When my mother dropped my brother and I off for our first day of school at the Merz Schule in Stuttgart, Germany in 1971, I was already able to recite the ABCs and to count from one to 10 in German. It seems I had an aptitude for the language, and within a year spoke it with a flawless Schwäbisch accent. (Stuttgart is located in southern Germany, Schwabenland.) Mom wasn’t pleased. High German was better. But Schwäbisch allowed me to slur over the genders die, der, “und” das, and to assimilate into school and the village of Vaihinghen-Rohr where we lived.
In 1973, my family moved to Peoria, IL. I was 13, and in the middle of a growth spurt.
I felt ugly as a 5’11” 7th grader, with my butt-length hair with winged bangs, braces and glasses. At Thomas Jefferson (TJ) elementary school, the boys delighted in calling me Olive Oil. At Peoria High School (Central), they called me, Tree. At TJ, some of the girls teased me about books I read, and at Central about the clothes I wore. How could I explain that extra money in our house was spent on art and books, not new fall school clothes for me?
Before Peoria, I’d never been teased or witnessed bullying in the two schools I previously attended. Feeling unpopular, and being made the butt of jokes made me sad, and caused me to withdraw, and probably kept me from trying out for things like leads in plays or maybe evening homecoming queen. I wondered if popular guys didn’t ask me to school dances because I was tall. As soon as I was of legal age to work, I applied for my first job at Wendy’s. I wanted to buy my own clothes and have my hair styled by someone other than my mother.
While I made life-long friends at school, when I graduated from Central and went off to Iowa State I was relieved. I viewed my entire 7th through 12th grade experience in Peoria as a bust. Then later in life, two events changed my mind.
In the early 90’s at a party in Chicago where I lived, I ran into one of the girls who’d teased me. She spotted me across the room and approached. Drinks in hand, backs against a wall we talked for hours about life since graduation, guys, and books. She’d recently moved to Chicago and I hoped we might be friends. During a lull in conversation, bolstered by alcohol, I asked, “Why were you all so mean to me in school?” Without blinking she said, “Because we were jealous. You were worldly, you spoke another language, and you weren’t from Peoria.” She shrugged. We laughed and started talking about the book, The Fountainhead.
As the 30th reunion loomed, Lori and Dave Miller coaxed me to “come back.” My experience at the 20th reunion made me swear I’d never attend another. I was certain the 30th was too soon to see the classmate from TJ who’d made my life miserable. Ten years earlier he’d sought me out and regaled me, for what seemed like hours, about his wonderful marriage. He then asked me with a smirk, “So Ana, why aren’t you married, yet?” I didn’t realize at the time that maybe I hadn’t heard his question the way he’d intended. I assumed he was being cruel because at the time he asked, I didn’t know why I wasn’t married “yet.” I didn’t have the self-awareness to realize that I “hadn’t wanted to be married, yet.” Still carrying around my hurt from grade school and high school, I assumed the worst of him. When, despite my skepticism, I decided to attend the 30th, I vowed to come to the party open minded, and to have fun. It helped I was happy in my career as director of marketing for a hospice, and that I was more comfortable with my life choices, including my marital status. And the reunion had a Facebook page. It created pre-party enthusiasm; gave classmates a glimpse into each other’s lives.
When I tell people about the 30th reunion, I tell them it was magical; life altering. The ballroom at the Pere Marquette was electric with laughter, people hugging, everybody mingling. As I felt my preconceived notions about people fall away, I flitted around the room talking to classmates, people I thought I’d never speak to again—even the guy from TJ.
Following the official party in a bar across the street from the Pere Marquette, I found myself talking to four guys from my German classes. “You know,” said one of them, “we used to copy off of you during tests. You always got A’s. We had so much fun together making fun of Edna (our German teacher).” Suddenly memories of laughing and joking with them in class came back to me. School hadn’t been so bad, I realized. As we said our goodbyes, another said, “You know why I came to the reunion, Ana?” I shook my head. “Because I wanted to know how everyone turned out; that everyone is alright.”
In a million years, in English or German, I couldn’t have said it better.
This article first appeared in the Peoria High School Alumni Newsletter. (PDF)