Early in May, a few days before turning 28, I attended my ten-year high school reunion.
In the days before the event, I became aware of a light sense of dread. There was one obvious reason for my anxiety, or so I claimed: I was a different person at school. I yearned for others’ approval, and I was mildly puritanical. (I didn’t know there was another way to be Asian back then.)
But there’s another reason I didn’t want to go. I’ve spent much of my twenties being told I’m the “popular one”, feeling I have a spark and can draw people to me. Every few months I have a dream — or nightmare — accompanied by a faint sense of nausea. In the dream, I’m back at school, and back to being mostly liked in the way Mother Teresa might have been: sure she’s nice and everything, but you wouldn’t invite her to your party. Ultimately, I didn’t want to go to my school reunion because I didn’t want to be reminded of not being “cool”. This I could barely admit to myself, because it felt so childish and embarrassing that I should care.
After speaking to others I realised my self-consciousness was not so rare. The 1997 cult film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion has immortalised the clawing need to prove something to people who were once derisive about you at school. (Michele, for example, pretends to her former classmates that she invented Post-it notes.)
The reunion was held in one of those ugly modern buildings that constitute a minor improvement on portable cabins. You would think social media had dulled the surprise element of reunions, yet coming face to face with my classmates as living, breathing adults was a surreal experience. I felt outside of my body, like I was floating above my own head. I wasn’t the only one. Students who I’d thought everyone wanted to date (or be) at school confessed to me that they needed to take a moment for a few deep breaths before entering the hall, because the event was a reminder of what were, in reality, some of the worst years of their life. And that was the strange thing. More than any physical change, the most striking difference was the weight lifted from many people’s shoulders since they left school. It was so patently evident that those who had been maligned — particularly those who were LGBTQ+ — had blossomed once they were given the chance to escape the narrative that defined them for seven years.
Before arriving, I thought I might feel the need to overcompensate: to walk around with a joint hanging out of my mouth to drive home the fact I was now “fun!”. But as soon as I started speaking to people, that need vanished. I was just me. I found I didn’t mind what others thought of me, and it went without saying that it would be laughable to judge each other today on the half-formed humans we were at 16. We were all real, fully-fledged people now.
I left the reunion largely reflecting on the most beautiful part of life after school — the chance to reinvent yourself. I became the person I am today when I went travelling, because it was precisely the opposite of school. Every couple of days I entered a new hostel, where I could become someone I wanted to be rather than conform to a perception everyone already had. Better still, I didn’t have to be friends with someone who was mean to people to be “cool”, complicit in mockery by association.
School dynamics are so ugly — it’s no wonder that as teenagers we were all so insecure and breaking out in spots. I wish someone had told 16-year-old me that one day there’d be no trade-off between fun and nice, no sanding off of your principles to assimilate. No social hierarchies, no obligation to revere those with “status”.
Last year I dated a man who went to his local grammar school at the same time as I went to mine but had been very much the rugby-playing bad boy (he was eventually expelled); the Danny to my Sandy, the Connell to my Marianne. We got on better than anyone we’d met in our lives so far and yet he admitted, reluctantly, that had we known each other as teenagers, he imagined he would have fancied me but avoided me, for fear of tainting his image. It is absurd, but mostly sad, that being hemmed into a box for seven years stops us being (and being with) the people who’d make us happiest. There are already so many arbitrary characteristics — nationality, class, race — by which we are sorted into categories in the real world. School shouldn’t offer a head start on those divisions.
If I could meet my schoolgirl self I would tell her that the world is so much more expansive than the sixth-form common room; so much more fluid, unpredictable and free. As I turned 28 all I could reflect upon was how cheek-achingly happy I was; how I’d become happier every year since I left. All that mattered to me ten years ago was what other people thought of me. The irony is that caring less about the opinions of others is what finally allowed me to like myself.