Sometimes when snooping around on social media, I see posts from people I went to high school with in New Jersey. I went to two high schools- one in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where I was born and spent my first sixteen years, and one in Hawaii, where I lived from ages sixteen through nineteen. I loved my time in Hawaii. I got to do things I would NEVER have done if I stayed in New Jersey- really amazing stuff, outside of the waterfalls and Hawaiian sunsets. For three year of the most formative years of my life, I was a local, a resident, instead of a tourist, and I lived accordingly. I was once helicoptered off the side of the Ko’olau mountain range, after taking the wrong turn on a hike, almost breaking my foot, and hearing wild, feral boar running around below the cliff I was hiking. I drank the shitty booze favored by high schoolers in an mountaintop bunker left over from World War II. And socially, my life was allowed to flourish in a way that would have been impossible back in Ridgewood. I reaped the benefits of being the new girl my junior year. Nothing is more novel than a new girl with blonde hair, big boobs, and a New Jersey accent. I got to date a lot, and had several different groups of friends I could hang out with. That would never have happened in New Jersey. As a sophomore in Ridgewood, I had considered myself lucky to have one rock solid group, although it was a constant worry that I’d get phased out. I moved away before I could have found out if I would have stayed with that group all the way until graduation. And, actually, beyond graduation.
That’s the thing with these Ridgewood kids. They’re all still friends. There was a group of girls I was close with as a middle schooler, until things ended the way many middle school friendships do (with me in tears and my mom stroking my hair, saying seventh grade girls are mean), and these girls are still friends. They are still friends! This is the year my classmates and I turn twenty-seven, and that gang has been tight since elementary school. I just can’t imagine. I have been with my boyfriend for seven years, and that seems like a lifetime. I feel such a mixture of feelings when I see that they all still hang out. I’m jealous, angry, sad, judgmental, and surprised. How could they possibly still be friends? How dare they not move on? Why don’t I have old friends like that? They all meet up in my hometown- which I haven’t been back to in five years. I guess it’s pretty easy to go when your family still lives there. They travel to visit each other in the cities they’ve ended up post-college, and still refer to each other as ‘my best friend’ in captions and comments.
I recently got back in touch with my high school best friend. We fell out of touch, which seems to be the norm for people in our graduating class. So many of us in Hawaii were transplants, either via the military or our crazy parents. Families move off the island, and then there isn’t anywhere free to stay, anywhere you’re expected to pay $1,000 to fly to on holidays. Local kids with parents still on the rock move away themselves, trying to get a piece of the mainland life they didn’t experience as keiki on the island. Everyone is scattered. Unlike my Ridgewood friends, who all moved to New York City or a handful of other logical east coast places (DC, Boston, etc.), the graduates of Kalaheo truly moved all over. They married military spouses and travel from base to base, or picked a random city because that’s what they’re used to- moving around a lot. Making anywhere home.
There’s a rootlessness that comes from moving around as a child. Even in my case, moving once at sixteen, I can feel it. I said today that I’m an Austinite, since I’m proud to live in Austin and have been there eight years. But it didn’t feel true down in my gut. I’m not really from Austin. And I’m not really from New Jersey, at least not really. My identity is more than just New Jersey, since I left when I was just a teen and formed so much of myself elsewhere. I left Ridgewood high school halfway through: I didn’t hold those red roses and wear that white dress and graduate with the lacrosse players and girls with BMWs like I had expected. My brother has the same problem- he lives out in DC, and has decided the perfect answer when people ask him where he’s from is, “New Jersey, originally.” This always leads to more questions, which are necessary. It doesn’t feel right to say we’re just from New Jersey, and it feels even more like a big fat lie to say we’re from Hawaii or Texas.
