Small town reunion

Here I am. Graduating from high school.

Do I look happy? Maybe just a little.

That was 10 years ago.

WHAT! Aren’t I still 17? What happened?

Yup, today I celebrate my 10 year class reunion.

Me and 54 of my classmates from ranches, small town neighborhoods, farms, the outskirts of town and tiny communities along the way graduated from WCHS at 17, 18 and 19 years old and made our way into adulthood somehow.

I just finished going through old photos and memorabilia to bring with me to the event this evening and was struck by how long ten years actually is (and how bad I was at managing my hair back then…).

To be honest, I am known for my poor, if not selective memory. I am also known for having a camera attached to my hip at all times. So I am thankful to my 12, 15, 17 year old self for having the foresight in the time of film cameras to dish out the cash to get these priceless photos developed, you know, the good old fashioned way.

Because it reminds me, as I imagine I’ll be reminded tonight, what it really meant to me to have grown up as a student of a small town. I thumb through photos and it is like thumbing through family albums. Because these kids making goofy faces at me from the pages of my scrapbook were by my side, for better or worse, during the years of my life when I was trying desperately to figure out who the hell I was. And for a girl from the sticks, a girl who wore wranglers and boots and took the dirt road on the small yellow bus to a country school until I was 11 years old, it was of vital importance that there were a few souls who could help save me as I opened the glass doors to the big school and prepared myself for a world completely foreign to me.

Me and my country school pal

Oh, yes, there were issues. There were fights, there were misunderstandings and tears in the halls of WCHS–that’s a given. That’s what happens when you are working your way into and out of best friendships, relationships, difficult tests and the fact that you weren’t cut out for the basketball team.

I wasn't cut out for the basketball team...

But you know what else I found in the halls of that high school besides teachers who inspired me and continue to cheer me on to this day?

Friends.

Friends who helped me remember the combination to my locker, who welcomed me into their homes after school while I waited for musical or volleyball practice to begin, who practiced with me for hours as we perfected the art of goat tying, barrel racing and cowboy chasing at high school rodeos across the state. Friends who sat next to me in the back of the pickup on the way home and got me laughing even though I may have bobbled my tie or face-planted from a tumble off my horse.

Friends who helped fix my hair for prom and came to listen to me play my guitar at my first real concert.

Although many of us may not ever be in the same room together again like this (in a matching velvet trend) I can’t forget that it was those girls who taught me about friendship, what it is and how truly amazing and heartbreaking it can be.

And the boys? The boys  have no doubt turned out be some of the best men. Because they just don’t make them like that anywhere else–good North Dakotan boys who grew up in baseball caps, tinkering with the engines of their father’s trucks, fishing on the banks for Cherry Creek and Lake Sakakawea, hugging their football teammates after a sorry loss, helping their neighbors brand cattle and always searching for the next big adventure on the back of a horse, a 4-wheeler or anything they can drive too fast.

I love one of those boys and love him more everyday.

And that a man who first met me when I looked like this…

married me anyway is a gift my small town high school gave me that I will never be able to repay.

And it makes this reunion for me more reflective, more special I think.

A Junior Prom version of husband and I...

Because in a small town you don’t have a large pool of friends and boyfriends to pick from, so it is my theory that you love stronger, hold them closer and lean on each other and often, as a result,  a bond forms between two opposite people who may have not connected otherwise.

All grown up with my very blond, very athletic, very clean and organized, very lovely, very opposite high school best friend...

And between the blacktop and dirt roads that didn’t stretch far enough for teenagers with windows open and plans stretched out wide, sometimes the rumors hurt, you felt confined and wished away the time it would take to get you to the date when you could leave this place…a place where you knew all your friends’ parents’ names and they knew what time you were to be home at night.

High School Musical, "Bye Bye Birdie"

Yes, as students of a small town we grew up in a circumstance that gave us every reason to set our eyes wide on the open highway ahead of us. But as we drove the gravel roads at night with a CD of Red Hot Chili Peppers blaring through our speakers, or built a bon fire in the middle of a field or on the edge of the big lake, when we celebrated birthday after birthday with the same neighborhood kids who drank Kool-Aid with us and gave us our first My Little Pony when we turned six, when we could sit on the roof of our boyfriend’s house in town and count the stars in the quiet of the hour before curfew, when we had our first kiss in the back our best friend’s old, beat-up car, we didn’t realize how free we really were.

And when we pushed the limits, when we drove too fast, drank too much, yelled too loud or loved too quickly, when we got our hearts broken, missed the winning point, forgot the lyrics to the song, or failed the test, we thought, indeed, the world would come to an end at 14 or 16 years old. We didn’t have all our muscles yet and didn’t understand, we didn’t appreciate that the world we lived in protected us enough to allow for these kinds of mistakes.

We didn’t appreciate that our world just picked us up, shook their heads and said things like “she’s a good kid, this will be a good lesson for her…”  and then went on loving us anyway.

And now as I prepare to reunite with old friends at 27, 28 and 29 years old, I can’t help but think that’s what most of us want right now: our best friend living next door, a place where our children, born or unborn, can see the stars, casual conversation between friends on Main Street, an open road and a home that welcomes us, no matter how far we’ve traveled away, with open arms.