Jogging Memories

posted in: Uncategorized | 14

More than a week ago, while deeply immersed in my work, an e-mail floated to the surface of my e-mail client that had me make a double take. I thought the e-mail was spam at first, but when I saw the name of the sender I stopped everything I was doing and opened it: it was a letter from a former high school classmate who was trying to contact as many people from our alma mater as he could. Attached to the message was a photo of six of the classmates, dining at a school reunion barbecue and looking older and a little more dog eared.

I write about this because I hadn’t been in touch with any of these people since I graduated in 1978, all except one, and he and I have had a falling out. For me high school here in Japan left a lot to be desired; being a skinny, sometimes overly sensitive guy in a boy’s school, looking like a Mexican or Indian among macho white Americans, Australians, Brits, and hierarchy-minded Japanese, in a school where the entire curriculum was based on an American point of view (though the school, run by Canadian Jesuit brothers, boasted to the world 52 different nations represented… but just imagine: 7 years studying American history, only one year studying world history.. something was quite warped) and where if you didn’t hail from the dominating countries and cultures you ended up being an outcast, one of the Others who sat at separate tables in the lunch room and who received only supporting roles in the distinctly Euro-American biased musicals… all this left me deeply suspicious and critical of white Americans, of elitists who believe that those with less money exist to serve them, and of Christianity.

I say Christianity because of the intolerance the brothers showed for people with different faiths or beliefs (something I could never understand in an international school) and for the rampant molesting that went on around the school, usually of the elementary school boys, including me and my brother, but also of some of the visiting girls who took some science classes and tennis lessons from the brothers. One time, my teacher dismissed the entire class when I raised the question of abortion to a cardinal visiting from Rome. I have never heard anyone, except my brother, mention these awful acts… even today it is a no-no that probably no one will ever acknowledge. I have no idea if the molesting still goes on.

All my high school years I felt something dirty living inside me. I felt I was angry all the time, at a world trying to snuff my spirit out. My escape to America, to the University of Oregon was like a breath of fresh, clean air… the new people I met were nothing like the elitists I had endured back in Japan, and while there were always those people who cannot seem to help but act like infants, the experience of college was liberating. It opened my mind, exposed me to characters who challenged me to grow and find the kernel of strength in myself, and opened an interactive relationship with a place around me that didn’t feel corrosive. I even began to enjoy my body, not feeling that my skinniness and dark complexion made me unattractive or undesirable. Best of all I made a ring of wonderful, supportive, and fun-loving friends, people I will cherish all my life.

Years have passed and, like anyone, I’ve long since grown out of that ungainly high school boy. Or so I thought. When I peered at the e-mail from my former classmate a lot of old memories came flooding back. All the bullying and exclusions and feeling inferior. To have these feelings poke their ugly little heads out from under the hood is troubling, to say the least. I have often wondered if I could face these boys again and hold my ground, without getting all awkward and tongue-tied the way I used to. I thought I had grown into someone more confident, but now I’m not so sure. What is it that triggers all the childhood fears?

Partly to counteract this sense of losing ground, I decided to reply to all the recipients of the e-mail, to hail them and try to overcome so much of the old resentments. Sending the letter made me nervous enough to make my palms sweat, but I did it. I like to try to face old ghosts and make friends with them.

Only one person replied, as flippant as I remember. No one else. And I don’t expect them to. In a way it confirms my high school suspicions. All week I have been asking myself why I would subject myself to further neglect and invisibility. I haven’t needed these people for 26 years. Why would I need them now?

14 Responses

  1. You write so well, your words really drew me in… So many of my own memories of high school (painful ones!) were triggered by reading about yours.
    Have no fear, you ARE a more confident person now, more genuinely yourself. Those memories unsettle you only because they trigger the old emotions that you felt at the time; all you need to do is detach those old emotions and let them float away…

  2. Great writing butuki and such a familiar feeling. As I just mentioned in a comment over at a similar post on Abbreviated Abstractions my own recollections of youth are dreadfully vague but the feeling of unease and nervousness about looking back really struck a cord

  3. I share your impulse to get in touch with former classmates… The kids in my boarding school in England were every bit as heterogeneous as the ones you describe. Of the ones I’d really want to be in touch with now, one’s dead, and the three remaining ones are actually former TEACHERS.

