After resisting it for 25 years, I went to my high school reunion- and am so much richer and grounded because of it.
There’s something about the passage of time and the freedom of turning 40 that allows you to drop the judgements, to recognize that growing up is more about shedding the layers than adding the years, and to see yourself more clearly. But it took some time…
Being a teenager is about looking out and looking ahead, but not looking around. I stayed with a friend who I vaguely remember was there with me on a trip I took to Europe right after high school with my history teacher. An amazing trip- I have never been back to most of those places, and I have crystal clear memories of the smell of the sand and blood at the bull fight in Spain, the pots of red geraniums on the city walls of Dubrovnik, the coziness of the eiderdown comforters in Austria. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was six weeks of being on the move with about 20 girls and Mrs. Skaggs, 13 countries, a cruise, and countless cathedrals. It was exotic, unbelievable and something I’ve never come close to replicating since. I learned so much about the world, other cultures, and other ways of being. I learned to say “Excuse me” in about five different languages. Apparently, though, I forgot who was sharing it with me.
I reminded my friend “Lala” about our sharing a birthday- something I vaguely remembered from the cruise. She is the only person I know with whom I share a birthday. I even remember the really pretty silk dress I wore- cream-colored with a ruffle around the waist. I remember her sitting across from me and the shared birthday cake. Everything else- pretty fuzzy. Horribly fuzzy, in fact. Astonishingly fuzzy, we learned.
When she picked me up from the airport, we were quickly catching up and realizing how much we liked each other now as adults. I said something about sharing our birthday from that trip. “Really?!” she said, shocked. “You were on that trip?” I would have been hurt, except that other than the birthday celebration, I didn’t really remember her there, either. We laughed and were amused.
When we met up with the third woman, Jo, who was also staying with Lala, we were laughing with her about our brain freeze- how we had forgotten the other one was even there. “YOU were on that trip, too?” she asked, shocked. There was a very significant, long pause as Lala and I sat there, stunned. “NO WAY!” we said in tandem. Turns out that of the 18 girls there, the three of us were on the same trip together, but in different social circles. Social circles that in high school are absolute, rigid and apparently, can cause total memory loss.
I was even more stunned about this memory loss when I was looking through Lala’s photo album of that trip and realized that SHE was the girl with me who met three boys from Australia at the Neptune Fountain in Florence- a beautiful fountain that I have seen time and time again in movies- and am immediately taken back to that moment. I can tell you the type of khaki shorts that one of the boys was wearing. I can tell you that one of them was shirtless and blonde and oh so-gorgeously golden tanned. I can tell you the giggly feeling that I had at how exotic I felt flirting with fellow travelers during a summer in Florence. Apparently, I could not tell you who was with me that I actually knew.
And it got me thinking.
About how incredibly self-centered teenagers really are. How everything is about them and their needs, their friends. And how rigid this thinking is. Teenagers are capable of conceptual thinking, which means that they can question, they can think creatively, and they explore boundaries of ideas. Such thinking is restricted to theory, and apparently not to their own relationships. I can sit in judgment about it as an adult, but it doesn’t change the fact- this is how teenagers operate. They place so many boundaries on themselves.
And these boundaries are so emotionally and socially related. So many of us at the reunion remembered the teachers, the content, the wonder of learning. And so many of us forgot who was in class with us.
I’m convinced that this type of memory loss is somehow related to emotional regulation and the role of novelty. And I wonder what it means for children and teens with autism and other brain-based disorders.
Do they remember things better since they often don’t have the emotional overlay? Do they remember less since they have fewer neurological connections to emotional centers and chemicals? Do they remember things because they do not have the emotional regulation to be bored and thus, so much is “new”? Notice that what I remembered best were the sensory things?- the colors, the smells and the textures of places exotic and foreign to me. The novelty and the sensory made quite an impression. But the known, the familiar, the people that I didn’t interact with- not so much. When we teach, when we want to remember, we have to focus on the new, the emotional connections, the sensory, the exotic within the typical. And to do that- you have to look around.
I won’t view teaching teenagers quite the same as before… I remember Mr. Kramer’s use of the book on the 60’s. I remember Mrs. Skaggs opening up of Latin American history. I remember Mr. Walker’s teaching us James Joyce. But I’m sure that I acted just as bored and obnoxious as any teenager and I’m sure that the teachers had to work to get my attention away from my friends. The great irony is that I remember the classes more than my friends now. To all of my teacher friends, they don’t look like they’re paying attention- but they are…
For whatever it’s worth, I had a wonderful time with Jo and Lala this time- and I won’t forget it.