Digging through old history on Facebook

Last week while everyone else was excited about the World Series, I found myself deep in a Facebook spiral that had me peeking into the lives of people I hadn’t thought of in decades. (Or at least into their photos.)

Sixth grade … in the front row, of course.

I spent my childhood in Missoula, Montana, which in many ways was an idyllic place. I didn’t have an awful life there when I was younger, but I didn’t have a great time, either. I was a little wisp of a kid—not even 5’3″ when I graduated from eighth grade—with no athletic prowess, and an all-encompassing fear of getting called out as a gay kid. Two other boys my age lived on my block but even though we went to the same schools and hung out often, they were both talented artists and I usually felt like the odd one out. So I studied a lot, practiced my piano lessons less frequently, and spent most of my time with the neighbor girls next door.

And I watched all my schoolmates from a distance. In his book “Party of One,” Dave Holmes puts it better than I ever could:

If you do not fit into the narrow, ever-shifting definition of what is masculine and therefore acceptable, life becomes a constant, exhausting effort to stay on what you are told is the right side of the cool/gay divide. You study older, more secure-looking boys for cues on how to talk, how to walk, how to yawn and cough and laugh, so that you will be acceptable. You make a hundred thousand micro-decisions about your behavior before lunch. You never exactly get it—you can’t wear coolness and masculinity as effortlessly as the boys who are born with it—but you can fool some people. And when you can’t, when you hear things like “man up” or “quit being such a faggot,” you don’t recognize these comments as bullying, you take them as you would notes on a performance. “I should be better at not being me,” you think. “Thanks for the reminder.” …

You put yourself through this process over and over, in the years when you are learning how to be a human being, and you get so good at it that it becomes involuntary. It’s like a computer process, and like computers, you’re getting faster and more efficient. You get so good and so quick that after a while you don’t even notice yourself doing it.

So I spent a lot of those years watching my classmates and parsing everything about them. Fascinated by the popular crowd, of course—the jocky boys and early-developing girls—but even more keenly aware of the others:

  • W, the girl from the “not-so-good side of town” with the sad dark eyes, the mean older brother and the barely-making-it demeanor. Was her home life as bad as the rumors?
  • D, the golden-haired boy from a family of talented tennis players, who was also good at math, and genuinely kind to everyone … basically I just fervently wished I had his life. Or such good friendship that I could bask in his reflected glory.
  • J, the younger girl who tried out for cheerleader but didn’t make the cut. Everyone could see that in a few years, she would be unstoppable, right?
  • Ditto M, the tiny drama student. Her best friend may have been the already-busty blonde who was the star of talk in the boys’ locker room but I, when challenged to name my crush, selected her because I was so taken by her self-assured bravado and was convinced she’d be a star on stage very soon. “You have a crush on her?!” the pack said disbelievingly, and I realized my stupid mistake of having picked the girl with the balls, instead of the one with the boobs.

They weren’t crushes, per se, but I had lots of random allegiances to virtual strangers: the blonde who slumped in a futile attempt to not look so tall; the exotic-looking boy with glossy black hair and almond eyes; the wry, whip-smart tomboy. I was convinced that all of them would soon be something greater than my classmates could have ever imagined.

I didn’t get to find out. Right after eight-grade graduation, my family moved to a small town on the other side of the state. I lost all contact with my old life even before the new school year had started.

Over time, I connected with a few former classmates on Facebook. Randomly last week, a Facebook suggestion for someone to connect with was one of my other classmates. His privacy settings were locked down, but two of the first four names on his friends list were other classmates, so off I went, branching out one mutual friend at a time.

I’m fascinated by how people age and mature. I was privy to only surface-level learning on my Facebook hunt, but it was still gratifying to see how many of those people I felt an affinity for look happy and healthy. A few, like the golden-haired tennis player, have already died, though, which was hard for me to fathom because I still envisioned them in their early teens, not middle age. For the living, it was fun to reconcile my memory with the current incarnation, and it was surprising how many people I had odd random associations with:

  • Watching K, and nobody else on the drill team she was on, during their routine to The Cars’ “Shake It Up” during an assembly one afternoon.
  • One night sleeping outside at G’s house, he pointed out that everybody we knew would one day be dead, and I spent the rest of the night looking up at the stars wondering what, if any, footprint I’d leave behind besides a tombstone somewhere. (Also, his mom was gorgeous and drove a cherry-red classic car. I loved her.)

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UM: a picture-perfect college.

I went back to Missoula this summer, for the first time in almost 20 years. I stayed only three nights there and as fate would have it, I spent two of them in my old neighborhood. The same family still owns the house next door and invited me over for dinner; although both daughters are married now, they joined their mom and me on the back porch for hours of catching up. And the night after that I was just a few houses down, hanging out with one of those artsy boys and his family in the house his mom still owns.

It was really the best way I could have spend those days back in town—revisiting your past life, but as your new self. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to that side of the state, but 2017 is a milestone reunion year, so I bet a lot of people would be back home. I wonder how many of them have memories of me I’d like to hear.

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One response to “Digging through old history on Facebook

  1. Lovethe personality observances. Can relate a tad, was a bad fit growing up inone of the most narrow-minded corners of the universe. Found my tribein journalism. You asked to Facebook but I only have it to access info. Youhave my email; Twitter is @dbtcopyedit. Hey, good house story: clean, clear, fresh,engaging.

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