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14 Years An Outcast: Surviving My High School Reunion

Duke Ellington School Of The Arts Nielsen Photography

Early one morning while wasting away on Facebook, I received an invitation to my ten year high school reunion. Just as I was planning to ignore it, the phone rings. It's my good friend Sam who incidentally didn't become a real friend until our senior year at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He asked if I would be making an appearance at the reunion, I said no I hadn't planned on it, wondering to myself what would be the point. I was an outcast then and I was sure I'd still be seen as one now. I told Sam that i'd see him at thanksgiving and we got off the phone.

For the rest of the day I sat and analyzed the person I was ten years ago, better yet, the person I was four years prior to actually graduating from high school. I was in that awkward "baby dyke" phase, quiet and curious, a queer kid thrown into the perpetuated song and dance that is art school. I excelled at this institutionalized showing off of sorts by means of vocal music, literary media and visual arts. Each student had to choose only one creative discipline but I just had to do the absolute most and try my hand at more than it could carry. My mornings were dedicated to blasé academics and by noon I was studying music theory and performance poetics, finding myself covered in paint and hand stretching canvases by five. My enthusiasm opened many doors but gained me no real friends… Oh, except for Sam.

I suppose the same can be said for the woman that I am today. I am utterly obsessed and consumed by my creative endeavors and with most of them being fairly successful ones, I am left with a joke of a social life filled with flaky opportunistic narcissists who buy my art and hover around at my shows. When I visit my old stomping grounds of DC its a lonely trek down memory lane unless, I'm with Sam of course. Sam Smith was a painfully popular musical theater major who graduated summa cum laude in high school. He now lives in Brooklyn NY. A barista by day and the lead singer of an afro-synth band called Shirley House by night. We bonded as soon as we weren't forced to. That summer post-high school was our turning point. We were always supportive and admirable of each others grind and talents from afar, sharing various similarities and interests. We both come from extremely dedicated and supportive families and make it a point to see each other on all major holidays including birthdays since we were born three days apart. He's the kind of friend you dont take for granted or come across too often. The kind you can go without seeing for months, check in with and pick up right where we left off. And with all that being said, I gave the reunion some thought. I figured it wouldn't be so bad with Sam as my date. It just may be a good time after all.

Me & Sam 2006

Before I could call and say I changed my mind, Sam hits me up for a favor. "My backup singer bailed on me", he said. "…and since you know most of our songs-" ...I stopped him right there. This is so last minute, I couldn't possibly drop everything and just head to NY for what could either be really fun or really embarrassing. He said, "No, we're coming to DC. Shirley House is one of the acts at the reunion." He went on to say that he had put my name down as a band member and that my ticket was already taken care of. At that point I couldn't say no. Attending this thing was kinda set in stone whether I was really feeling up to it or not. So he sent over a set list and I started rehearsing. Now he could breathe a sigh of relief while I'm over here gasping for air. Not only do I have to pull it together for a class full of folks I have to fake it with but now I have to sing backup with 4 days notice.

On the day of the reunion, the music proved to be the easy part. We met with the band at Sam's parents' house and rehearsed songs over cocktails and an early dinner. We sounded amazing. It was just like the holidays minus the pending parade of flashy young adults in debt, also known as a high school reunion. I made sure not to get too buzzed at dinner but I immediately regretted it upon pulling up to the venue, luckily so did the rest of the gang as someone volunteered to make a much needed whiskey run. We begin to sip bourbon straight up during soundcheck. We're sounding good, looking good and beginning to feel even better though the site of the event left much to be desired, like seating for example. I find myself walking laps around the space in a good pair of painful pumps I hadn't even broken in yet. At the peak of my pain, I planned my exit. At 9:00 we perform, at 9:35 I'm safe in an Uber and headed to the taco bell drive-thru.

Some not so familiar faces began to trickle in following a sudden rush of everyone all at once. I overhear the barrage gratuitous tales that include being an extra at Lance Bass' wedding, becoming reality TV royalty, going viral and so fourth. I found a nice comfy wall to lean on when it occurred to me that the last time these people saw me, I was a quiet, shy kind of aggressive, serving the utmost in androgyny and butch dyke realness. Dudes wanted to borrow my clothes and girls wanted me the be their first… well, girl, I guess. It was a peculiar time for everybody, I assure you. But there I stood in a form fitting black dress, wearing heels and a full glam beat, just as queer and relentlessly talented now as I was then, only more enlightened and sure of self. What I wasn't sure of was how I would be received by my "peers" or better yet, how I was going to remain standing in these damn shoes.

Sam and his bandmate Tina drag me outside for a smoke. At the time it seemed like all I needed was some good weed and a seat. After a quick peptalk and one too many drags from a well rolled joint, I heard a familiar voice approaching. It was this guy named Christian. He used to give teachers hell and make fun of the kids who actually wanted to grow up and become artists. He was one of those, "you're too pretty to be a dyke" kind of guys. But standing in front of me now with ten years of life settled into his smile lines, he lights up a newport and says, for old time sake, "I knew you'd grow out of it… you were way to pretty to be a dyke". This began a trend of similar greetings throughout the night, all surface and vague. But I shrugged it off, got on stage and sang backup for my friend.

Microphone in hand, I stood there wondering, were they seeing the versatile, capable, energetic powerhouse that I left home as or were they seeing someone who's only accomplishment was ditching her masculine duds and fitting under a label that better suits their idea of who she should be? Even if I screamed that question mid song and dance they wouldn't have dignified me with an answer. There was enough cheap booze and ego in the room to trip off of for the next ten years. I was asked to take group pictures, not to be in any of them. I was asked to grab drinks, not make toasts. They were the same kids putting on a show in the cafeteria, loud, sloppy and bubbling over with misguided charisma. It was about time I take my leave. I'm glad I went, i suppose. It wasn't all bad. I made friends with a pretty dope chick in the band who gives good advice and can roll a pretty nice joint, I drank good whiskey from our secret stash and sang alongside a friend who feels more like family to me as the years go by and at last, I sufficiently broke in a pair of shoes that I will never ever step foot into again.

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