"I'm exhausted but happy."
Gillian and I were, in tandem, fastening our seatbelts for the ride from the airport into town. Before taking off, I turned to my right and we smiled, nodding at each other. Gillian had pixie-cut red hair, a round face and cool beige eyeglasses. She's been a customer of mine for years, and I enjoy her company. She's simply a good person: self-effacing, honest and wryly funny.
"I can see that," I said, chuckling. "You do look exhausted and happy, like someone who's just completed an aerobic workout or had really good sex. Hey, are we looking here at a Mile High Club scenario?"
"I wish, Jernigan!" she replied with a laugh. "No, I've just returned from a week in my hometown for a high school reunion. I had assumed it was going to be weird. You know how those things can go — a journey back to your teenage years, reliving all the awkwardness and angst. But it actually turned out to be an amazing experience."
"That sounds wonderful, Gillian. Tell me about it."
"All right, then. Well, the first thing you need to know is that I was an odd duck in high school. I was this arty, sensitive girl, not conventionally pretty, who didn't fit into the school's rigid social structures. Some of the jocks teased and bullied me mercilessly. For a while, they would put dog food and leashes in my locker."
"Oh, jeez — that's horrible!" I interjected, stunned by the heartless cruelty of high school life back in the day.
"It was horrible. But here's the thing — at the reunion, multiple classmates told me that they always thought I was the coolest chick in the school! It was mind-boggling."
"Well, I'm not surprised," I said. "You're the coolest chick in Burlington."
"Sure, but that's now," Gillian said, grinning. "Back in school, I was, like, an über-nerd."
"So, tell me about these conversations at the reunion."
"The first interaction I had was with the prettiest, most popular girl in our class. Within a few minutes, she's confessing to me that her mother would beat her bloody on a weekly basis. So, that was startling. She then tells me that everyone thought I was so cool.
"I said, 'But I was never at, like, a single party,' and she says that everyone always assumed I was somewhere else doing something way cooler than attending these lame parties.
"And then there was my friend Alfie, who was, like, totally gay. Of course, back then, it was nearly impossible to be truly 'out.' I mean, your life would literally be in danger. But the boy was just so naturally flamboyant. Like, his signature move was one hand on his hip and the other wrist to his forehead. And he'd be like, 'Oh, honey — puh-leaze.'"
Gillian paused to demonstrate the maneuver, which cracked me up. She'd had a career as a nightclub singer, dancer and stage actor, so she had the goods. It was as if Alfie were there in the flesh.
"So, with a personality like that," she went on over my subsiding laughter, "he couldn't really stay hidden. Anyway, Alfie told me that the way I always totally accepted him, exactly how he was, made a huge difference in his life."
We traversed the UVM campus, which was teeming with students on this sunny and unseasonably (and unreasonably) warm afternoon. I thought about the social milieu in which these kids had come of age and how different it must be from what my peers, the baby boomers, experienced in our youth. But I knew that, try as I might, it would always remain a mystery to me. Every generation swims in its own ocean, accessible only with proof of age.
"And then there was Marcy," Gillian said, continuing her Tales of the Reunion, "and the famous auditorium incident. For some reason, the administration saw fit to bring in one of those inspirational speakers — you know, 'be all you can be' and all that nonsense."
"All I can think of is Chris Farley playing Matt Foley, the motivational speaker, on 'Saturday Night Live,'" I said.
"Well, that was pretty much it, just on a larger scale," said Gillian. "At some point, the presenter picked four students from the audience to bring onstage with him, and one of the volunteers was Marcy. She was another oddball: very spacey, but very openhearted.
"In response to the guy's questioning, she launched into this whole meandering speech, something about 'being a butterfly.' When she stopped, there was total silence in the room. But, as she remembered it, she looked down and saw me beaming up at her from the front row, and then I burst into applause, which triggered at least a few other students to join in.
"Marcy told me, teary-eyed, how what I did that day forever changed her life by boosting her self-esteem and self-confidence."
Everything in the three interactions she shared was congruent with the Gillian I knew. She'd lived a challenging life — I'd been privy to at least some of the harsh details — but the giving spirit of that high school girl still shone through, clear and bright.
"You know what I think, Gillian? Even though you remember being bullied and miserable in high school, your inherent positive energy was inextinguishable, and people got it and appreciated you. So I think you better go ahead and reassess your entire life."
Gillian smiled at me warmly and chuckled. "I didn't tell you the best part. I ran into the school's biggest math geek toward the end of the night. He told me that, among him and his friends — the nerdy guys — they thought I was the hottest girl in the class!"
"Awesome!" I said. "That might even be better than being the coolest."
Well, that settles it, I thought. It's time for me to revisit my high school memories. Perhaps a little investigation would reveal that I, too, was better thought of than I recollected. Probably not, but, like Gillian, I might be pleasantly surprised.
I thought of that famous William Faulkner quote. Dude was spot-on when he wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.