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Monday, August 23, 2004

1983 Me

While sitting at my parents’ kitchen table yesterday afternoon my older brother, Chris—in town for his 20th high school reunion—and I reminisced about high school. We were only a grade apart and knew so many of the same people. Still we struggled to remember names, until my mom helped out by providing us with my 1983 yearbook, which I didn’t realize she still had.

1983 was my sophomore year, my first year in high school. As I thumbed through the pages, I became the girl who, the day before her class picture was taken, had her braces removed (after 3-1/2 years) and to her horror discovered that her teeth were very large. “They’re beautiful,” my mom assured me. But I was looking in the visor mirror crying, “They’re gargantuan!” What our teenage minds do to us can sometimes last a lifetime. I’m still sensitive about the size of my teeth.

I was on the volleyball team, the track team and band. But pictured in those pages was also my toothy mug lying prone on the floor (complete with topsiders) in front of the Focus staff. The Focus was our high school newspaper, which only managed to produce one or two issues due to lack of funding and interest. The caption under our staff photo reads: “Mr. Keith ‘Where’s My Circulation Money?’ Lare gives Wendy Lewis a lesson on the fine art of lining up type.” We were described as a “small, but fanatical, staff.” As I look at the photo I realized I was one of two underclassman surrounded by a group of highly literary seniors. Wonder whatever happened them?

One of the seniors that year was my first crush, Chris Mustain. He was an incredibly bright guy and always saw something in me that I could never see in myself. I met him when I was in eighth grade and my family gave him a ride home from a camp he attended with my brother, Chris. He was so smart and funny and I remember him giving off the intoxicating aroma of Deep Woods Off.

I was just a kid then, but eventually he and I would become very close. He told me, when I was only 15 years old, that I would grow to become a remarkable woman. I don’t know if that’s true, but that he saw potential in the awkward, unsure me when I was so ill equipped to see it myself said something about his maturity and vision. We kept in touch while I was in college, but I lost track of him during the ’90s.

Even as I embraced the high school life there was a side of me that always felt slightly out of place. Though I enjoyed my honors classes, I had to work hard to do well in them. Many of my classmates were so gifted intellectually that it seemed as if they didn’t need to lift a finger. That probably wasn’t the case, but that’s how it felt to me.

In the mid-90s I had written an article in Avenues magazine talking about the impact of favorite teachers on notable Cleveland personalities. Though mine wasn’t published, I wrote and sent a letter to Ms. Strawser, my junior and senior year English teacher, along with a copy of the magazine.

In it I told her how she helped give me the confidence to pursue writing as a career even in the face of some pretty intimidating company. I confessed to pulling all-nighters on my essays, even as I was convinced my piece on Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” would never hold a candle to that of my classmates. I suppose she was the first person to give me permission to pursue my life’s work.

Not long after I sent that letter, I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Berea High School watching my sister conduct her choir. As we got up to leave the auditorium, there was Ms. Strawser. Her daughter was singing that night. She told me how much my note had meant to her and that she always knew I would do well since I was more serious than most about writing and because I worked at it so intensely. In a way she validated all those late nights spent agonizing over papers for Senior Honors Seminar and I was grateful to have bumped into her again.

Reunions can be strange animals. I’ve never been to one of mine own and I think, despite my excuses (of which I have many), deep down I didn’t want to be in front of those who could always make me feel so inferior academically, athletically and socially. As I get older, those fears have started to fade and I think it’s primarily a function of knowing myself.

Who knows, maybe I’ll consider attending my 20th high school reunion next year….

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