The Irresistible Mythology of High School

Saturday night. We’re in the car, on our way from Washington to deepest Maryland to attend his 10-year high-school reunion (no, really, keep reading, OK?), and to ease the jitters, I sing to him. A three-quarter moon is rising fatly above the trees and the neighborhood-association-approved Christmas lights, and I reach back into my impressively accurate mental Top-40 catalog for a song that would have been popular when he was in high school and (by his account) somewhat miserable. (In the yearbook pictures he looks happy enough, in that way not-quite-yet-happy teenage boys usually have of overachieving hyperactivity.)

I went to my high-school reunion years ago, so I know what we’re in for even before we get there: the nametags, the sterno buffet dinner, the (please Lord) open bar, the hired DJ who will play songs nobody likes. I love reunions for the same reason I should not love them—for the way they are frontloaded with expectation and backended with the letdown of seeing, for once, the high-school experience writ on a more human scale.

“I wanna sex you up,” I sing, suddenly getting a fix on 1992 (and opting against “I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt”). It’s working. “Let me take off all your clothes/ Disconnect the phone so nobody knows …” I don’t know all the words to “I Wanna Sex You Up,” but I’m almost certain at some point the lead singer turns the word “girl” into seven syllables.

We pick up Michael’s two best friends from high school, Mark and Libby, and head off through a maze of tract homes to the Turf Valley Country Club in Howard County. I have only a vague idea where we are. Somewhere off Highway 40, in the direction of Baltimore. They grew up and went to high school in Columbia, Md., one of the nation’s first wholly engineered utopias, and I suppose it worked, in the sense that suburbs exist to harvest better offspring. (The novelist Michael Chabon is from here, too, though considerably older than my Michael; the class celebrity of ‘92 is Aaron McGruder, who draws the angry-black-man syndicated comic strip “The Boondocks.” He’s a no-show at the reunion.)

I’m right about what we were in for. The reunion banquet room is in the farthest reaches of the Turf Valley compound in the Wedgewood Room. At the registration table, Michael immediately issues a correction on his nametag (not “Mike”), and then we get drinks and work the room. Already it’s evident that the attendance rate is low: Out of 250 or so members of the class of ‘92, perhaps 50 are here with various spouses, significant others. Aside from the fact that I am ga-ga for this man and would attend just about anything with him, I’m here because I cannot resist the mythology of high school: It’s like I know these people without ever having met them, even though we grew up in utopias thousands of miles apart. I meet the popular girls and the B-list, almost-as-popular. I meet the class geek. I meet the sassy little girl with the slight Stevie Nicks air about her. I meet the girl nobody remembers. I meet a couple of jocks. I meet the guy who tied my boyfriend up in Cub Scouts when they were little. (Perversely, I privately supply a visual.) There are two women—twin sisters, both quite pregnant—who issue looks of disdain at just about everyone.

The DJ is awful for the plain and simple reason that he is breaking the golden rule of reunion music: He is playing songs other than those released in the years these people were in high school. Nostalgia must override all else. He is right to play the Fresh Prince. He is wrong to play Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott twice. Michael goes over to request “I Wanna Sex You Up” and other favorites, which the DJ, Kode Bleuu (that’s what his business card says), doesn’t have. This is an outrage.

But no one is outraged. I wander back to the registration desk. There’s a sad Ziploc baggie containing photocopied yearbook portraits of all the classmates who never even RSVP’d. I decide to change my identity. Hakim, who was once voted the homecoming king or something like that, helps me become Heather. We rubber cement her picture to my nametag. Under “Hank Stuever” I write, “I used to be Heather.”

Heather, wherever you are, I’d like to report that you had a delightful time at your high-school reunion. Pretty soon, Kode Bleuu played “Da Butt,” and people did their best to recover some sort of former late-’80s groove. From across the room I spied my beautiful boyfriend, doin’ da butt. “How long have you two been partners?” a woman asks me, and I have to be honest with her: “Partners?” I say. “Not quite. We’ve only been dating four months.”

Then I realize what my job is here. At every reunion, I think, the class homo should walk in with the boyfriend of the moment, who should be wearing a suit and smiling a lot. We should test drive a world that doesn’t, on principle, shove us into lockers. I’m happy to accompany him into this light of day at the Turf Valley, where the high-school crap ceases to matter. For a minute, we actually seem cool.