I had two experiences in the last week which have an underlying, though not obvious, connection. One was a phone message from a reader thanking me for my last column. The reason for the thanks was that the reader was feeling all alone with her feelings; not hearing others express thoughts close to hers (until my column) she believed no one else thought or felt the way she did.
The other experience was quite different, yet it brought up the same issues: I went to a reunion of my grade school graduating class. Well, it was actually their 40th high school reunion, but they'd invited anyone who had ever attended school with them, from the first grade on.
Because I'd never been part of the one clique of cool kids who dominated social life in our small school, I wasn't sure I wanted to attend the reunion. I approached the evening with mixed feelings. Although I feel good about my adult accomplishments and my adult relationships, I do not feel good about my memories of grade school - the hazing that greeted my arrival in the fourth grade, being the last one to still have braids when other girls had gone to more stylish haircuts, somehow never good enough to be a Rainbow girl though a good student, and probably the worst of all, and no father in the house due to my parents' early divorce. I never had the right clothes. I was forced to wear brown oxfords instead of fashionable (at the time) white bucks ("More practical waiting for the school bus" my mother said). All of this added up to a persistent feeling of not belonging.
At the reunion, there were the usual people you do or don't recognize depending on the amount they've changed physically. There was the usual toting up of children and grandchildren. The women in the class were generally friendly and the men kept their distance. I couldn't tell if the guys even remembered me - but it could be they remembered me all too well as the brainy girl who developed a sarcastic, sharp wit to defend against what, for a year or two, seemed to be constant hassling. It was a defense mechanism I developed to keep harassment at bay, a habit which I've tried to subdue, not always successfully.
What struck me as most interesting about the reunion, however, was who wasn't there: people who had been very popular and part of the clique but didn't show up, though living close by. One man's wife even told a reunion organizer, "We're not coming. Don't send us anything. Leave us alone!" The number still living locally, but not attending, might have been as high as 20 per cent.
I began speculating. I know that the destructive impacts of alcohol had touched the lives of several people in the group. Perhaps some of those missing had lives that came apart in ways that prevented them from attending and holding their heads up. But, I also heard some who didn't attend are leading decent, successful lives, including the man with the angry wife. Could it be that, unbeknownst to me, some of the non-attendees, when thinking of their public school experience, felt just as alienated from their peers as I did, in spite of appearances to the contrary? No one spoke of that. No one was direct about how they felt about their childhood experiences with this group of people.
As long as no one spoke of those experiences, no one knew if they were alone-and that's the connection with the reader's phone call. Until we can ramp up our courage to speak our minds and hearts, we never know if we're alone, part of a small group, or part of a majority who have qualms, fears, dreams and joys that aren't reflected in the mainstream message. Social pressure is a powerful thing and never as powerful as when we're adolescents. Clearly its influence persists into adulthood.
For me there's always an internal debate as to whether I should speak out or keep quiet, get along and go along. The reader who called me is a person I know and respect. She is an intelligent and capable person who has done a great deal for our community. I didn't expect her to share my views, but I never would have known we had similar opinions if I'd never stuck my neck out and expressed mine.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco who has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.