    Something is hard to dissipate, though, and it’s the need to feel accepted by a group of teenagers. If I met most of them now, the “popular” ones would seem shallow and were never really worthy of the adulation they got in the first place. On the other hand, I’ve reconnected with some wonderful school friends and acquaintances, and since we’re such different people now, it’s like finding new friends. Jenny of Mulubinba Moments, say, is like finding a long-lost soulmate. Especially because she a fellow-blogger!

  4. I have a similar quandry with my high school (class of 1978) California classmates. The middle ground for me is email. With email I have a more comfortable, more controllable arm’s-length sporadic communication. I don’t want to meet most of them in person, and it is troubling that I have not matured enough to let go of my past issues. Thank you for the thought provoking post.

  5. Renewing an old high school acquaintance can be satisfying. But it means investing in the relationship, just as one would do for a new relationship. That’s the issue, I think. This sort of thing can have value if you can make a good new relationship with these now much older people. Do you want to do that? If you think it’s about revisiting the past, I think this kind of reconnecting will not satisfy. The past now exists only in your memory.

  6. It brought tears to my eyes to read of your memories- I now wonder why you chose to return to Japan ……..my high school memories are not as sad as yours, but I just never fit in with all the popular students……..I have never gone back for the reunions. I “found” myself in nursing school and go back for the reunions as often as I can as I can relate to those friends more so than my high school aquaitances………I sincerely hope you have been able to resolve all the bitter memories of those years………….

  7. Today I was just going from blog to blog and found yours.
    I felt your pain when I read this.
    We all have experienced simular hurt, maybe some people more than others.
    I too can recall being molested as a small child. I have learned to live with the knowledge that being open about it helps to heal.
    The pain may never completely leave you, but you will learn to live with it and be even stronger.

  8. Thank goodness you got out. And found yourself. I think one’s sense of oneself is very dependent on the people around one in the present. I have some of my own school stories in which I was both treated badly and can also think of at least one example where, alas, I treated someone else badly…. It really upsets me to think that so many kids still are bullied, teased, molested etc. But regarding the ex-school people, forget it. It’s gone. A closed chapter. You have created your own world since then in which you are understood and respected by those you choose to have contact with.

  9. Miguel, what is it now you hope they might provide? Apology? Understanding? No defence of their actions then or now, but maybe you force them to examine something they don’t wish to face… guilt, embarressment, the same memories of pain. Maybe consider writing a letter, address it to that same list of people, but you never need send it. Take the opportunity to share the anger, loss, fears, etc. Ask for something back from them, what would make a difference to you now in healing from that damage. Then, burn the letter, sending your wishes up to the universe to bring you the healing you wished those people could offer you. If I could offer to fill their shoes and help you, I would.

  10. Wish? Nothing really. No amount of apology or understanding would change the high school years and the bad memories. My only wish would be just a reply to the letter I did already send to them, a general greeting all around, nothing more. In part I would just like to confirm that those high school boys have grown up, like I did, and are perhaps not as bad or inconsiderate as they, as boys themselves at that time, seemed. For a chance to just see that there are no bad feelings harbored for each other. I dislike grudges and acknowledge that I have faults and often misunderstand others… it would be nice to learn that perhaps I didn’t see the others as clearly as I sometimes imagine that I did.

