There was never a question I was going to go. I felt I owed it. To the organiser who worked so hard to track us down, to plan it and to get us there. To the friends in my year who had passed away; so many of them I’d hear people tell others that my year at school was “cursed”.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that deciding to attend my 40 year school reunion (yes I was a child prodigy and graduated when I was six) filled me and others with trepidation…. until we got there. As soon as I walked in to the old High School gymnasium, I was struck by the warmth and the joy; the genuine enthusiasm with which people greeted each other and the shrieks as people who had lost contact found others from across the far side of the room. You would have been forgiven for thinking we had all been one big happy family. But we hadn’t been.
As hard as it is to believe these days, I’d been the only kid in primary school whose parents had divorced. I was taunted mercilessly for coming to school one day with my biological family surname and the next with a new one as my mum’s second husband, my dad who is now 88, bless him, adopted my brother and me.
I still get wobbly when I remember how it felt to be told by an HSC girl I barely knew I should check out the secondary school toilets and walked in, alone, to see scrawled across four toilets in black bubble writing which was all the rage: . I don’t know if the artist was in the room last Sunday night. It certainly didn’t feel like it. In truth, I’ll never know and while it was, and still is, a painful childhood memory and may in some unconscious way have helped me find my destiny working in the EEO, diversity and inclusion space, it doesn’t define me. It certainly didn’t help at the time with the abandonment narrative I had going on which can still bubble to the surface when I get an unkind course evaluation (which thankfully is very rare).
What I choose to remember most about that traumatic experience, one of utmost rejection, confusion, shame and public humiliation is the other side of my strict, gruff French teacher, my convenor that year. The one who always told off Ilana and I for talking through French class. It was to her office I went to sobbing that day, almost unable to get any words out. She got me to sit and softly but resolutely called the cleaner on the spot to make sure the amateur signwriting would come down immediately. She reminded me there are lots of sides to all of us and as the teacher trying to command attention, enforce respect for authority and ensure our vocab and verb conjugation improved, I had only seen one side of her… until then.
The other powerful revelation from Sunday night was the evidence of how much people can change. Some looked the same as they did 30 years ago. Thank goodness for the thoughtful name tags as some I might not have recognised at all. There were those who had hair where there hadn’t been any. Predictably, there was the opposite. There was the guy at school who’d been quite overweight and was now slim. A significant number who’d been slim but no longer. There was the school hunk (still gorgeous) who hugged and kissed me warmly. I felt momentarily pathetic registering the thrill of acceptance by someone who wouldn’t have looked at me twice back then. And there was the touching memorial to all our missing school chums because it was only the past two reunions where we had the maturity to know this was something we had to do even if it brought down the mood in the room for a short while. It was just decent and right and we’d all been on the planet long enough to know we have to take the bad with the good and that life isn’t just beer and skittles or trips to Disneyland or in our case, Skyhooks and Sherbet coming to our school to do lunchtime concerts (although that was amazing and I even wagged an extra 10 minutes of class afterwards because Daryl Braithwaite asked to get the basketball courts unlocked for a quick game).
There is a golden rule we have in the world of Professional Speakers Australia: do therapy from the stage. You might see this piece as breaking that rule. Atypically for me, I’m not going to finish this article with any references to leadership, EEO, culture or high performing teams. But we are all humans. We bring all of ourselves to work whether we are conscious of what’s in that briefcase full of baggage we carry with us through life each day or not. The story of last Sunday night was an uplifting, empowering, healing and joyous reminder of many things that I want to carry me to the next reunion and beyond.
People can learn and grow and mature. They can shift from isolating, ridiculing and humiliating on the differences between us to embracing and acceptance. We can typecast people as being one-dimensional like my gruff French teacher until situations allow for us to see other sides of them. Do we even bother to look for these when the human brain doesn’t need to be logical? It just needs to be right. What is the power of one leader to set the tone for inclusion, acceptance and joy? I believe the chief reunion organiser made a large contribution to the atmosphere that was cultivated on the night (OK maybe I am getting close to talking about leadership and culture with that one!)
And finally, how important is it sometimes to take a chance, to back ourselves, to walk into the uncomfortable. To put on our armor our wrinkle cream. To risk being sad, hurt, reminded, rejected. Indeed to share our most vulnerable experiences and risk others’ judgment. I could have stayed away last Sunday night. I’m so glad I went.