth reunions in the trash. When the invitation to my twentieth reunion arrived I was standing in my kitchen with my teenage daughter. “Mom, you should go,” she said.
“They were never my friends,” I replied.
“Show them how well you did. You’re Dr. Jones now,” she said.
“Success is the sweetest revenge,” I said. “But it is a poor reason to go. I have better things to do with my time.” I chucked the invitation into the trash and moved on.
Eighteen years later I joined Facebook for the sole purpose of marketing my book, Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct. First, I added my family and current contacts to my circle. That was easy but when Facebook suggested I add classmates from my high school I recoiled. Why would people who had refused to be my friend 38 years ago accept my invitation to be friends now? I moved the cursor to the close button. I paused. What did I have to lose, I thought. Maybe I could sell some books. I clicked ‘send invitations’ and went to bed. The next morning my inbox was filled with replies. They didn’t remember me. That was okay. I didn’t remember them either. Why would we? Although we shared a hometown and school, we hadn’t seen each other since graduation.
My high school experience was radically different from my classmates who were now corresponding with me on Facebook. They good memories of teachers, classmates and events. All I could remember was the daily torment. I walked to and from school by myself. At home I spent my afternoons and evenings alone in my bedroom. I didn’t attend school dances, proms, or sports events. Unable to stop the bullying I retreated to my bedroom and focused on my studies.
It took several decades and a series of traumatic experiences with local churches before I understood the bullying wasn’t my fault. I was an easy target. Short, introspective and shy, I didn’t know how to defend myself. No one, not my parents nor my teachers, offered any useful advice or help. Some of that was ignorance on their part. Some of it was neglect. My father often told me how stupid and selfish I was. There would be no help from him. My mom wanted me to be popular and had no understanding why I wasn’t.
Unsure how to participate in the discussion on Facebook I wrote, “I was not part of the in crowd so I don’t have a lot of fond memories of social events. But I did get a good education.”
Maryann Hughes, who lives an hour from my current home replied, “I know what you mean. I can remember dreading going to school knowing what would happen.” Maryann and I met at a Newport restaurant not far from her home. She shared with me how she was bullied in high school. I didn’t remember that. I had been so caught up in my own misery I hadn’t noticed hers. Sitting at the restaurant we browsed through our yearbook. My classmate identified who she thought had bullied her. I was surprised I couldn’t name my tormenters. Although I have some specific memories of being bullied I have no memory of who the culprits were. I remember vividly the people who showed me a kindness here and there. I figure the rest were either guilty of bullying or were passive bystanders. I was certain most of the bullies would not remember us nor would they realize how much damage they did. My classmate agreed.
When I arrived home in the late afternoon I found Richard Marks had written a public apology to Maryann on Facebook. I was elated. Bullies rarely apologize to their victims. Richard not only did it but he did it publicly. Good for him. I looked at my yearbook. I remembered his face and knew he hadn’t been kind to me either. Even though he addressed the apology to Maryann I understood he was sorry for bullying others. He had become a man with honor. His apology was a blessing and took some of the sting out of my old wounds.
Soon Alan, another classmate, suggested we have a 40th reunion. We contacted Reunions of America. “Who are your class officers?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why?”
“You have to do this right,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to offend anyone.”
“Look we are just a group that got together and want to have a reunion. I’m not into this to recreate the old class hierarchy. That would leave me on the outs. Besides the class president died in a car crash before the prom.”
I hung up and began looking for other ways to plan the reunion. I had help from four other classmates. At first we tried to do the traditional reunion in a hotel ballroom or a dinner cruise. But that required risking a large sum of money. Carol Ostrom suggested we hold it at a restaurant. While I thought the idea made financial sense I was still hoping for a more formal occasion. Then Carol suggested Savino’s Sit-Down Deli, owned by our classmate. I didn’t remember Jimmy Savino but recognized his face in the yearbook as one of the guys that was never kind to me. Carol assured me that Jimmy was a great guy, had excellent food and knew how to organize things.
The week before the reunion high levels of anxiety kept me awake. Why was I doing this? Despite receiving a few written apologies, I worried that I would still be rejected by my classmates. I considered staying home. These are the people I forsook forty years ago. But as the day approached the excitement grew. Saturday, August 7, 2010 was a clear summer night. Jimmy set up a tent in front of his place and arranged for a DJ to play our music. He also got our late high school president’s younger brother to sing for us. Later that night a group of older graduates stopped by and sang Doo-wop just as they use to at the candy store on the corner of Lake and Deer Park.
The good will filled the tent and deli. Classmates kept coming up to thank me for organizing the reunion. I was at the center of the class and not on the outskirts looking in. I finally belonged to the group I was always a rightful member of. By discarding the old class hierarchy, by people admitting and apologizing for ridiculing me and others we as a class were able to meet each other in the here and now and enjoy the company of those who shared a common heritage. Memories of those painful, lonely school years were replaced with acceptance, love and friendship.
Since the reunion classmates continue to talk to each other on Facebook and there have been several mini-reunions. I have visited a classmate at his home, ate his food and then spent the evening at Water Fire and Federal Hill in Providence, RI with four other classmates. There are plans to keep meeting at Jimmy’s and to set up a class webpage.
Facebook has given us all a chance to redeem ourselves and build a caring, inclusive community. As one classmate wrote, it is like finding long lost family members. We not only went to high school together but many of us knew each other in grade school. Some of us had a blast in high school, others were miserable.
I was not completely blameless. All of us could have behaved better. There were times I witnessed bullying and did nothing to stop it. I just watched. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid the bullies would turn on me if I said anything. One of the strange blessings of the Columbine shootings is it spurred research into the problem. We understand more about where, when and why people are bullied. Schools have implemented programs to stop bullying. The better ones assist the bullied to build friendships with other children like themselves, teach bullies how to be compassionate leaders and encourages bystanders to stand up for the victims.
Who did what to whom forty years later is not important to me. What matters is how we behave today. We are all saints and sinners. “How many times should I forgive?” Peter asked Jesus. “Seventy times seven.” Jesus replied. Richard Mark’s apology made it easy to forgive. The reunion was my gift to my class. Not because they earned it, but because after 40 years I discovered I was and will always be connected to them and the town in which we grew up.
Not of My Making, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble Online, Barrington Books or directly from www.pluckpress.com