Brand building through storytelling

Making peace with my hometown

I could have sworn I had lots of better places to spend a summer weekend than Durham, New Hampshire. It’s not exactly a happening place: no movie theatre, no ethnic restaurants, no night life unless you count frat parties at the state university, where my father used to teach English. On Durham’s prim streets, lined with maples and faux Colonial houses, I walked to school for 10 years, wishing I could grow up somewhere else. I dreamed of big-city newsstands with French fashion magazines and funky cafes where poets nursed expressos while scribbling in leather-bound notebooks.

Yet for two days last August, Durham was where I most wanted to be–never mind that everyone I used to know there had died or moved away years before. A band of far-flung mid-lifers who had once gone to school in Durham were returning to reminisce and honour two beloved, long-serving teachers, a husband and wife who had devoted their careers to kids like me. Grads from various eras were making the trip from as far away as Florida and California. They were spreading the word on Facebook. They were even taking up a collection so that grads short of money could attend the tribute dinner. I thought of the chores I could knock off that weekend instead of schlepping to Durham by plane and bus. But there’d never again be another party like this one. So I took a deep breath and said, “Count me in.”

I was making the trip on my own; my husband had wisely decided this was my adventure, not his. And it would put me to a stiff test. After years of dissing my hometown, where I had always felt like a stranger, the time had come to make peace.

As far back as anyone alive can remember, Durham has been one of those groomed, gracious-looking hamlets that prompt young couples to exclaim, “What a perfect spot to raise a family!” My parents used to tell me I was lucky to live there–and so it must have seemed at first glance. I researched my grade-school projects in the university library. I learned to swim in a vast pool with a real sand beach for building castles. I skated on a frozen pond worthy of a Christmas card.

But even a six-year-old could sense the class tensions that divided the town. If you weren’t part of a faculty family, you belonged to a lesser breed. New kids at Oyster River School faced a question that only seemed friendly: “Is your father with the university?” (No mention of mothers; we’re talking June Cleaver’s heyday.) Kids whose fathers milked cows could be reading the complete works of Dickens and they’d still have been cast as bumpkins just because they rode the bus to school from the country, wearing soiled work boots and flannel shirts their mothers had sewn.

We all sat at identical desks (and crouched beneath them during air raid drills) but observed invisible barriers that I never thought to question. I needed other children to look down on. At recess I would pace the playground alone, retreating to the world inside my head while other girls played Double Dutch and Red Rover. Certain that nobody liked me because of my timidity and clumsiness, I’d think to myself, “At least I’m not a bus kid.”

It’s not that I had no friends in Durham, just all that all through school the few friends I had were mostly other weirdos like me. They had plenty of spirit and humour but I viewed them as placeholders for the bold and brilliant soulmates I’d find in the wide world beyond Durham, where my real life would begin.

Just as I’d predicted, things looked up when I enrolled at the University of Toronto. At last I had a city at my feet, where no one cared what my father did for a living or remembered that in years of gym class, I’d never learned to catch a softball. I had a posse of friends to hang out with in a smoky blues bar. Within weeks of unpacking my bags, I found a boyfriend who told me I was beautiful and sexy. He didn’t stick around, but so what? Clearly, Durham had caused all my youthful anguish. I’d done more than just turn my back on the town; I’d put 600 miles and a border between me and the bad old days. On my twenty-first birthday, I married a Canadian, sealing my commitment to Toronto, my hometown of choice.

I told myself that Durham no longer mattered, yet the thought of it awakened the misfit child in me. While visiting my mother, I checked out my 20th high school reunion, mainly to prove that geeky Rona Maynard had lost the baby fat, launched a thriving career and stayed married while former cheerleaders were divorcing.

A decade went by, and then another. Back home in Toronto, I’d sometimes pull my yearbook off the shelf and wonder what had become of the classmates who signed it. I noticed a warmth in their words that had escaped me back at Oyster River High School. Joan, my vivacious co-star in The Miracle Worker, had scrawled, “Please, Rona, wherever you are next year think of me and please write to me.” I never wrote, and the oversight stung.

Last fall I heard that an enterprising Oyster River grad had launched a website called Durham Friends where people from our town could reconnect. In an idle moment I logged on in search of classmates who’d intrigued, amused, puzzled or tormented me a couple of lifetimes ago. Had anyone heard from Joan? I was mentally composing an e-mail to her when someone on the site broke the news that she had died.

