Our high-school years are such an intense, formative period in our lives. Some people thrive at school while others are utterly miserable. Some are sad to leave while others can’t wait for those final exams … and freedom. I’ve always been fascinated with school reunions which – like school itself – elicit extreme reactions. Excitement. Nostalgia. Competitiveness. Curiosity. Bitterness. Distress.
Disappointingly, I have never been to a reunion myself. I left Cork, my hometown, at age 23, and kept in touch with a few close friends but lost contact with the vast majority. I now live in Sydney’s northern beaches, a beautiful part of the world where people tend to stay put and raise families of their own. Many of my northern beaches’ friends know each other from high school. My ears have perked up at mentions of their twenty-year and thirty-year reunions. Some stories have found their way back to me. A grown man who sought out a friend’s husband at twenty-year get-together. ‘I want to thank you,’ he said, offering his hand to shake. ‘I was planning to kill myself when I got home. If you hadn’t said “leave him alone”, I wouldn’t be here today.’ The man had been relentlessly bullied at school. My friend’s husband had been unaware of the profound impact of his actions … he couldn’t even remember saying ‘leave him alone’. He’d saved a life … and didn’t find out until twenty years after the fact. Then there was the sophisticated perfectly nice woman who smiled an apology to another friend of mine. ‘Sorry I was such a bitch to you at school ... I have no idea why I was so horrible.’ It seems that school reunions are as much an opportunity to apologise as to reconnect.
Transformation is another prominent theme, with certain individuals keen to show off how much they’ve changed, seeking approval they didn’t attain at school. In my new novel, Who We Were, Katy transforms from a non-descript student into a confident woman and passionate science teacher. She is full of good advice for her graduating students. She wants them to know that as soon as they walk out the school doors into the world, everything can change. They can reinvent themselves, just like she did. They can leave behind the fact that they were the quiet one, or the socially awkward one, or the silly one.
But while transformation and being seen in a new light is motivation for some, others want to prove the opposite: that they’ve remained the same. Their high-school group of friends is the same tight circle of people today: no new admissions, thank you very much. Their loyalties and biases are exactly the same, as is their hard-fought place in the pecking order. In their eyes, there is no such thing as transformation.
Of course, complex romantic feelings are also at play. Our high school years can coincide with the rush of first love, and first heart-break too. At the time, feelings can be blithely dismissed as crushes or puppy love or something temporary and inconsequential. The truth is some people never love as intensely and trustingly again. This is certainly the case for Melissa, in Who We Were.
Hand in hand with those suppressed romantic feelings, are age-old jealousies and betrayals. Annabel is a mother of three with a thousand things on her mind, but that doesn’t stop her irrational jealousy every time she so much as thinks about Melissa Andrews. It was never an ordinary jealousy; it was obsessive, powerful, insanely out of proportion.
And what about the sad cases? Lives that have been lost to car accidents and illnesses. Students who failed to launch into self-functioning adulthood, who never managed to get off their feet in terms of their career or personal lives. The people who are ‘missing’ and can’t be tracked down, not even by their families. Have they deliberately cut ties? Does the idea of a school reunion fill them with bad memories, lingering grudges, horror?
In Who We Were, some of the characters who were self-absorbed and cruel have evolved into devoted parents, responsible citizens, and kinder human beings. Other characters present with all their old prejudices intact; it’s evident that they’re just as nasty or annoying as before. Watch out for the quiet ones, who blossomed away from the herd environment and found their backbone. The ‘popular’ kids, the nerds, the bullies and the downtrodden are back in contact. What could possibly go wrong?
School reunions: love them or hate them? As an author, I’ve got to love them.
Who We Were by Ber Carroll (Viper Books) Out now
If you looked the other way, should you be punished? Twenty years after they went their separate ways, friends and enemies are coming together for their school reunion. Katy, who is desperate to show that she's no longer the shy wallflower. Annabel, who ruled the school until a spectacular fall from grace. Zach, popular and cruel, but who says he's a changed man. And Robbie, always the victim, who never stood a chance. As the reunion nears, a terrible event that binds the group together will resurface. Because someone is still holding a grudge, and will stop at nothing to reveal their darkest secrets...