As Tara Hoffman gears up for her 20th high school reunion this summer, she’s looking forward less to memory lane than to shedding the snobby reputation that got her voted “most likely to marry the next Donald Trump.”
Now a working mother of two with a 12-year marriage to her college sweetheart – who bears no resemblance to the ill-coifed hotelier – she’s eager for her old classmates to see her in a new light.
“I need people to know that I’m not that awful, money-hungry (person) they probably thought I was,” says Hoffman, 38, who works as a pharmaceutical sales rep in Orlando, Fla., and graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It is redemptive in a way to go back and show that I’ve found happiness, that I’m a good mother, a good person, and that that wasn’t truly me.”
On the surface, high school reunions are a chance to reminisce, reconnect and discover who has been posting deceptively flattering photos on Facebook.
But the collision of past and present is also a time of self-reflection, measuring who you are against what you wished for yourself and what you think your peers expected of you.
Eric Beam says he was struck at his 20th reunion last summer when a former classmate, by all accounts successful, sounded embarrassed when discussing her cubicle job.
“It was almost like she was apologetic that she wasn’t climbing the Himalayas as a National Geographic photographer,” he says.
For Beam, in contrast, the reunion was a heartening retrospective of how far he has come: from being the nerdy kid with undiagnosed ADHD – the kid who talked without raising his hand and interrupted people midsentence – to his life now as a school administrator in San Diego with “a phenomenal wife and two wonderful kids.”
He doesn’t understand why people feel the need to impress.
“There’s always going to be someone smarter, there’s always going to be someone with a nicer car,” Beam says. “The people who aren’t happy are the ones who worry about that.”
Even the most confident adults can regress in the face of reunions, says Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist based in Marin County, Calif.
Emotional memories are very strong, she says, so when people are thrown back into a high school context they trigger the self-conscious emotions most common in adolescence: embarrassment, shame, guilt and pride.
When people avoid reunions because they’re disappointed in their lives, “it’s like staying home from school because you don’t want people to see your pimple,” Lamia says.
But such fears are based on the expectation that others will judge you as harshly as you judge yourself, which usually they don’t, she says. And those who do judge and gossip are the ones who have their own shame, she adds.
After avoiding her reunions for several decades, worried that she wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone or have anything to talk about, Leslie Hoffman Kirn was relieved last year when she went to an all-class reunion and had a great time.
“I think that took away any fears,” says Hoffman Kirn, 47, who this summer is on the planning committee for her 30th reunion at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Mo.
Kirn, an IT security analyst, says she was “your average girl, not real popular” in high school, and credits the connections she has made with old classmates on Facebook with drawing her out of her shell.
Rachel Riebow suspects the social networking site is one reason it has been like pulling teeth to get her old classmates to attend their 10-year reunion at Armwood High School in Seffner, Fla.
Why bother when you already know what everyone’s up to, and can so easily connect with the people you wish to see?
But for older generations, Facebook has helped find missing classmates and drive interest in the reunion, says Patti Salvage, who is organizing her 40th reunion at Banks High School in Birmingham, Ala.
“I got a network of my school friends back together,” Salvage said. “Because of that, I’m really looking forward to seeing them.”
People are generally surprised at how well they are remembered and how well they remember their classmates, says Glenn Reeder, professor of social psychology at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.
Reeder who co-authored a 1986 survey of people invited back to their high school reunion, one of very few to study the topic.
The study found that by far the most important factor in the decision to attend a reunion was the memory people had of high school. Those who recalled having a great time, and the more popular kids, were more eager to go back. The less popular kids were less likely to attend, sometimes worrying that no one would remember them.
But that’s not always the case.
Jan-Michael Sacharko was valedictorian and captain of the math team at the all-boys Catholic high school he graduated from in Portland, Maine. He enjoyed high school and was well-liked, but decided not to go back for his 10-year reunion.
“I wonder if I’d have to defend what I do,” says Sacharko, 33, a development director at a homeless advocacy group in Arlington, Va. “I think some people would expect me to be successful in terms of money, and I’m not, I’ll tell you that.”
That pressure to live up to others’ expectations tends to subside as the decades progress.
Reeder’s study found that while younger age groups focused on what changes they saw in their classmates – who got fatter, who got richer – older returnees focused on continuities: the hair may be grayer, but the sense of humor remains the same.
Hoffman, seeking to shed her snobby reputation, says she’s hopeful enough time has passed that she’s not boxed in with her teenage persona.
“I’ve put myself out there, and I’m comfortable with myself now,” she says. “It would be great to be welcomed, but if they’re not gracious, I think I’m OK with that.”