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Party like it's 1989

Attending a reunion closes the book on eighth grade


Published November 6, 2002 at 4:20 p.m.

I didn't go to school in Vermont, but I've learned a few things since I moved here. I've learned, for instance, about closure. When you feel something has been resolved, you have closure. Let's say, for example, that when you were 12 someone called you a hairy ape because you didn't shave your legs. If the person apologized and admitted they were uncomfortable with your body hair because of the way American society promotes an unnaturally hairless feminine ideal, then you might have closure.

I'd like to resolve a few things about my childhood in suburban Detroit, Michigan. Mainly I refer to myriad instances of adolescent cruelty that transpired at St. Peter the Apostle School in Harper Woods, the small Catholic school I attended from Montessori through eighth grade. Some people forget about painful events from their pubescent years in an act self-preservation; some people obsess over them as if picking at a scab. I count myself among the pickers. So when Mark Nardelli called me last summer to invite me to a spontaneous eighth-grade reunion, I was thrilled. Perhaps, at last, I might achieve closure.

I've told and retold the horror stories of my adolescence many times. The period between my sixth- and eighth-grade years is like a favorite cult TV series I watch over and over again. Classic episodes include: "I Was a Teenage Tomboy," "Can I Tag Along With You and Your Cool Boyfriend?" and "I Wasn't Invited to the Party, I Can Cry If I Want To."

If this show were to win an Emmy, it would be for the tearjerker, "Ehcatsuom," in which 14-year-old Cathy suffers a blow to her self-esteem. Cathy's close friends Megan O'Hara and Stacy Mickowski give her a new nickname, "Ehcatsuom." They wink and titter at each other every time they say it. "Wh-what's it mean?" asks our plucky protagonist. "Oh, nothing," they reply. On graduation day, Megan reveals the secret behind "Ehcatsuom." "It's 'moustache' spelled backwards," she says, staring at the slight shadow of dark hair on Cathy's upper lip. Cue dramatic music. Cue utter devastation.

But I wasn't just a victim. Though my wise mother tried to instill in me a sense of compassion, I soon learned that, at my school, compassion was for dorks. We said prayers daily, but that didn't keep us from acting out scenes from Lord of the Flies when the teachers weren't looking. One day I'd be buddies with Brian Higbee, the class brain; the next day I'd plop a banana peel on his head at lunch. One day I'd be "going with" Christian Baterman; the next day I'd sneer at his bad grammar and flick his big ears. And poor John Fasse. I passed around "the Fasse touch" just like everyone else.

The "Fasse touch," I've since learned, is a variation on a common theme, repeated in classrooms everywhere. Usually the "touch" is named after the least popular kid. One kid tries to infect another by touching him or her while saying, "[insert poor schnook's last name] touch!" The target of this attack may claim immunity by crossing her fingers. The namesake has no choice but to watch the other kids try to avoid being infected -- pure psychological torture.

I also had a particularly vicious relationship with Becky Whipple. We met in kindergarten. Becky was built bigger than most of us and so became "the fat girl." Becky's popularity fluctuated like mine, a stock that went up or down based on our shifting allegiances to other, more popular girls. Girls like Megan.

I also met Megan in kindergarten. Sixth in a family of seven, she was outgoing and wiser than most of us. By the time we got to sixth grade, she and her boyfriend Brad Lavigne were the embodiment of cool. My popularity rating shot up 300 percent whenever I was near them. But Becky was also Megan's friend, and Megan-town wasn't big enough for both of us. So I'd whisper to Megan that Becky was her "shadow." I made up a song about Becky. Once, in gym class, I asked Becky to stand up and then to sit down. She did both, then asked me why. "I wanted to see if the Earth shook," I said.

Putting Becky down was only part of my popularity-improvement strategy. The other part involved hanging out with Megan whenever possible. In eighth grade, Megan and I were both altar girls for St. Peter's Parish. Whenever there was a funeral on a school day, I would volunteer to be an altar server and convince Megan to do the same. I served 21 funerals that year, just so Megan and I could goof off in the incense closet and see who could squeeze the other's hand harder during the funeral mass Our Father.

Funerals weren't the only time we spent together. Megan and I played on all the sports teams. We carpooled to school ski trips and did community service for our Confirmation. We called each other at night to rehash our days. I still remember her phone number. So when Megan didn't invite me to her eighth-grade birthday party, I felt betrayed. It seemed like everyone else was going. I even asked her if there had been some mistake. "No," she said, "my mom just doesn't want me to invite too many people."

Instead of crushing me into oblivion, this backhanded cruelty inspired little teenager me to try harder. I started writing stories. The stories always starred Megan, Brad, me and other classmates -- but never Becky. My literary influences at that point were Stephen King, Christopher Pike (Stephen King for teenagers), and Mad Magazine. Consequently, my stories had titles like "Mad Megan: Lab Animal."