The feeling emphasized with those classmates of mine who are still friends is that things are exactly the same each time they get together. Even if it’s been months, when they make it a point to see each other some weekends, in Brooklyn or Ridgewood or where ever else, it’s like they’re back in high school. There must be so much familiarity and catching up and warmth when they see each other again. Even with my high school best friend, it doesn’t feel like that for either of us when we catch up, since we met as seniors! We didn’t go through middle school and high school and braces and first dances with crushes together. We were almost eighteen when we got close! It makes me laugh, actually. Even with my own ‘oldest’ friend, we’re two adults who have chosen to continue our friendship now in our twenties and have a shared past at a crazy high school on the east side of Oahu. Our families aren’t from the same town. We don’t have two decades of inside jokes. I’ve never seen her childhood bedroom. Those Ridgewood BFFs are on the complete other side of this, unable to relate to being cut off from nostalgia and childhood neighborhoods and visiting old favorite restaurants with the same people who shared that booth with you back as a freshman. Ridgewood is their touchstone, since it is where there families are, and where they spent their whole lives. I grew up in such an idyllic town that I can understand wanting to keep a piece of it with you for life, through friendships and trips back there whenever you can. I always imagined I would move back there. I thought I’d spend my life there, until I was sixteen and our house was no longer ours.
I think the biggest obstacle to keeping in touch for people who went to high schools like mine is the feeling of why bother? When I moved from Hawaii to Austin a year after graduating, I relaxed on keeping in touch with most of my old friends, and vice versa. It is so expensive to visit Hawaii, and without being a local with lifelong connections, there were no families or friends I’d want to go visit and crash with for 10 days (you can’t go to Hawaii for just a four day trip! Jet lag!). I knew unless I was moving back, I would probably never see these people again. The ones I did want to see had started lives in Portland or Seattle, and we weren’t close enough after two years of friendship for me to fly to Seattle to JUST see them. It was easier to just start over.
Most of the time, I love that my life ended up so different than I’d expected as a child in New Jersey. With just a change of perspective, I see how lucky I am that my adolescence had this tropical twist, dropping me in Austin, Texas by the time I was a sophomore in college. I get to go to my ten year high school reunion on Oahu next fall. I got to start over as a junior, and never had to find out if my old group would have tired of me. Instead I got handwritten letters from the people I left behind (my guy friends included- getting a platonic letter in the messy handwriting of a sixteen year old boy is a rare gift), saying they missed me and wished I hadn’t moved. I got to feel valued and special, almost like the fantasy of attending your own funeral. I got my yearbook signed on the last day of sophomore year by people who knew they might never see me again, and repeated that trend in Hawaii when we graduated. I got to start my life as a junior, after the braces came off and my eyebrows grew back in. The kids I’d met at Kalaheo never saw me at 100 pounds, a pre-pubescent late bloomer with badly dyed blonde hair and sweaters from Costco. I got to start over when I had figured a few things out. I wonder if some of the girls who’ve had the same crew since pre-K would actually be envious of that. I never think of it that way, when I get so mired in my shock and jealousy and inability to relate, but maybe they look at how it went down for me as a high schooler and wished they could trade places. They got to stay, and graduate next to people they’d known their whole lives, but that’s a double-edged sword. They got to hold those red roses and attend project grad with the group they’d still be taking beach trips with eight years later. I see their posts on Facebook and Instagram, people who I used to long to be friends with, or had eaten lunch with for years. Still together. Still texting, still meeting up at the Starbucks in downtown Ridgewood or the Jersey shore for summer weekends. But I got to learn how to chant in Hawaiian, and smoke pot with surfers, and ditch school to eat spam musubi. I got a Texas driver’s license and commuted to college past a field full of longhorn steer every day. I moved worlds past the life I imagined for myself in Ridgewood.
My overall experience of disconnection post-graduation is not uncommon. I know plenty of people don’t keep up with their high school classmates, for dozens of different reasons, some much more unpleasant than my own. I am grateful for my experience. I’m grateful I got leis stacked around my neck the day I graduated high school. They weren’t red roses, but those fragrant plumeria signified something different. I would never just be from New Jersey again.
PS: Here’s me on the day I graduated. Can you see me right in the middle? Blonde girl freaked out when everyone started going nuts! Oh, Kalaheo…
One thought on “Lucky/Left Out: Thoughts on Starting Over in High School”
Love this! There’s always a good and bad side to everything and I really enjoyed reading about your experience. And you seem to have a positive outlook even while discussing the downsides of moving so much.