High School in the 80’s: Weren’t We All “The Basketcase?”
“I can’t believe you’re actually here, in front of me, in the flesh.” Cathy stands, eyes wide, smiling big, a few feet away from the table where Michael, Jess, and I sit at TIPS Roadside in Kenwood, California. We’re 3,000 miles and 30 years from the last time we were together.
Cathy’s black t-shirt and cool boots and Jess’ adorable vibrant shawl suddenly make my basic black v-neck sweater feel dowdy and boring. I start to wonder when I lost my style and then I stop myself. Comparing myself to others was a habit I’d broken years ago, so why was I doing it now? Was seeing people from high school bringing back feelings of inadequacy I had as a teenager?
We stand and hug Cathy, one by one. She’d texted to say she’d be a bit late due to a toddler meltdown. I’d responded with, “Don’t stress. You'll get there when you get there.”
Slowing down and not rushing things is a new practice for me. In the past few years, I realized that rushing causes mistakes while simultaneously making me crazy. Now, I try to stay in the flow and let things happen when they happen, no matter how impatient I feel. I’m almost 50, but I don’t feel almost 50, I feel about as old as I did when we walked the halls of Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, NJ over 30 years ago. The only difference is that now, thankfully, I’m a hell of a lot smarter.
“What year did you move to town?” I ask Jess as we settle back into our seats.
“8th grade,” Jess says.
“How was that for you?” Cathy asks Jess.
“Horrible. I came from California and arrived in New Jersey in California clothes. It was all wrong. I didn’t find my footing until senior year,” Jess replies.
“That’s terrible,” Michael says.
“Recently, my sister and I told our parents we were nauseous every morning before school and they couldn’t understand why,” Jess says. “[Schoolmate Name] had the locker next to me and he tortured me every day.”
“Really? He seemed so nice.” I picture that kid smiling and cracking jokes and wonder how he could be nice to me and mean to her.
“There were a lot of mean kids at school,” Cathy says. “When I knelt down to put all my books in my backpack, [Schoolmate Name] would walk by and push the books off the top shelf so they’d tumble down and hit me in the head.”
“Where the hell was I when all this was happening?” Michael looks bewildered and angry at the same time. “I would have said something.”
“Yeah. Why didn’t anybody say something?” I ask.
“I don’t know if anybody saw,” Jess says.
“And who would we tell? It's not like our parents would care.” Cathy says. Then she looks at me and says, “You were popular. I remember thinking you were cool.”
“I remember thinking you were cool too.” I feel confused. I’d always thought there wasn’t much of a popularity thing going on at my high school. Then again, maybe the Brain, Athlete, Princess, Criminal, and Basketcase archetypes from The Breakfast Club were archetypes for a reason. I take a sip of my cocktail and shift in my chair a bit.
“I just remember the people who were nice to me and the people who were not nice to me. By the way, have you noticed that the people who were bullies when we were kids are now bullies on Facebook?” I ask.
“Yes,” Cathy and Jess reply.
“I’m not on Facebook. That shit is crazy,” Michael says. We all laugh because we know he's right.
“So, I have a question,” Cathy says as she leans in. “My homelife was scary. We were always walking on eggshells.” She pauses, tilts her head, and asks, “When you saw me at school, how did I present?”
Her question thuds in my gut. I see my abusive high school boyfriend, the one FINGERPRINTS is based on, screaming in my face. Then I picture myself walking down the hall at school smiling and saying, “Hi!” to classmates like my life was perfect.
“You were friendly,” Jess says to Cathy.
“Bubbly, happy. I never would have guessed anything was wrong,” I say.
“Neither would I,” Michael says.
“That’s the way it was in the 80’s. We hid things and pretended everything was fine,” Cathy says.
“In my house, we weren’t allowed to express emotions,” Jess says.
“No wonder you had stomach aches,” I say.
“Yeah, both home and school were awful,” Jess says.
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” Michael says.
“I am too. And I get the silence. I had an abusive boyfriend. He did horrible things to me and I didn’t tell anyone,” I say.
“Really?” Jess asks.
“Yes, but a ton of therapy and writing a book about him helped,” I say.
“[Schoolmate Name] and [Schoolmate Name] would follow me around parties and grope me,” Cathy says.
“I’m realizing more and more that sexual assault was pretty normal in the 80’s,” I say.
“Totally. Something terrible would happen and then we would just dust ourselves off and go back to the party,” Cathy says.
“Yep,” I say.
Michael shakes his head and orders another beer. We’re going to give the poor guy a heart attack.
I think back to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and how people mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. I knew she was telling the truth because it had happened to me too. Like Dr. Ford, I couldn’t remember exact things like the date or even what month it was, but I know it was winter because it was cold outside and there was snow on the ground. I don’t remember whose party I’d been to, but I remember who drove me home and that his truck smelled like cigarettes. I remember he had a red puffy vest on with a plaid flannel shirt, but I can’t tell you exactly which street he’d pulled over when he decided to sexually assault me.
In the 80's, the Brain, Athlete, Princess, Criminal, and the Basketcase archetypes were revolutionary, but now I just see boxes we were supposed to fit in. Yet, I had never felt like I fit in any of them. Cathy may have seen me as popular, but I was no Princess. I may have had some parallels to Bender's character, but I was not a Criminal, at least not a real one anyway. I definitely wasn't an Athlete and my brains did not kick in until college. So, was I a Basketcase? Yeah, maybe. But what if the truth was that we were all Basketcases presenting as normal, dusting ourselves off, just to fit in? Here we are, over 30 years later, having brunch on a sunny patio in California while a band plays “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” which is fitting since I first fell in love with Crosby, Stills & Nash in high school. Probably at a party.
“You know, it’s different now,” Cathy says, “My stepdaughter isn’t climbing out her window looking for a party. It’s normal for her to be home on a Saturday night. And unlike us, she knows she’s a strong empowered woman.”
“Wow. That’s amazing. Maybe we’ve made some progress,” I say.
“It took a long time for me to be able to speak up,” Jess says.
“Me too,” Cathy and I say at the same time.
I hope Cathy is right and that her stepdaughter is not an anomaly. I hope young people know that they matter and that their bodies, minds, and souls are sacred. That they can and should put up boundaries and always speak up when someone tries to cross those boundaries.
I also hope they know that all the best parts of life don’t fit in a box.