Unchained Melody: High school recall

By Melody Thomas

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The other day I got a Facebook invitation I’ve been both dreaming of and dreading for years: to my 20-year high school reunion.

The dread of such events is well-documented, as fodder for countless American movies, and the reason Romy and Michelle felt compelled to claim they’d invented post-its. The excitement stems from the same place. High school reunions are one of those great cultural Americanisms – like Twinkies and letterman jackets and bottomless coffee at the diner – which we yearn for with a nostalgia that doesn’t belong to us in the first place. The worrying over what your old friends will think of you, about what to wear and what you’ve done with your life, these are dramas made romantic because we will only ever experience them vicariously.

Except, turns out, high school reunions happen in Aotearoa, too, and as my own loomed closer the dread started to become less abstract. I went to two high schools, and the reunion is for the first –- a girls’ school I only attended until I was 14, at which point I was “asked to leave” (a polite way to say expelled, which is a story for another day).

 As tends to happen in periods of stress and trauma, a lot of my memories of the time are corrupted. Racking my brain for names and faces, I came up instead with blurry snapshots: running from a teacher who circumnavigated the grounds and hopped a fence to catch us smoking, a lift-pass racket run by a girl who stole a stack from the principal’s desk and on-sold them to lazy students who hadn’t earned lift privileges. The passes were issued as a reward for good behaviour and entitled pupils to use the lift alongside staff and head students while the rest of us had to trudge up and down the stairs! There was also my own failed (and in retrospect, very bold) attempt to sneak a boy on school camp by dressing him in a friend’s school uniform…

But I can’t recall a single teacher’s name. Houses, classrooms and stage production themes are lost in the fog of time. Looking through photographs posted in the event thread online, I saw a sea of faces I didn’t recall. What if I didn’t recognise anyone on the night? What if no-one remembered me? What if the reunion was just a bunch of strangers trapped in a small-talk vortex, reaching desperately for familiarity and common ground?

Turns out the dread was all for nothing, because the reunion was one of the loveliest – and trippiest – nights I’ve had. It was a small, casual affair, held off to the side at the Southern Cross. There were no name tags, but as faces swam out from the crowd I found to my surprise that I recognised nearly all of them. How had it been so long, yet everyone looked exactly the same?! Every time I found another face I knew, their name came to me like a lightning strike, followed by a swell in the heart, presumably related to some lost memory that is nonetheless stored in my bones. It was so weird and wonderful to spend time with people at once deeply familiar, and completely strange.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the reunion affected me as much as it did, and I think it’s to do with the time in my life that these girls were a part of. Being 13 and 14 in the late ‘90s was a ruthless experience (as I’ve written about previously). There was the near-compulsory body hatred, exemplified by the sound of vomiting echoing out from bathroom stalls every lunchtime. In my own friend group (which was the naughty one, in case you hadn’t picked that up), too many girls experienced manipulative older boyfriends, unsafe sex and unwanted pregnancy, sexual assault, addiction, disordered eating, depression and anxiety – but there was no outlet to talk about any of it. Heaven forbid you were queer or trans, as rainbow clubs simply didn’t exist, and being accused of lesbianism was about the worst insult you could level at another girl (it was a time!). We were girls – babies! – and yet we believed ourselves to be in possession of everything we needed to know, and marched over-confidently into all sorts of situations we were woefully ill-equipped to handle.

But while we didn’t have the tools nor the power to stop bad things from happening, we knew how to rally around a friend in pain. Our love for each other was visceral and essential. It was physical: so many of the photos of the time show us clinging to each other, or draped in each others’ laps. At 14, when a friend confessed to me something horrible that had happened to her, I went with her to the police station, refusing to leave her side as she gave her statement, despite intense pressure from unsympathetic officers to do so (I also stole one of their police hats, sequestered it under my jersey and then presented to her in the car, as a means of taking some of her lost power back. Sorry, officer). It was a horrifically dark experience, but traumas large and small were our daily bread: as much a part of our existence as English essays and weekend parties and our parents nagging us to do the dishes. I remember a well-meaning teacher at the time telling me the years we were living through were a ‘storm of emotion’, advice I scoffed at and remembered only for a group-scoffing later. But she was right! It was an emotional tempest, a tornado, a hurricane that threatened to tear us limb from limb! No-one understood it like our friends did: not our parents or teachers or siblings. Clinging to each other was our only hope of getting through it all intact.

Of course not everyone did get through it intact. At the reunion, we paused to remember those who hadn’t made it this far: who had failed to shake the dark things that first sunk their claws in when we were young. Had we stayed longer, allowed ourselves to open up more, I’m sure we’d have discovered all manner of heartache and loss, physical and mental illness, and dreams never achieved. But when I left the reunion, making sure to go around the room and hug the women I had adored as girls, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Because those dark and tempestuous times were also filled with so much joy. With whispered confidences and entwined limbs, with light and mischief and laughing so hard it hurt.

It was one of the hardest times of my life, but it was also one of the most beautiful. And that’s because of them.

Love you girls. See you at the next one x

What I’m cooking

When I’m feeling run down or on the verge of illness, nothing hits the spot better than a giant pot of chicken soup (though a bowl of mohinga at Mabel’s once came very close). This Ottolenghi recipe is my go-to: super nourishing and moreish, with chilli and fresh basil to bring it all to life. For a not-quite soup (but equally nourishing) alternative, I’ll sometimes go for Nigella’s Chicken in a Pot with Lemon and Orzo.

I’ve also been baking these seed crackers, which are super easy and cheap to make  – plus so yum! Get to Moore Wilsons for your bulk seeds if you can: the cost is higher outright, but in the long run it’ll save you money and leave less packaging! The same goes for the herbs and spices.

Finally –  it’s elderflower season! Which means it’s time to brew elderflower champagne. Once you’ve spotted an accessible tree, wait for a warm, dry day and fill a basket, leaving some for the next person. There are many recipes for elderflower bubbly and cordial online. Make in bulk, storage allowing: you can’t have too much. And get going because the season is short!

What I’m listening to

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

The movie of this book is one of two which awakened me to my current genre obsession: ‘queer longing’ (the other was the exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire). In André Acimans’ novel, this longing is concentrated and condensed, dripping from every one of its 248 pages. I’m about halfway through and I don’t recall a moment of plot or story aside from what is playing out in the protagonist Elio’s mind: the exquisite torment of wanting someone you’re not supposed to want. I don’t need anything to happen beyond this; I’ll happily sit in this feeling for the book’s entirety, and will mourn its passing when I come to the end.

What I’m going to

Verb Readers & Writers Festival, Avantdale Bowling Club + the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023

I am enjoying a return to something like a social life! This week I’m going to a bunch of Verb Readers & Writers Festival events, including Freya Daly-Sadgrove’s epic Show Ponies (if you miss out on tickets, watch this wonderful little doco here) and the best night of the year for Pōneke bookworms, Litcrawl, on Saturday November 5. (Don’t worry if you miss it! You can watch digital sessions here and put a reminder in your calendar now for next year.

I’m also going to see Avantdale Bowling Club in December at the St James, which is bound to be incredible, as is everything Tom Scott does. FINALLY I’m not a sports guy but I am unusually invested in the FIFA Women’s World Cup (I suspect Megan Rapinoe has something to do with it) – so much so that I bought tickets for the whole family for the quarter-final match in August (the USA vs Netherlands game was sold out already). New Zealand also plays the Philippines on July 25. Hot tip: Tickets are close to half price if you opt to sit in the no-alcohol zone.


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