    But I don’t know. One of the names of one of the recipients of the original letter from the one who was trying to contact everyone brought back simply awful memories of his being bullied in the most humiliating ways. One memory is of a bunch of the other boys dragging him across the floor, stuffing him in between a stack old wood and iron classroom desks (those single-piece jobs so common in movies such as “Oliver Twist” and “Goodbye Mr. Chips”) in such a way that he couldn’t move and his head was closed inside a desk drawer. He pleaded to be let out because he had claustrophobia, but none of the others listened. I tried to break in, but was thrown across the room. The boy inside the desks wailed until his voice rose into a keening scream, and suddenly the floor below the desks flowered with urine.

    To this day the image of this boy having to endure that fills me with deep shame, anger, and sadness. I find it a strange wonder that the others even dared to include his name in the list of people the others were trying to contact. If ever any of the others were to make any kind of comments to him in a letter since the inital one the other day I think I would go nuclear and send the worst of my anger and disgust out.

    When I was bullied it was never quite that bad, maybe in part because I never needed to gain the acceptance of the others by compromising my own integrity, but I don’t see how he could ever forgive the others for the experiences he went through. If he does, then he certainly is a bigger person than the others.

    As you can see I have utterly zero tolerance for bullies, anywhere. Governments included.

  11. I had a bad experience at the end of my college years with some people who had been my friends. After that I would go to these reunions and pretend we were all still friends and I’d be treated like crap. Then at work one day someone asked me how I had liked it at this college and I realized I couldn’t remember anything about it other than what campus looked like. Nothing. Sometime after that it finally dawned on me that these people were not my friends, that I didn’t owe them anything and that I didn’t do anything wrong. Then all the color came back into my memories and I remembered the fun I’d had sometimes and many of the little things that I’d done over four years of college. The last reunion I went to (I still feel like it’s my college, dammit, it’s a good school and I’d proud of having gone there) I sat with many people I didn’t know at dinner, had some great conversations and met people who were doing interesting things. I also caught up with a few people I’d lived in the dorm with but hadn’t been that close to. It helped recapture some of those years for me and restore some of that pride in my education.

    I guess these things challenge you and shape you and if you learn from them you’re stronger. Also for some of us we learn compassion for other people who go through similar experiences.

  12. Oh that’s the most horrible memory. I can’t imagine what the originator of the letter was thinking when he sent it out… is he in denial? Has he forgotten? Does he not care? I can’t imagine what the boy who went through such terror feels when he gets this letter too. As long as we are sharing, I remember exactly the feeling of helplessness as I was chased after school by a group of boys on an utterly deserted playground, fearing that they would hurt me if they caught me. It was totally clear to me they meant harm, but when I found refuge in a teacher’s classroom, the teacher was completely unsympathetic, sure I was overreacting. I begged to stay or call my mom, but she sent me back out to walk the couple of miles back home by myself. I was scared the whole way, but apparently the boys seeing me find a teacher had headed off the other way and I was safe. When my daughter complained that her teacher was downplaying the impact of teasing and bullying going on in her class, I went in and talked to her. It seems so often adults casually dismiss things under the impression that kids (and elected leaders) can’t possibly have such cruel intentions.
    I’m really sorry your time in high school included such terrible treatment. It’s an awfully hard way to learn empathy.

  13. this all puts me in mind of the quote (and I know I’m not getting it exact here) “Boys kill frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest.” There are some people who will never have compassion, will never realize the terror and humiliation they’ve caused others. And so they send out an email to everyone they knew as young bullies, not knowing the deepness of the pain. thank you for sharing an encounter with the most terrifying bogeymen. it will ensure that we all remember, and perhaps be kinder and better people for it.

  14. I have left those school days and unpleasant people far behind and yet, do you know, I still sometimes have nightmares about being back there with everyone acting exactly the same way. I don’t think those scars ever completely heal because we are far too raw, too vulnerable then and our thin delicate skin is lacerated by the hurts. My intolerance for cruelty began in elementary school, and shaped all my life after that. I’ve no desire to go back or re-connect, but there is only sadness, not vindictiveness, knowing how empty and difficult the lives of many of my classmates have been. I’m glad you got out, and glad I did too.

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