If the point of Durham Friends was connecting with former classmates, I seemed to be out of luck. Most of these people were years younger; they’d been finger-painting in rubber smocks while I was learning the chords to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Some had chosen to raise their own kids in Durham; others had blasted out of town as I did, burning with resentment. One bus kid, now a lawyer, recalled being told by the school guidance counsellor that no university would take her, so why bother to apply? Compared to her, I got off lightly. And who knew that the big yellow school bus was a veritable party on wheels? According to a woman who loved those rides, you got to sing and play games all the way. With each memory, we fleshed out the portrait of our old stomping ground. We recounted Durham legends (the bank heist that inspired some of us to scour the railroad tracks for the stolen loot). We marvelled at outsize Durham characters (the curmudgeonly, cigar-chomping doctor who let ashes and curses rain down on his young patients). Stories flooded my e-mail queue and I couldn’t tear myself away–nor could anyone else, it seemed. We were crossing the divide that had separated town and country, jocks and artists, prom queens and stoners. Whatever our particular experience of Durham, we belonged to the same tribe.

Like every tribe, we told stories of our heroes. Two names recurred over and over: Eleanor Milliken, the science teacher whose vision and fund-raising smarts gave our school its own planetarium, and her husband Frank, who taught Latin with a deadpan wit that endeared him even to the most reluctant students. In a flurry of messages, a plan was born: gather in Durham to celebrate their legacy. Much as I admired the Millikens, I figured I wouldn’t be missed. Then I one day I sat down at my computer to find a private message from a Durham Friend named Susannah: my name had come up as a possible emcee. She had struck me online as a younger version of myself. She wrote, “Even if you don’t speak at the party, I hope to meet you that weekend.”

To my surprise, it no longer mattered that in Durham I had always been picked last for teams or that not one boy ever asked me out. I’d been chosen to speak at our first all-class reunion, to people who had juggled their schedules to be there. I couldn’t wait.

If you do not drive and haven’t hitchhiked since Jim Morrison was singing “Light My Fire,” a trip to Durham presents a logistical conundrum. Two of us returnees had to ask, “Who will chauffeur me around when I get off the bus?” The other person is blind; I’m just phobic.

I needn’t have worried. What a welcome! My one high school confidante ferried me around all weekend, and we connected with such joyous intimacy, it seemed we had never been apart. An Oyster River grad I had never even heard of opened her home to me and I slept with the windows open to the night sounds of my childhood–peepers and swishing branches. (How had I forgotten the pleasures of a small-town summer?) My online pal Susannah and I took a rambling walk past the high school, talking all the way about the books we both loved and the turns our lives had taken since Durham. “Every August, I wished that someone like you would move to town and enroll in my class,” I told her. We agreed we would have been friends. So thank goodness we can be friends now. And what perfect timing that we’d met in August.

On the big night I stood at the microphone and looked out on the expectant throng of Durham Friends who had come to the party from across the country and down the road. I didn’t recognize many faces from my class, and in the room had been abuzz with so many avid conversations that you couldn’t follow any single one to its conclusion. I still had only the vaguest idea who had prospered and who had flamed out, but that was just as well–this party was about community, not comparisons. And I’d had time for a heart-to-heart with Eleanor Milliken, in whose class I had perfected the art of daydreaming. “You were always one of my favourite students!” she exclaimed to my astonishment. “But there wasn’t a car passing outside my classroom window that you didn’t see!” Ever since I arrived in Durham, I’d been nourished by people who mattered more to me than I knew, just by virtue of our common past.

The moment had come to return the favour. “I thought I was the queen of misfits, with a kingdom of one,” I said. (“Me, too,” murmured more than one person.) “I had to grow up before I understood that in high school almost every kid is wondering, ?Where do I belong? Where is my tribe?’ Tonight we are all where we belong, back where we took the first steps toward becoming our more-or-less-grownup selves.”

No one seemed to want the ceremony to end. After the tribute to our teachers, person after person stood up to share an impression or a memory. It was as if we were jointly creating a song.

When I was a girl in Durham, I lay awake on August nights, listening to the trees and itching to get started on my future. That night last August in a room just down the road from my childhood home, it was my previously unseen past that kept my brain alert with wonderment. While I can’t say if I was lucky to grow up in the town my parents chose for their family, I feel lucky beyond belief to have had the chance to revisit it with fresh eyes, in the company of others who were on the same mission. I have hiked the cliffs of Cornwall, toured fine wineries in Argentina and marvelled at the view from the Great Wall of China, but sometimes there’s no place more surprising than the one you think you’ve always known.

Published in More (Canadian edition) as “High-school confidential.”

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.