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High School Reunion: Checking In With A Student Who Felt Like An Outsider

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I want you to engage in a little visual exercise, if you're game. Imagine your high school. What did it sound like to walk down the halls? What did the classrooms look like? What emotions rise to the surface when you conjure up those sounds and images? I'd bet that for a large majority of us, high school was hard for a whole lot of different reasons. So why in the world would you want to relive that?

ERIC HSU: The idea of a reunion goes to a place of - for a lot of people of dread and anxiety, right?

MARTIN: That's Eric Hsu. He was the senior class president of my class, the class of 1992 at Idaho Falls High School. This week, we're bringing you some conversations about what is so universally difficult about those years, how the struggle to fit in can affect how you saw yourself back then and well into adulthood.

Hi, Kenny Lance.

KEN LANCE: (Laughter) Hello, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. I know I'm not supposed to call you that anymore, but it's hard.

LANCE: Oh, don't worry. I answer to a lot of things these days.

MARTIN: Ken, as he's known now, still lives in Idaho Falls. He works for a tech company, is married with six kids. His life is full. And there's not a lot of time to ruminate on who he was when we were growing up.

LANCE: For the most part, I try to avoid thinking about high school. High school is kind of like - I don't know - surgery in a lot of ways. Necessary, but in the past and you're better off for having survived it.

MARTIN: I mean, a lot of people feel that way. But tell me more about why it felt that way for you.

LANCE: The interesting thing about small towns is a lot of people that I went to high school with I'd actually gone to grade school with. I mean, you know, there had been all this years of history. I had a couple things going against me. I mean, one of which was I was socially awkward and a wise-ass.

MARTIN: I remember that about you, actually (laughter).

LANCE: What that came across as is I was just astonishingly annoying. I also wasn't coordinated. I wasn't athletically capable, you know. And so much of how you know people is how aggressively you play together.

MARTIN: Ken and I talked about how he just kind of muddled his way through middle school. And by the time he got to high school, he had resigned himself to being on the outside.

LANCE: I remember when I was a junior, I actually invited somebody to a dance. And I asked kind of out of the blue clumsily, and they said yes. And it was kind of an awkward experience because I'd never been to a dance before, you know. But when we got the pictures back, I noticed that she was - you know, the way they took pictures at dances, right? You sit there. You put your hand behind the girl's back, and you hold her other hand to show off the corsage, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah.

LANCE: And the thing is though is the pictures they took were full-body. And so you could see that she was actually standing uncomfortably on one foot. You know, it just sort of changed the whole picture to one where she was feeling so awkward to even be in a picture so close to me, you know. And then, of course, we went to the dance and just kind of sat there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

MARTIN: Can we walk up on the bleachers?

So this is it. This is the gym in the high school. This is where that dance would have happened that Ken Lance was telling me about. I remember so much awkwardness at these dances, so many people not feeling comfortable in their skin, not knowing who they're supposed to be. And it's highly possible that that girl that Ken Lance took to that dance was just feeling incredibly awkward herself and trying to figure out where she fit into this whole place. Remember slow dances? The worst.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

MARTIN: Ken Lance told me that college gave him a chance to start all over.

So did you just decide to be a different person, or did something change to make that happen?

LANCE: I think, if nothing else, it was a situation in which I was forced to be social all the time. But this is a process that took potentially years. You know, I remember when I was working in Idaho Falls and living in Idaho Falls. And I remember quite distinctly that I had just been filled with this fear of showing back up in this place and having people recognize me and have this impression of me that was, you know, at that point 10, 15 years old now. But, in fact, part of that fear, though, was predicated on some perception that I had that those people wouldn't have changed either, which is, you know, short-sighted. But I actually did run into a couple people, now that I think about it.

One of them I actually ended up working with. I was sub-contracting out at the Idaho National Laboratory. And he looked kind of familiar. And his name seemed kind of familiar. So I went and looked him up in one of my old yearbooks. And he was a guy that, like, did a fair amount of tormenting. And I remember him walking up to me the next day. And he looked at me and told me that he'd figured out who I was. And I was just almost paralyzed with fear.

And he says, you know, I got to apologize. I had a lot of bad stuff going on in my life back then. And I wasn't as considerate a person as I would have wanted to be. And it just floored me. Yeah. I mean, if you think yourself, you know, being worthy of derision from every angle, having somebody remember you is one thing. Having somebody remember you, come up and apologize, that's something altogether else.

MARTIN: Yeah. Thank you for doing this. Is there anything else you want to add or anything you think is important?

LANCE: I don't know. Keep in touch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARISA ANDERSON'S "INTO THE LIGHT")

MARTIN: Ken Lance. He and I went to high school together and graduated from Idaho Falls High School 25 years ago. A day or so after we talked, Ken actually got back in touch with me and said there was one more thing he wanted to add to our conversation. I wanted you to hear it, too.

LANCE: I know I've painted a pretty bleak picture. And I know that a lot of other people have had, you know, bad experiences and tough times and certainly even much worse than mine. And I guess I just wanted to say that it's important to keep in mind always that it gets better. I've seen some real beauty in the world. I've had some wonderful life experiences. I've got a family who I adore. I've got a job that I do well at. And yeah, I still struggle with things sometimes. But it's important to always remember that it gets better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARISA ANDERSON'S "INTO THE LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.