Caste Aside

All of the division amongst folks at present got me thinking about and remembering lessons on the Hindu caste system when I was in school. I was taught about Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Dalits. I learned that Brahmins were the upper crust and Dalits were the untouchables, the lowest class of people. In between were distinct groups of people defined by their jobs, their birth, who they were allowed to marry.

My real world experience with a caste system, however, was in school. Particularly in junior high and high school with all the cliques. There were the popular kids, jocks, brainiacs, middle of the fielders, stoners, goths, loners, floaters and, for lack of a better term, fine arts kids.

Since I was first chosen in fourth grade to participate in the Academically Talented (AT) program (as it was called at the time), most of my friends were the smart kids, the nerds. There was crossover with a few jocks and fine arts kids who were also in the program. However, if any of us had been asked to define who we were, I suspect most would have started with student as the first descriptor.

The AT program was insular. Because our English and history classes were AT based, the exact same kids were in both classes together. Most of the students were also in the higher math classes, like Calculus, and in advanced science courses like Chemistry. Unless it was in physical education, driver’s ed, or an elective like journalism, we didn’t have classes with students outside of the AT bubble. Naturally, most of my close friendships grew out of that togetherness. The funny thing is, it never even occurred to me at the time how limiting the AT program was. I didn’t ever think Gee, I wonder what it would be like to hang out with the jocks?

When I left high school and went on to Appalachian State University (for a semester), then to UNCC for the remainder of my college years, I found my people in the English department. They were basically the same kids I had gone to junior high and high school knowing. They were mostly future teachers and professors, with a few writers and creative types thrown in the mix. No jocks. No goths. No stoners.

Though I married a high school classmate of mine who was a middle of the fielder … not in AT classes, not a stoner, a jock, a goth … we had never shared a class in school together. We’d never even had the same lunch period. We met through mutual friends. When we started dating, my group of brainiac friends couldn’t believe it. All former boyfriends had been from our clique. I felt like a rebel.

For the first fifteen years after high school, I never even thought about the classmates I’d left behind who were not still a part of my life. I kept in touch with a dozen or so of my AT friends and a few others I’d gotten to know in driver’s ed and around the lunch table. That was it.

My husband and I did not attend our tenth high school reunion and, at the time, didn’t plan on ever attending one. Then I got a phone call from a friend. She was helping another classmate who I knew by name and by sight, but had never actually met. They were planning a fifteenth reunion without the help of a reunion service. They asked for my help locating my group of friends. That request changed my life. I am a helper by nature. I get that from my dad. Though I am better at saying no than he is, I said yes to this challenge. Since I still lived in my hometown and had a business in the area, I was still in touch with many of my friends and with some classmates who were now clients at our printshop. I also knew how to get in touch with some of my classmates’ parents. I sat down with my graduation day program and started marking off names. That year, I think I found three dozen or so of our “lost” classmates. As a result, Darryl and I got excited about going to the reunion. When the night arrived, we went with our best friends from high school and had a blast!

As time for the twentieth reunion came around, the same classmate called me again and asked for my help finding people. Though a reunion service had been hired, all they had done was mailed out one postcard to the address list from the 10th reunion. That was their big effort. At that point about ten people had RSVPed. I agreed to lead the charge to locate as many classmates as possible. I took my list from the fifteenth reunion and started calling people. If I got an answer, each classmate usually knew how to contact four or five other people. The internet became my best friend. I searched property tax records, online telephone books, and Classmates.com. I called parents and grandparents. Out of our class of nearly 400, I found addresses for about 250. I was disappointed. I wanted to find them all. But I was also proud of the effort and the successes …. until the night of the reunion. In the middle of the reunion, a classmate who knew about my efforts took the mic and thanked me for all I had done (hundreds of hours of work). I just smiled and said I was happy I could help. The music started back up and I turned to talk to a friend I hadn’t seen in years. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my arm and turned to see one of our class officers standing behind me. As I turned to greet her, she spat out, “I don’t know who you think you are, but you had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with this reunion!” I was shocked beyond belief. Speechless for a moment, I finally managed to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and walk off.

For a time after that experience, I was done with it. I was deeply hurt by my classmate’s attitude and hateful words. I felt indignant, angry, and weirdly, embarrassed. I’d done all this hard work out of the goodness of my heart and, basically, been slapped in the face for it. I sat down and wrote Tish a letter. I detailed what I had done and why I had done it. I explained that I had never sought any recognition for what I had done. I hadn’t known that it would even be mentioned at the reunion. I apologized if I had stepped on her toes in some way I did not understand, but I defended myself, too. I told her she had hurt me deeply and that I didn’t understand why. I never heard a word from her.

As time approached for the twenty-fifth reunion, I seemed to run into classmates everywhere I went. Some of the “lost” classmates had heard from others that they should contact me to get on the mailing list so they called me out of the blue. Everyone I spoke to thanked me for the work I’d put in finding them. I opened up to a few about what had happened at the twentieth reunion. Without exception, they were angry and confused about how I had been treated. They didn’t understand it any more than I did and they encouraged me to continue looking for people. So much support prodded me forward. This time I found addresses for close to 300 classmates. The reunion was a huge success! Thanks to the generosity of our homecoming queen, Donna Wilson Scott, who shared her home with us, we had a turnout of over a hundred and we had a blast.

By the thirtieth reunion, I was only missing a dozen or so classmates’ addresses. Our turnout was even bigger than it had been for the twenty-fifth and we had so much fun partying the night away, again at Donna’s house.

Though the process of finding my classmates was sometimes draining, stressful, and difficult, I’m so grateful for the initial phone call back in 1998 that got the ball rolling. The rewards have far outweighed the costs. Because of that phone call, I have gotten to know the jocks, the stoners, the middle of the fielders, in our class. And you know what I have found? We are more alike than we are different. If I regret anything about being set on the AT path way back in fourth grade it is that it restricted my friends group. I wish I had known most of my classmates better back then. Some of the people I have come to love the most from the Class of 1983 are people I never shared a word with prior to our fifteenth or later reunions. Now, they are my friends.

Labels are for products, not people. When we criticize, belittle, dismiss, or hate people because they are black or white, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, Christian or Muslim, we are short-changing them and ourselves. Your label for them may say nothing about the real person underneath. Quite often it is the result of a single opinion or comment that could be misunderstood or taken out of context or that you simply don’t agree with. Sometimes the label is just about what you can see on the surface, when it should be about what is underneath their skin. Prejudice and close-mindedness could be keeping you from getting to know a truly special person.

Tish saw me as an interloper, pure and simple. I wasn’t sticking to my role, her label for me. I was a nobody to her because I wasn’t a class officer in high school. She didn’t know or care about my efforts. I was overstepping in her eyes and she was going to put me in my place. If she had succeeded, many of those classmates I love so much now would never have attended a reunion and would still be strangers to me. I am grateful that I didn’t let her prejudice stop me in my mission to bring all of the Class of 1983 together. I love the beautiful fruit salad we’ve made out of all those Jocks, Brainiacs, Middle of the Fielders, Stoners and Theatre Geeks. I wish the world at large could be as accepting and respectful of each other as I’ve found most of my classmates to be. In the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

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