Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian were more charming than us. Gulfport was more commercial. Biloxi did more tourist trade. We were a small, kind of nondescript coastal town that you might not notice if you didn't know we were there.
This is my town.
Long Beach was the first place that felt like home to me. I lived in Virginia first, but I was just a child there. I didn't drive there. I didn't know my way around.
When I drive into town, I hit the beach road and roll the windows down. A warmth spreads through my chest and I can almost feel the roots sprout from my feet and reach deep into the sandy soil. Home.
We moved to Long Beach when I was 11. My parents chose it specifically because of the school system. Long Beach had four elementary schools (counting St. Thomas), one junior high (6-9 grade) and one high school (10-12). My graduating class was a little under 250, which sounds a lot bigger than it felt. We went to school together for six years. I knew each of them - at least by name - by the time we finished.
Every time I visit home, I consider driving past my old houses. But I never do. Too many bad times. My parents divorced here. My mother had a breakdown. My brother and sister left home. I'd rather sit with my good memories.
My first best friend Kim, who got on the school bus several stops before me and saved me a seat.
Daisey and Shelley, who lifted me up during the difficult times that - let's face it - every teen faces.
My choir buddies (Beth, Debbie, Nicki, Michelle, Theresa, Sara, Richie, Bill, Chris, Steve, Suzanne, Jerry, Renee, Tim...I can't even name them all) who I worked and sang and laughed with for more hours each day than a school schedule probably should allow.
Mark, who Mrs. Edwards always paired me with and made us look eye-to-eye when we sang in Madrigals.
Steve, who sat in front of me in Senior Government and would lie to Mr. Tracy about my homework score when I hadn't completed it.
Rodney, Scott, Steve, Michelle, Kim and others that seemed to travel as a pack with me through each year of high school Advanced English back in the pre-AP days.
Jeff and the Phi Kappa guys who let me come to their keg parties on the beach even though I wasn't one of their popular Phi Kappa girls.
I literally spent more hours with these people every day than I did my own family. There is no doubt that they helped shape me into the person that I would become.
High school is hard. I don't care if you're a jock, a prom queen, a nerd, a band geek, a punk, a redneck. If the 80s taught us nothing else, The Breakfast Club taught us that. We're hard on ourselves because we don't yet know who we are, and yet this is the time that we're meant to be discovering that. We were merely seeds then, yet to sprout, far from being in full bloom. We take from our classmates the characteristics and traits we want to emulate, and we leave those that don't suit us.
We graduate. And we move on. In the days before cell phones and facebook, we lose contact with all but the best of our friends. Which is why class reunions were invented, I assume. If you're lucky, you'll be asked to work on the planning committee. You'll feel the excitement build as the weekend nears. You hope people will come. You hope they'll enjoy what you planned.
My class hasn't been great about getting together. We graduated in 1984 and have only had two reunions - 10 and 20. It was past time to reconvene. Friday night we went to the Bearcats football game, followed by a bonfire on the beach. The game was kind of a bust - it was cold and rained right up until kick-off and the Bearcats were down 41-0 at the half.
But then people started showing up for the bonfire. There were whispers as we tried to guess who people were, and hugs as we recognized them. Stories were shared and retold. There was laughter. So much laughter. I laughed til I cried many times. I worried the rest of the weekend wouldn't be able to live up to the first night.
But the skies cleared as the Family Picnic began on the Town Green Saturday morning. The weather was glorious. People who might have skipped the bonfire because of the weather came out. Some people brought their parents. It felt like more than the word "reunion" can encompass. It felt like reconnecting with a part of yourself you didn't know you'd lost.
After the picnic, I was convinced the Saturday night event would be a bust. It had to be downhill from here. It had just been too good to be true thus far.
But like that Field of Dreams dude, we built it...and they came. As the picnic turnout built on the bonfire, the Saturday night event built on our picnic turnout. I feared each event would bring less people, and the opposite was true.
I saw my first friend Kim and my choir friend Tim - people I hadn't seen since graduation. I might have squealed in delight a few times. Some people might have picked me up and twirled me around with their hugs. We all felt more joy than we quite knew what to do with.
In the end, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Running events is hard, yo. I met my Apple Watch move goal every day without once going to the gym. And I was prepared for that. I wasn't prepared for my emotions to be so tweaked by it all.
"We have such a great group of friends!" Mark commented on one of the facebook pictures. Indeed we do. Like, TV show-worthy group of friends. Smart, funny, successful, kind-hearted friends.
My town. My people. My friends.