The basic plot of this tale follows the same pattern as its counterparts, "Mad Megan: Life of Turmoil," and "Megan's Fall Through Cloud Nine." In each, something horrible happens to Megan that separates her from Brad. In "Lab Animal," Megan turns into a bloodthirsty dog one morning at school and murders Stacy. Cathy's pivotal moment follows this attack. She calls Brad after school. "Hi," she says, "Cathy here. Megan has disappeared. She went to a cliff near Lake Superior because she is a scientific experiment and we have to find her!"

In my stories, Cathy assumes a confidence and a degree of familiarity with the major players that I never managed in real life. Though my creativity earned me compliments and a few laughs, it wasn't enough to save me from fundamental uncoolness. In my head, I was the hero. In real life, I was still Ehcatsuom.

I couldn't wait to see Megan at our eighth-grade reunion. I imagined we would laugh about the way we teased our chauvinistic teacher and the dirty looks we got during funerals. Then I would ask her if she remembered "Ehcatsuom." Surely she would apologize, and I could get closure.

I was also looking forward to seeing Becky. At last I could atone for my shameful behavior. But though Mark had heard from Megan, he couldn't find Becky. I did a Yahoo search for her and found 232 hits. I checked every one of them, eventually finding her through the alumni office at Eastern Michigan University. Luckily she still lives in the area, and she e-mailed to say she'd come.

I had hoped to see Christian, Brian and John Fasse, too. But Christian's in jail -- drugs, assault, etc. He's not eligible to attend a reunion until 2011. As for Brian, the boy genius, no one knows where he fled after suffering at the hands of our evil-minded mob. Some say he moved to Califor-nia. Mark paid $40 for an Internet search that turned up a useless address in Kansas. Brian is still out there. John Fasse, too.

Our reunion took place in a small, private room at Gilbert's Lodge, a restaurant sandwiched between strip malls in St. Clair Shores. As I walked into the room, Mark, Megan, Becky and several other former classmates looked up and shouted my name. I forgot all about closure.

The men and women who greeted me bore remarkable similarity to the capricious friends and fiends I'd known 13 years earlier. Many of them had the same haircuts and wore the same classic Gap clothes. I would have recognized them anywhere. But the plague of puberty had lifted. We smiled and hugged each other. I hadn't realized it until I was there among them: I missed these people. I was surrounded by 26- and 27-year-old men and women who were genuinely happy to see me. And I was happy to see them. At least for the next few hours.

This overwhelming sight rendered my months of preparation useless. "I can't believe it. This is so weird," I said, as I wandered wide-eyed from face to grown-up face. When I got to Becky, I had already blown a fuse and was flying on cocktail-party autopilot. "What are you doing now?" was the only question that came to mind. At one point, desperate to reach out to her and break through my mental paralysis, I clapped her on the shoulder like an old army buddy. But all I could manage to say was, "I can't believe it's really you." So much for my grand apology.

By the time I'd recovered from the shock, the night was half over. I had met spouses, looked at baby pictures and told everyone I'm gay. Once we got caught up on the essentials, we started to reminisce. But no one mentioned the mean things we'd done.

As we sat down to dinner, I remembered my mission. I was at a table with seven other people, including Becky and her husband. An apology seemed awkward and out of place, but eventually I managed to steer the conversation towards my guilt about being so heartless as a child. "I did awful things to Brian and Christian and to you, Becky," I said. "I'm so sorry." Becky stared at me. Did she nod her head? Did she forgive me?

Just then a group at another table started belting out church songs, drowning out our conversation. When it resumed, the moment for forgiveness had passed. I let it go.

Someone did eventually apologize to me, though it wasn't Megan. Our eighth-grade trip to the amusement park came up, and I asked my old friend Nicole Gadzinski if she remembered the bus ride there. "You promised you'd sit with me," I reminded her, "and then you sat with Stacy instead. I had to ride all the way there next to Stacy's mom." Nicole had forgotten all about this tiny treachery. "I did that?" she asked, taken aback. "Gosh, I'm sorry."

I'd been telling that sad story for years, but somehow her act of contrition made me feel foolish rather than vindicated. Is it really closure if the offending party doesn't remember the offense? Maybe, I thought, I do have closure -- because Nicole is happy to see me and wants to know what my life is like now. Maybe closure isn't about revisiting my checklist of abuses.

When Megan finally drifted to my table, I couldn't bring myself to mention Ehcatsuom. We told a few stories, had a few laughs. She looked at my civil-union pictures and told me all about her recent wedding. I realized that, like it or not, closure for me might mean that the past remains past. I let myself move on.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the reunion. Everyone seemed happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Except for maybe Dana Maleski, who got wasted and kept threatening to kick John Fasse's gay ass, if she ever finds him. After Melissa Brelinski worked her way out of a conversation with Dana, she turned to me and whispered, "Some people never change."

But most of us had changed. We'd grown up. When I asked Stacy if she had any regrets about how she'd acted in grade school, she said no. Stacy is the only one from our class who came to my civil union two summers ago. "I don't feel bad about anything I did then," she told me. "I mean, whatever. We were, like, 12." I know she's right. But I still wish I could apologize to Brian.