High School Remembered
About a month ago, a girl who I went to high school with was killed in a motorcycle accident on the northbound 405 freeway. The girls from my high school who I’m friends with on Facebook started putting out meaningful consolations to this girl as standing memorials.
And I couldn’t remember her.
This girl was in my 2000 graduating class at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif. We were in choir together, which was my biggest high school activity. We probably had classes together too. And still… nothing. I felt like a callous, heartless human being.
It has been almost 14 years since I graduated from high school. It made sense that a lot of the people who I knew would be lost to time. They would off living their own lives in their respective corners of the universe. As I looked at the big smile in her Facebook photo, I kept pushing my brain to grab a memory. I should have remembered something about this girl. But nothing came.
High school was its own form of nightmare for me. I didn’t have many friends, and although everyone knew me, I never fit in. I was smart and stubborn, not afraid to stand up for what I thought was right. Teachers were threatened by my rebelliousness, as it didn’t come in a standard “bad girl” package. They were only interested if you were a good girl interested in math or science; boxes that I could never fit in, not when I loved political science, psychology and English, specifically writing.
It was like a fluorescent dull room where I had to wait for my life to start. After I stood in front of 3,000 people to give a high school graduation speech that stole the show (more than a girl with a 2.9 GPA could ask for), I wove my lucky scarf from Jerusalem to my family in the stands as a sign of victory. I was leaving this place and never looking back.
People went off to college, got married and started having kids. We spread out to all the corners of the earth. For a while, I kept in touch with some of the people from high school. But they eventually disappeared, too. They found me later on Facebook, but it wasn’t like they were my bosom buddies. They were just there.
Several teachers, including my favorite English teacher, died suddenly. Others retired to different parts of the country. One teacher got suspended for pushing a kid into a door, only to find he had a history of abusing students. They were too scared to come forward before that point.
That last story was shared with a good friend of mine from high school over Christmas Eve at a bar in the San Fernando Valley, drinking mulled wine and nibbling at a cheese plate. It was the only piece of gossip I had from the past. Meanwhile, that girl knew everything about the others, from how all the super-rich girls were now pregnant at the same time to my high school nemesis killing another classmate in a drunk driving accident shortly after we graduated. Although we never really hung out in high school, I enjoyed spending time with her in our post-college worlds.
It reminded me of a month before this girl died. I announced on Facebook I was going back to Israel in March after a traumatic experience there at 17. A girl who knew me back then asked me about the incident, and I told her honestly. She said to me, “I had no idea you were going through something so hard. It makes me feel so bad I didn’t know and couldn’t help you.”
All these things made me sit back and wonder: Who and where was I in this post-high school world? Did my previous life and these people mean nothing to me at all?
From 18 onward, I felt like I was running. I never stopped, from college to moving out, then on to marriage and an eventual divorce. Every time I came back to Thousand Oaks, all I could think of was getting out again. It was everything that was against my nature: conservative, straight-laced and Christian, where families were overly concerned with your kid getting on the football team or being a part of the national-ranking dance and choir programs instead of the problems of the world at large. There was an overt obsession with how many AP classes you could take, what UC school you would get into, how perfect you could be.
Meanwhile, there was me, cutting my hair short and wearing red lipstick, long flowy skirts and tank tops. My nickname was “Trouble” and I was busy in class ignoring the teachers and writing poetry into different notebooks, holding my pens as if they were cigarettes even though I never smoked, chewing on the ends while thinking. Hating my homework, I would go home and sit for hours on the computer crafting a novel idea or a script for my video class. I had dreams of creativity and fantasy in a town where dreams were meant for cookie-cutter lives. Every time I went into Los Angeles to visit family was like blissful release.
I hated Thousand Oaks, a hatred that caused me to run, and every time I had to come back it was like a punishment for being a naughty rebellious girl. When I eventually moved away, I paid the price: My parents would never come to visit me, and I was like a pariah. I was alone and forced to make a new family for myself. And when it came down to it, I was willing to do anything to prevent myself from going back, even end up in a horrible marriage.
After one more living situation in Thousand Oaks after the divorce, I settled down in Los Angeles. The smog-filled air was more delicious than any I would see in that suburban town, the people filled with big dreams like mine and a determination that had always ran through my blood. But as the death of that girl filled my eyes, and I looked around at all my Facebook friends who still were friends with the girls they grew up with, I wondered where I was in that universe.
I called my best friend, who I loved and knew since college.
“I feel so strange that I have no real connection to anyone I knew in high school,” I told her. “Like, I disappeared off the map on purpose. Her place in the world makes me wonder about mine, because it seemed like all the old high school people stayed together.”
“You decided to go someplace better,” she said. “It’s okay not to follow the crowd.”
“Did that time in my life mean nothing to me? It was almost like my high school was just my college waiting room. You’d think I’d remember something.”
“You do. You remember getting chosen to speak graduation. You remember how awesome it felt to be leaving. You remember how much joy singing with your classmates in the choir gave you. Those are all the things you’ve told me.”
So one morning, I opened up my yearbook and found the girl who died. I saw her face and remembered her in the girls’ choir, wearing what I referred to as the “bridesmaid dresses from hell” of lavender lace with matching gloves and pearls. Her shy smile hidden behind her long brown curls came to the front of my mind.
It brought me back for a second, and then reminded me of what I was now. Everyone else could hold on to the precious vestibules of those memories, and it was their choice. My choice was chase the path of dreams and fantasy away from the place where I grew up, and let the rebellion that I began there still feed my soul. My closest friends may not be the people I grew up with; however, they weren’t people I clung to because of shared pasts but because of present joys. I revel in my eccentricities, and sure the mean girls are still around in different forms. But their voices were turned down on the radio of my mind so I could find true happiness.
So that morning, I put on a flowy skirt and walked down Venice Boulevard to write on my computer for hours in the local coffee shop. Time has a way of moving forward, but despite the years, some things never change.