My twentieth high school reunion is this summer, and I can’t decide if I want to go or not. Enmeshed in ambivalence, I’m weighing my more-bitter-than-sweet high school memories alongside how those years undeniably influenced me. What’s more, our society performs a collective myth-making around high school culture that’s immortalized in the films and TV shows of my youth. From crushes and BFFs to unforgettable parties, homecoming game touchdowns, and prom night, high school is constructed as not just a rite of passage, but “the best years of your life.” Whether rosy or regrettable, our high school experiences can’t be rewritten, but as adults, we could reinvent reunions to be more inclusive and intentional, more worthwhile and fun. While social media fosters surface-level connections for us on a daily basis, once-a-decade gatherings could be socially transformative, if we embrace the opportunity to reimagine them.
When I first saw the announcement for my reunion several months ago on Facebook (of course it was on freakin’ Facebook), I was surprised by the rush of warm feelings that coursed through me because I never considered going to my ten-year reunion. But over the last decade, I’ve found myself yearning for the company of fellow life travelers. Adulthood as an “elder millennial” leaves much to be desired. Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term Millennial in 1991. Because I was in first grade, I had no awareness of the term till much later and no idea that an existential generational specter would hang over us and shape our lives, often not for the better. As high school classmates, we aren’t bound by just our birth years. We’re yoked by our collective experience of Millennial adulthood, its joys and triumphs but also its distinct struggles and dissatisfaction.
Given the built-in and potentially powerful solidarity a high school reunion could cultivate, I was immediately drawn to the prospect of gathering with people who’ve weathered the same number of years as me. We’ve trod a path that started at the same origin—in Billings, Montana, in a kind of run-down red brick building that celebrated its 60th year in 1999, when we started our high school journey. It was the year of Y2K, the end of the twentieth century, the start of something else.
It’s likely true that no one has an overall happy high school experience, but some of my classmates seemed to enjoy hijinks in the halls, pool parties, and dances with dates, even if the DJ at our senior prom closed the night with Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” Some classmates had (and still have) close friends from those years. They have good memories, inside jokes, treasured stories.
I, on the other hand, had a pretty awful time in high school. Bookish from the start, I was raised on friendships like Anne of Green Gables and her kindred spirit Diana Barry and the feisty members of The Baby-Sitters Club. I yearned for close friends, but I never had many.
Even more than bosom buddies, I wanted a boyfriend. Oh my word, how I wanted a boyfriend. As a feminist today, it pains me how large male adoration loomed for me, but perhaps it was because I grew up during not only a cinematic explosion of iconic romantic comedies—like Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Wedding Planner (2001), and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)—but also a boom of ones specifically set in high school—10 Things I Hate About You (1999), She’s All That (1999), A Walk to Remember (2002), and be still my ballet dancer heart, Save the Last Dance (2001). Unlike Kat or Laney or Jamie or Sara, I was asked on one date in all four years of high school, an occasion so notable that even my teachers gossiped about it. And after one fun evening, that boy socially ghosted me in real life, before ghosting was even a popularly-used term.
Needless to say, I graduated deeply disappointed by how sharply my experience diverged from the American high school mythology. Being a textbook overachiever may have caused my social problems, but it was my authentic self. Think of Anne Hathaway co-hosting the Oscars in 2011: puppy-dog eager, over-exuberant, vulnerably earnest, trying so damn hard, but also genuinely talented. That’s me, then and now. In high school, I studied long and hard, and trained in classical ballet even longer and harder. It set the course for who I am two decades later: a tenured professor of media studies, working to untangle the narratives threaded through our consumer culture that shape our identities, who we are and desire to be, how we wish to be seen and understood. My high school self knew who she was, but the prospect of a high school reunion still would’ve filled her with anxiety and dread.
Film and TV shows offer examples of what happens at high school reunions, but it’s not always pretty. Attendees feel pressured to invent more prestigious careers and affluent lifestyles, like inventing Post-Its in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), one of the most beloved of this movie subgenre. People try to seduce or reconnect with former crushes with varying results, as in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008). Folks connect with old friends and unveil new identities, like Dwayne Johnson’s transformation in Central Intelligence (2016) from a high school “nerd” into a muscular CIA agent, or they honestly share their struggles with a few laughs along the way, as in American Reunion (2012). On streaming TV, a high school reunion sets the stage for late-night antics that turn into a murder mystery, notably in The Afterparty (2022).
What if we ditch the tropes and reimagine what a high school reunion can be? Too often these gatherings are conceived (and represented in films and TV shows) as moments to repeat and restore our high school experiences and social arrangements. I have zero interest in that. And some of my classmates bear far deeper scars than I do; attending a traditional high school reunion is the last thing they’d subject themselves to.
What if we chose to gather as a group of peers? As an academic, I often think of that word within the context of peer review, that is, scholars in my field who share the same expertise. But peers are also people who share a similar life expertise. What if we gathered as peers who just want to know, understand, and support one another? The older we get, the harder it is to make new friends. What if we didn’t have to?
I’d go to a high school reunion where no one was competitive about our jobs or houses or cars, where no one worried about the weight we’ve gained, the hair we’ve lost, or the gray hairs and wrinkles we’ve sprouted.
I’d go to a high school reunion where we didn’t just circle up with whoever our friends were from before to the exclusion of everyone else.
I’d go to a high school reunion where we genuinely wanted to engage with each other. Our generation doesn’t need small talk or more surface level interactions. We’ve had Facebook since college for that. For many of us, social media has fully replaced what used to comprise the bulk of high school reunions, a checklist of social questions: Who’d you marry? What’s your job? How’s your family? Gosh, are any of us famous? We don’t need that anymore. We’ve already exchanged pleasantries. If we’re going to gather in person, we should do something more than that.
We could do something more than that.
What if we show up and celebrate who we are today and the strange wonderfulness that is the ties that bind us? Not who we were in high school, but the fact that we were there together, and that we’ve journeyed through time—decades of it!—linked as a group ever since.
We could be real, honest, genuine, and vulnerable with one another. We could be all the things we were perhaps too afraid to feel and do in high school. We could be and share beyond the curated selves that social media invites and rewards.
No matter what happens in the movies, no matter who we appear to be on Facebook or Instagram, no matter what we experienced or remember from high school, we can write our reunion story differently and better, charting a path of mutual support into the years to come.
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For once, I want to read the comments on my essay, so hello, dear readers. Here are my questions for you. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and about your experiences.
If you’ve already hit a big High School Reunion milestone, did you go to yours? Were you glad that you did? Had enough years passed that folks were open and interesting, or did the cliques just circle up? If it wasn’t a good time, what do you wish had been different about your reunion?
If you had a great high school experience, how have those memories (and, ha, maybe actual friends!) helped you throughout your adult life?
If you had a less than great high school experience, have you healed from that hurt? What steps helped you?
In this essay, I pondered how film and TV represent high school (particularly high school romance) and high school reunions, and how they shaped my hopes and fears for what actually happens. What media examples shaped yours?
- William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (Harper Collins, 1991). ↑
- We don’t hold hands with our Gen X siblings often enough, but they bear this weight, too. ↑