Joe at 15 in his KOKE-FM Super Roper Radio T-shirt.
I'm going to my high school reunion this weekend, so I thought it was time to pull this moldy essay out. I wrote it TEN years ago when I was doing a lot of goofy essays for the Austin American-Statesman's XL tabloid. This is the only one my editor ever turned down. Seriously. She hated it.
Caught in the high school reunion shadows
by Joe O'Connell
I missed my Austin High School reunion. Again. They forgot to invite me. Again.
I know what you're saying: you should have been proactive. After all, these are people whom, for the most part, you haven't spoken to in years. They're surely scattered around the nation by now. Get on the phone, make calls. Do something.
Well, I watched the school district's cable television channel diligently for weeks and spotted notices about reunions at every local school except mine. I finally broke down and called the high school. The receptionist wasn't encouraging. "I have a contact number, but I don't really know if it's any good…" I called the number Saturday afternoon and left a message, then went out shopping with my model-thin wife. We returned to a blinking answering machine light.
"Yes, there is a reunion," the message began. Good news for me! "But it was this weekend. There is one event left. It starts in an hour…"
One hour to prepare to confront 20-year-old psychological baggage with deep roots in dodgeball and disco? No thanks. But if I had mustered the courage, I'm certain it would have gone something like this:
Enter stage left with my blonde and very intelligent wife on my arm. Donna Summer is singing in the background about "hot stuff." A card table is visible. In front of it filling out name tags are a perky woman in a cheerleader outfit and a large, bald guy in Dockers.
"Welcome!" the woman squeals and shakes her tightly coiled hair, its patch of gray shining. "And you are?"
"Joe," I say. "I sat behind you in home room for four years."
"Doesn't ring a bell…"
"Sure, you remember him," the bald man chimes in and offers me a firm handshake. "Joe Dingleberry! It's me, Fred "Nutty" Brown! How the heck you doing, Joe? Hardly recognized you out of the football uniform. Go Maroons! Fight! Shoot, Candi, you remember Joe. He was the back-up punter! Transfer from Peru, right?"
"Wrong Joe," I say.
"Oh, darn," he says and slaps his bald head. "That's right. Dingleberry died in that grizzly kicking tee accident. You're Joe Buck!
"That's the male prostitute in Midnight Cowboy."
"Give us a teensy hint," the woman says in baby talk and applies another coat of lipstick.
"Well, I dated your younger sister for two years. Until the pregnancy and her subsequent conversion to Zoroastrianism. And I spent junior year sleeping on a cot at the foot of Fred's bed after my parent's house mysteriously burned to the ground."
"Maybe you could just spell that last name," she asked.
Police have a term for people who, if they vanished overnight, would never be missed. They're called Shadow People. When it comes to high school and reunions, I can relate.
My senior yearbook contains not one picture of me, not one bit of proof that I did indeed exist. I forgot to bring a coat and tie for picture day and blew it off, figuring there'd certainly be a day for retakes. Nope.
I was involved in a smattering of minor organizations, but somehow missed getting in their yearbook photos as well. My main high-school honor was being the first person ever kicked out of In-School Suspension for liking it too much ("Next time we'll kick you out of school!"), but that didn't rate the yearbook either.
"Relax," my very young and extremely attractive wife said as I whined about missing the reunion. "This way you're just in a bad mood for a day. If you went, you'd have been in a funk for weeks."
Ask anyone; high school scars people for life. You are required to move like cattle en masse at the ting of a bell, life is a series of deadlines and tests, and 95 percent of the student body KNOW they aren't cool. Fortunately, of the remaining five percent, four percent peak at graduation and can expect 60-70 years of tedium mixed with occasional bouts of fear and agony. The other one percent go into real estate and nude modeling.
Who hasn't had that high school dream? You're naked and late for a test and your mother is waiting for you in a vat of chocolate pudding… Uh, wait, wrong dream. Erase that.
I recently met a woman in her 50s who told me of sneaking into her old high school at night. When she got to the door of her former algebra classroom, she froze up in terror and had to be dragged away mumbling something about logarithms. Her 75-year-old mother grounded her for a week.
At least her mom recognized her. My Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize winning wife was driving and I was in the passenger seat admiring her creative charms the other day. When we stopped for a traffic light, an old high school chum pulled up in the car next to us. He motioned to me to roll down the window.
"Got the time?" he asked.
"Sure, it's 1:30 p.m.," I said. "How the hell you doing?"
He looked at me quizzically and drove off without another word.
"But," my always charming and funny wife said, "people only go to high school reunions for two reasons anyway: to show up the "cool" people by wearing a skin-tight leather and lighting cigars with $100 bills, or to pal around with old buddies and relive the memories. Why bother if they don't remember you anyway?"
Good point. The truth is I did once dream of attending my reunion and bowling them over with my success as a best-selling writer, but fellow Austin High grad (who I might add is much, much older than me) Kinky Friedman beat me too it. And now that doesn't seem so important. I'd rather chat with other would-be Shadow People. A few come to mind:
--Alan, the short, afro-headed, white guy who let me cheat off his test in chemistry class. It took me this long to realize he had one of the best senses of humor around.
--The guy in In-School Suspension who described stabbing someone as like sticking a knife in wet wood. I hear he's a Republican strategist now.
--Jessica, the proud cheerleader who got married senior year and missed finals while having her first child. You were one of my favorite people even though you had this horrible blemish on your high school record (yikes! a cheerleader!).
--Noel, my favorite hippie chick from the designated smoking area. You were too smart and creative to fit in. Congratulations!
--The effeminate guy I started a fight with freshman year because I was too young, stupid, and homophobic to realize he was bigger than me. Have you met my snappily dressed wife?
And, of course, I'd greet all other Shadow People, who shall remain nameless. I have no idea who you are, but I'd be happy to pretend. In fact, I can't wait to chat with you at the next reunion. And introduce you to my wife. Did I mention she's beautiful?