There are times in your life when you look back proudly at how far you’ve come. And in those moments, you know that you will NEVER be that old self again because you are now (you think smugly) a better version of yourself: more wise, more secure, more YOU. Then you go to a high school reunion and in an instant you are once more that insecure version of yourself all over again.
In the 1985 film “Back to the Future,” the main character travels back in time, makes a few inadvertent changes, and returns to a present that is altered from the one he left. This week, I have done the opposite: traveled ahead to the past and returned to a present that is somehow changed.
Just 9 days ago, a Facebook page was created called, “I Grew Up in Hudson, Ohio.” This page quickly became a repository of shared memories for people who attended school in Hudson. The snippets posted there – and the discussions that arose as a result – are addicting to read. Over the last week, I’ve found myself spending hours each night lost in a sea of memories. I’m not alone – in 9 days the group has amassed over 1600 members!
At first, the online space was like a giant class reunion that erased the artificial barrier of graduation date. People from many graduation years – and even decades – were posting memories and those of us who shared them chimed in. Of course, as more people contributed, more familiar names from the past popped up and more memories were rekindled. Once we all got past some of the surface reminiscing, the “where are you now” and “what do you do” started, similar to what happens in a face to face reunion. But at a face-to-face reunion, that’s about as far as you ever get before the hour gets late, the alcohol is cut off, the kids need attending, and everyone drifts back to their lives.
But in our online space, something more started happening than ever happens at face-to-face reunions. Something…well…magical.
The people we are today started talking about how the people we were then had felt. (Yes, that’s a confusing sentence, but important. Go read it again!)
Popular kids confessed their insecurities and how unpopular they felt. Apologies were made to kids who were bullied decades before. Gratitude was expressed for little things that carried meaning far beyond what could have been imagined. Crushes that had been secret for decades were confessed – and some people discovered that they had been reciprocal! It sounds trite and mundane, but the stereotypes and boxes we were in then disintegrated and we discovered that we were more alike – and less alone – than we ever imagined, if only we’d realized it all those years ago.
Some of us started chatting more deeply through post replies. One thread had a discussion that went on for HOURS in real-time, through consecutive text replies. Then the questions posted got more introspective, like “what were your biggest regrets in high school?” And the answers weren’t flip or sarcastic – not one. They were serious and poignent…and real. After 20 plus years, most of us have “grown comfortable in our own skin” as one person put it. We were now discovering that these people we thought we’d known, with whom we shared our formative years, had been strangers to us all along, much as we’d been strangers to ourselves as we struggled to find our place in the world.
Then another deviation from a standard reunion: teachers joined the group. Long retired most of them are, and struggling to connect new and old names with new and older faces. (“I am reading this and picturing all of you as I knew you at 13!” someone said.) But their students – still addressing their teachers as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” started posting heartfelt thanks for what was taught.
Here’s what one former teacher, who must be in her 70’s by now, posted : “Dear ex-students, I am STILL growing up, near Hudson, and you now know our secret: all of us adults weren’t really all that adult. !!!!!!!!”
And some of the replies she got:
“I became an English teacher because of YOU, (and against my family’s influence.). Through your quarter course in creative writing senior year, I found my voice. Thank YOU.”
“I have taught my kids how to diagram sentences and a few of their teachers have commented on that method. I remember learning so much from your class. You made a great impact in my life. I enjoyed the speeches. It has helped me with my career since that is what I do everyday, getting up in front of people and speaking. Thank you!”
“I still have my first Yamaha guitar and the folk book that started my love affair with music that continues to this day. Thank you for your patience, inspiration and guidance when I needed it most.” [Yes – same teacher, who taught ENGLISH, but evidently inspired someone in music!]
“The impact you had on our brains is hard to put into words, but thank you so much for making me think and care and stop just going through the motions. You recommended I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” outside the novels required in class, and the experience changed me tremendously.”
It moved me to tears.
But then something even more amazing happened, at least, to me.
My facebook profile has my married name, with my maiden name in the “my info” space. Someone put two and two together, figured out who I had been, and was genuinely delighted to see me! She said she’d thought of me over the years and wondered how I was, and how my mom was. Me? You wondered about ME? And my mom?! I honestly didn’t think I was that memorable to much of anyone.
And then the conversation turned to my sister, who was killed when I was 12. Someone who had been her good friend posted. People started chiming in about how horrible it was when she’d died, how bad they’d felt, how they still remembered that, and how it impacted their lives to this day. THEIR lives – now. My 8 year old sister who died 29 years ago. Mind = blown. I got more than one personal message of people recounting their memories of that time in their lives. I am still processing what those messages mean to me, but it is profound.
I frequently hear people talking about how impersonal technology is, how sad it is that our kids spend so much solitary time online, how we as a society can’t possibly connect like we used to “back in the day.” I’ve never believed it, and now I’ve added one more personal example of the profound ways technology can connect us in deeper ways than we ever imagined.
So forget “Back to the Future.” I’m going to keep going ahead to the past, rewriting the old story to incorporate the new perspectives I’ve gleaned.