Returning to high school — this time as a lesbian

BY KATE WALTER | I walked upstairs into the main banquet room and saw a bunch of old people. Am in the right place? I wondered, as someone shouted “Kate” and ran over to hug me. I was at my 50th high school reunion in New Jersey. When I graduated in 1966 from St. Joseph’s, a small co-ed Catholic school in Paterson, I was 17, and straight. My alma mater closed decades ago, but the reunion committee tracked us down.

Would I be the only openly gay person there? After I came out, I’d bolted from my home state to Greenwich Village.

When I’d left my Manhattan apartment that morning, I felt good about my outfit, my haircut. I’d even put on mascara. Then I got on the crowded A train to the Port Authority.

“Would you like a seat?” asked a polite young woman with a nose stud.

“No I’m fine, thanks,” I said, wanting to tell her I’d been practicing yoga for two decades and walk a mile to my full-time job as a college professor.

When I got to the bus terminal, I stood on line behind a cute young lesbian couple who were kissing and touching. I’d been single for the past decade, ever since my long-term female partner dumped me after 26 years together, leaving me broke and brokenhearted. I hoped I wouldn’t be the only single person at this event.

Kate Walter as a senior in her 1966 high school yearbook photo.
Kate Walter as a senior in her 1966 high school yearbook photo.

We’d had a reunion many years ago, but this time we were now senior citizens. I bet that’s why the party was in the afternoon. Maybe people had stopped driving at night. The restaurant was in Wayne, the suburb of Paterson, where many residents moved to after the riots in the ’60s. We grew up as the city exploded.

I was guided to a table with name tags with our yearbook photos. Like all the girls in my class, my hair was teased really high and sprayed in place. We wore white V-neck blouses and a cross pendant. The guys wore jackets and ties. Thank God for the name tags. Some classmates were hard to recognize with wrinkles, weight gain, hair loss. Others had aged well. Everyone said they knew me right away.

“Same face,” a woman told me.

We greeted each other with hugs and kisses in an Italian restaurant called Amore. I felt sad when I viewed the poster honoring seven deceased classmates, including Clare, who pierced my ears at the Jersey Shore. Everyone was fascinated by old home-movie footage playing on an iPad — a wicked game of girls’ volleyball in our crummy gym space, a pep rally with cheerleaders doing cartwheels and splits.

Our team was the “Fighting Irish,” although the school was a mix of Catholic ethnic groups: Irish, Italian, Polish, a  few Hispanics. I looked at memorabilia — the program for the talent show, and recalled a big fight I had with my conservative father that night because he hated my bohemian folk singer outfit.

I was well-liked but not on the A-list of girls, who were all cheerleaders. My status changed in senior year when I started writing editorials for the school newspaper. Reading old issues, it was obvious my thinking skills needed work, but my voice and style were clearly emerging. I was a teenage columnist, and my classmates started paying attention to my opinions. I decided to become a journalist.

At the senior year talent show, I harmonized with a folk group and appeared solo playing my beat-up guitar and singing two original protest songs. I was a hit! By graduation time, I was known as “our own Joan Baez.” I’d gone from a polite, smart Catholic girl to outspoken political writer, earning status without being a cheerleader.

It was upsetting to learn our one black classmate, a star basketball player, didn’t want to come because he felt high school was not a good time for him. That shocked the guys who recalled good times shooting pool and playing basketball together. I could identify with his feeling like an outsider. I always felt different but I easily passed as straight. Clueless as a teenager, lacking queer role models, I didn’t come out until I was 25. Yet I was not the only gay classmate. I heard one missing grad was traveling with his husband.

I wound up sitting at a table with six women (and two of their spouses) who I’d gone to school with from kindergarten to high school graduation! We reminisced about the nuns and lay teachers — kindly nuns, mean nuns, old nuns who should have retired.

“Remember Sister Rita? She read the obits aloud every day in class.”

“And pointed out where this dead person used to sit,” I added.

“And told us where to find her pills if she had a heart attack,” said Linda.

I was thrilled to see Sister Barbara, my old Spanish teacher at the reunion. Still a nun, now in her 80s and stooped over, she was a great teacher. I took three years of Spanish.

After the buffet dinner, we table-hopped. I tried to say hello to everyone. When we had to vacate the room, we spilled outside and had drinks on the patio. No one wanted to leave.

My old boyfriend, Bill, now a travel writer, was as funny as ever. He looked good. Fit from mountain biking, he sported a gray goatee. We recalled the first time we smoked grass in a VW van at a graduation party, noting the weed back then was not potent. A good friend (who dated him before me) said, “I love you, Kate. If I were not straight and married.”

I was pleasantly surprised when Linda, an old friend, walked up with a  copy of my recent memoir for me to sign.

“That was an amazing journey,” said another classmate about my story of recovery from my bad breakup. As a small group gathered, I was touched to realize several of them had read my book. Under my yearbook photo, it had said: “Has a flair for writing.”

Some classmates had been married more than 40 years to the same person; others were on their third marriage or were divorced and single (like me). Most had kids, grandkids and many lived in suburban New Jersey. I felt no qualms about being a single, child-free gay woman who lived in a loft in Manhattan. Our shared roots connected us. Someone even started a team cheer: “We are the Irish! The mighty Fighting Irish!”

I was queer, but I felt a bond with these men and women, who got me then and now. Straight or gay. I was still me, except this time I was totally present.

Walter is the author of “Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing” (Heliotrope Books, 2015)