Occasionally, though, an experience demonstrates how social media can be an honest-to-God blessing, and lay the groundwork for a surprisingly meaningful experience.
Months ago, for instance, I got a Facebook invitation for an unofficial, informal 30th high school reunion – at a bar in my hometown, the night before Thanksgiving – I simultaneously thought “Nope!” and mentally checked my availability.
I mean, my family wasn’t traveling anywhere for the holiday, I currently live only about a half hour away from my Michigan hometown, and that square on my calendar happened to be blank.
But I’d also, in high school, been a pretty forgettable band nerd in a class of more than 400 people, many of whom had chosen to move back and raise their kids in that same town. So I had the sense that a lot of the reunion’s attendees would be the people who saw each other regularly, anyway, and had sustained close friendships with each other over the decades.
I, on the other hand, had re-connected with just a modest handful of high school acquaintances via social media, mostly after attending the one “official” reunion we’ve had since graduation (the 20th, in 2009).
This was partly a function of how not-present I’d been in high school. So consumed was I at the time with boyfriends, grades, and getting into a good college that precious little from my adolescence has endured.
So what could I possibly hope for from attending this slapdash reunion? Wouldn’t it simply reinforce the neurotic sense of invisibility that is my middle-child default setting?
While mulling this over, I posted something on the reunion’s event page that essentially said, “I’m not sure anyone would recognize/remember me.”
But then a guy I’d gone to school with for many, many years wrote that he remembered me wearing roller skates for several days around our elementary school, “trying to break a world record,” before our principal made me stop.
Oh, my God. Over the decades, I’d completely forgotten about this wacky childhood plot of mine.
And this brief, casual Facebook exchange charmed me, and made me feel more inclined to take a chance and attend the reunion, awkwardness be damned.
When that cold Wednesday night in November arrived, though, darkness fell well before my husband and two young daughters ate dinner with me around our kitchen table, and I could see wet snow falling beyond the windows. I considered snuggling down with my family to watch a “Great British Baking Show” ep and bagging the whole thing.
But my husband urged me toward the door. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he shrugged. “You have a crummy time and come home? Go. See what happens.”
If nothing else, the experience might provide good material, I told myself. (Writers are vampires that way.) I looked down at what I was wearing: a Hamilton t-shirt and a pair of jeans ripped at the knees? Ah, well. If I was going to go, I might as well be true to the person I am. I mean, I’m nearing fifty. Who was I trying to impress or fool?
I drove through the gloppy snow, parked in a lot near the bar, and walked toward the entrance, making this deal with myself: if I walked around the bar once and recognized no one (or vice versa), I’d give myself permission to subtly turn right back around and head to the exit. (Classic introvert party move, by the way.)
Initially, it looked like I’d be following through with this back-up plan. The large, brightly lit bar was packed, yet no one looked familiar. Then, a woman who’d been my best friend in middle school, Paula, spotted me and rushed over, happily squealing my full name and pulling me into a hug.
Her formerly dark, shoulder-length hair was now gray, but her face – which I’d intently studied for entire afternoons as we critiqued terrible, eighth grade poetry and shared tween romantic fantasies – was very much the same. And I instantly felt more at home.
“You were one of, like, two or three people I came here to see,” she said.
This surprised me – we’d grown apart in high school, as she became more popular – but she went on to say that she’d followed my writing career online, and that she felt like she still knew me well, thanks to my (copious) social media posts. She confessed that much of her adult life had been hard – or as she more bluntly put it, “sucked” – and for that reason, she’d been recently making a point to tell people when they’d had a positive and lasting impact on her.
“You were one of those people,” Paula told me. “I know it sounds cheesy, and this may be a totally awkward thing to say” – pretty sure the woman standing in our midst would agree – “but I want you to know that I’ve thought about the friendship we had often, and I really treasure the closeness we had.”
Though not generally prone to weepiness, I teared up as she spoke, then gave her a hug. “Thank you so much for telling me that,” I said. “Our friendship meant a lot to me, too.”
And soon thereafter, I had a genuine, substantive conversation – about divorce; caring for aging, ailing parents; and grief – with a woman named Roxane, whom I’d only known as a marching band acquaintance in high school, but had more recently gotten a better sense of via Facebook.
At one point, I nodded toward a blonde, very made-up woman nearby and asked Roxane, “Who is that?” Roxane shrugged and said in my ear, “She looks like she was popular. We probably didn’t know her.”
The line cracked me up — so damn true! — and made me think about how unformed and fragile we all are as teenagers. The men and women in that bar were barely recognizable to me now, so they no longer possessed the power over me that I’d once so willingly granted them. Thankfully, I was no longer the girl who’d simply cower when being barked at in the hall (to imply I was a dog) by an a-hole football player between classes.
Time is, of course, the great equalizer, as evidenced by the room of bald heads, graying hair, and filled out, middle-aged bodies I found myself in. Frankly, though my life wasn’t perfect, I finally felt wholly comfortable in my skin. Yes, I’d never quite landed after being laid off, in middle age, from my dream job as a newspaper staff arts reporter – I now work alongside teenagers as a part-time library page and take occasional freelance writing assignments — but I’d lived life on my own terms, had some wonderful friends and experiences, and I’d created a family I loved dearly.
So I felt OK as I talked to the guy who remembered my nutty rollerskating stunt, and conversed with a former trumpet player who recognized me from photos I’d posted online, and greeted a looming tree of a man who’d been in my calculus class senior year.
“Someone was just telling me you’re hilarious on Facebook,” he told me, pointing a thumb over his shoulder.
What the hell? I’d thought. Where was all this validation and peer love when I was an adolescent and so desperately needed it? And where was it coming from now?
But on some level, I already knew the answer to the second question. It sprang from social media which, for all its ills — and they are legion — may also make an informal 30th high school graduation a far better, more positive affair for an introvert-band-geek-turned-writer.
Because the cringe-y small talk can be skipped.
Because you’ve already been following each other’s stories over the years.
Because while Facebook can often feel like a dangerously annoying highlight reel of other people’s lives, it can also, if you’re willing to be vulnerable, be a means of inviting people to spend time inside your mind and your heart.
When I’m writing social media posts, I view myself as a guest at a years-long virtual dinner party. I’m not there to start (or take part in) fights. I’m there to say everything from “wow, I was a crappy parent today” and “yet another job interview went nowhere” to “I finally get to do a story I’ve wanted to do for years now” and “my 8 year old used an adverb correctly, and I’m about to cry with happiness.”
Going into that reunion, I didn’t need to prove myself or talk myself up or show off. Thanks to social media, the people who’d been friendly to me during our school years already knew precisely the person I’d become.
And I did, too.
So when the bar’s lights suddenly dimmed, and a DJ dropped a Pitbull song, I couldn’t resist (like a full-on chick flick cliché) claiming a bit of space for dancing – mostly by myself, but also kind of with Paula’s affable, tipsy husband (another fellow classmate). What can I say? I could barely contain a physical, spontaneous urge to celebrate. A kind of bodily “Song of Myself.”
To others in the bar (including some of my classmates), I may have looked silly or absurd – a nearly fifty year old woman cutting a rug, mostly solo, before stepping back out into the rainy night.
But to me, it felt like the culmination of a wholly satisfying evening and – given the nature of the occasion – an arrival. When I was a teenager, my peers and I, on a daily basis, only saw what I wasn’t.
Now, it seems, what’s visible is what I am. I’m finally being “seen,” in the way I’d always wanted.
And strangely, I have social media to thank.
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