I just returned from my 50th high school reunion. For most of my peers here in Indiana, that would mean they returned from an evening of partying, seeing if they could recognize their former classmates, catching up on what what vocation each pursued following graduation and maybe adding a couple of addresses to the family Christmas card list. It’s usually a fun event.
But for me, an adult TCK who didn’t go to just any high school but rather to a boarding school, it was a highly emotional event. Back in the day, landing at Toccoa Falls Academy in northern Georgia began for some of us the lonely path of adjusting to a new culture, grieving too many losses known and unknown to us, and experiencing a freedom (and a loss) of being several countries away from our parents. During my youth, I did not recognize the value of good friendships. Yet those Toccoa Falls Academy friends were to become my family for three years. Sadly, after graduation, I lost touch with them. Now, I’ve come upon the landmark of the Academy’s 50th at the same time that I’m arriving at what psychologist Erik Erikson identifies as the stage where we reflect back on our life.
I was expecting all of the excitement of reconnecting with old roommates and former boyfriends and catching up with the lives of long-lost, friends. But I was not expecting to be overwhelmed with a tidal wave of emotions. Because we were in boarding school, we ate, slept, worked, studied, laughed, rebelled and learned about life together. We were all left there by parents. Some of us understood why and others did not. We tried to sort out our thoughts and feelings together, in private, or both.
While at the reunion, I experienced many of the same characteristics that countless adult TCKs experience over the years:
- I completely side-stepped the chit chat and jumped headlong into the deep stuff, recognizing I only had one or two days with my former classmates. I didn’t do the normal progression of gradually reconnecting with friends and friendships.
- I stated several times it felt like an Attention Deficit Disorder friendship. We would go deep into a heart wrenching story, when someone suddenly approached with a camera to take a picture of two best friends together again. In the midst of this chaos, we swung from tear filled eyes to mugging for the camera. Then we’d leap back to wherever we had left our the story, only to suddenly see another old friend and run to hug their neck and laugh and carry on until they walked away to hug someone else’s neck. Then back to the depths of the story with the original friend. We knew our time was limited and resigned ourselves to telling our stories in fragments.
- I found out “the rest of the story” as to just why some of my friends ended up at our boarding school. Why they acted or reacted in certain ways. We shared emotions and experienced that were somehow missed when we were distracted by youth in high school. This reunion was a “journey of clarification” for me. We talked long into the night. We promised to hold up each other now more than ever, freshly aware that we have already lost some of our group to death. Others are facing life-threatening illness. Our mortality right before our eyes. We need each other during these days of transition into retirement, reflection, and retreading. We need not be alone, for we are family.
When I left the reunion the emotions did not let up. In fact, they became a tsunami. I understand that the deeper our love, the deeper is our grief. I am grieving the realization of the goodness that we had in our boarding school and the richness of friendships that I let slip through my fingers. It is a grief of the goodness I had and the guilt of not being there for my closest of friends during their deepest valleys. In the few days following the 50th reunion, I have reflected further.
- My grief is heart-wrenching. Yet I determined to do grief right this time around. After high school, my grief was packaged up in all of the activity of life or buried under multiple layers of humor. This time, I am giving myself the space and time to grieve.
- I find myself getting angry at those I know in my local community because they are not like those I just left behind. Although they may try, most do not understand why I am so swallowed up in my grief for my TFA friends. Those with whom I just reconnected, walked with me as I was learning about the U.S. culture. They were there at the very beginning when I was a naive, fourteen-year-old kid. They compassionately tried to understand my intercultural world. My world today says, “You should be okay as you have lived here many years.” I don’t fully understand all the whys of my anger myself, so I would rather avoid trying to explain it and crawl into my cave of isolation. I don’t have the emotional energy to explain it.
- I feel oh so needy, like I am about to drown in an emotional vortex. This is not a good spot to be in when I am trying to impress on my old friends that I am now a “well-put-together woman”. This needy person is not the real me of today. I quickly lose patience with myself for being so needy. I beat myself up with the nagging question, “What happened to my in-control self”?
- As we parted that last day, we all made promise upon promise not to lose touch ever again. Yet as I drove away, I secretly feared that in a couple months, or after another move, I will lose them again. I feel panic welling up within. How often have I made that promise? I moved 44 times by the time I turned 34. I have left a trail of best friends behind me around the world. Will this happen again, it did before when I was 17? I grieve that we did not keep up with each other and I grieve that we went through hard times alone because we had lost contact with each other. Life swallowed us up in its time-consuming clutches. I realize that life will go on and we may not be in contact as regularly as we are right now, but I am determined I will not lose them again in the hurrying of life.
- I am finding myself experiencing all the symptoms of someone who is entering deep depression i.e., no sleep or appetite, no interest in hobbies, withdrawal. Have I lost my sanity? What is going on with me?
- During our time together, I learn that a dear friend who was left behind in our boarding school because her parents were part of the staff experienced this same, repeated grief cycle as each of us boarding students moved away. Over and over she had to walk past the spots filled with memories of good times with her friends, while I had moved on to new adventures and new sites. Like me, she struggled with making herself vulnerable to new friendships. She, too, grieved alone and was delighted to find us once again this past weekend. The supporting staff and their families are often forgotten in the cycle of mobility. They grieved deeply.
- Texting, Facebook, emails and phone calls flood my inbox today. None of us wants to let go of that feeling of connectedness. Pictures of every activity of the reunion spring up on Facebook and we all rush to make a comment or “like”. We try to somehow keep the feeling alive, yet we know that, as life goes on, the intensity of connection will lessen. Hopefully, it will not be broken.
- Most important of all, I realize that as a TCK my roots go deep into relationships. I grieve the goodness that we had and yet did not realize. It is an affirmation of the good. My friendships at Toccoa Falls Academy were the foundational stones in my adjustment to my home culture. Yet I did not even know it, until I ran into them again this past weekend. That first year of high school, a boarding school, was a most pivotal time for me. It became the anchor point to which the rest of life was attached. These friends from around the world know the me of long ago and we comfort each other with promises to walk with each other during these the later years of our life. We are the indomitable class of 1965, the mighty Wildcats.
Going back to my 50th reunion at Toccoa Falls Academy caused me to pause and recognize the tremendous worth of that band of brothers and sisters. I will always be grateful for the alphabetical system that sat me next to a shy, young Brock girl in most of my classes, for the roommates I lived with, and for the dorm mates who taught me about the Beatles, girl-stuff, dating, and were my audience and encouragement for many an impromptu comedy act. Those seemingly random friendships, have helped me to reconnect with the me of long ago.
I went to my 50th reunion and I bumped into me and my dearest friends whom I thought I had lost in the process of the many transitions of life. I grieve, but this time not alone.