It is a time-tested American tradition that upon completion of high school at age 17 or 18, we are released from the shelter of school and into the world as adults. Some of us go to college, some start work, others travel, but this is the time when many of us, who have been together since childhood, go our separate ways.

Graduation doesn’t mean goodbye forever. This rite of passage is celebrated again and again through the tradition of the high school reunion. Important in our culture, the reunion is often the subject of films like “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” and “American Reunion.” These films feature themes of coming back new and improved, being successful, more physically attractive, and reconnecting with lost loves.

For many of us, the teenage years were challenging and full of awkward moments, learning who we are, trying to fit in, and experiencing heartbreak. The high school reunion not only offers an opportunity to reconnect, but also to check in and see just how far we’ve come.

Compelled to Attend

I admit -- I skipped my 10th reunion. It still felt all too recent, too fresh, and at age 28, I had no clue of who I was. What was I going to have in common with these successful married folks and their children? Not much, I believed, so I passed.

Fast-forward to ten years later. I’m 38 years old, married, have two children, have a successful career, have traveled, and was ready to reconnect. Funny enough, I didn’t feel I had anything to prove this time.

Instead, I realized just how quickly 20 years had passed in the blink of an eye, and it was worth visiting my hometown and seeing faces that I hadn’t seen since 1997.

Revisiting My Teenage Years

I traveled alone, without my children or husband (who was deployed), and was home in just two short flights. My mom greeted me at the airport in her minivan, and thus began my transformation back into a teenager.

Over the course of one weekend, I managed to borrow my parents’ car, eat their food, come home late, sleep in and laze around the couch while on the phone with friends. My bed was unmade and my bathroom counter was covered in makeup and beauty products. Had I temporarily entered a time machine? My mom would say so.

Friday Night

The reunion consisted of a Friday night social at a pool hall, a Saturday campus tour and picnic, and a Saturday night party at a bar.

Friday night, my best friend from high school picked me up and we met my friend/ex-boyfriend from 5th grade for dinner. We enjoyed a delicious meal of Vietnamese Phở and excitedly speculated who would attend.

The three of us arrived at the pool hall and bar for the casual get-together and walked in like rockstars. Suddenly the excitement of “Hello!” and “Oh my gosh, it’s been so long!” began and played on repeat. Because I had lived in the same town for 23 years, not only was I reunited with friends from high school, but also those from middle and elementary school. It was incredible sharing old jokes, memories and stories, and hearing that I hadn’t changed. Smiles, hugs and photos abounded.

As the beer flowed and the ‘90s music played, we loosened up and hit the dance floor. I felt like I was 18 all over again, and later learned that a classmate dubbed me “the unofficial prom queen.” It’s true -- I felt like the belle of the ball. Sure I had one too many shots, but made it home soundly, thanks to my friend/ex-boyfriend from 7th grade, who safely drove me to my parents’ house.

Saturday Morning Tour and Picnic

The following day featured a family friendly event, beginning with a tour of our high school campus. I hadn’t been there in 20 years, as there had been no reason to. The halls smelled the same, and as we clamored through, memories and flashbacks abounded from when that institution played a key role in our formative years.

Afterward, we had a picnic complete with delicious BBQ from a classmate’s catering business. As we braved the Florida heat, we met children, saw friends as parents, yet still acted like kids by bringing up stories of shenanigans from our younger days.

“Has it really been 20 years?” we’d ask again and again.

Saturday Night Party

The final event culminated at an indoor/outdoor bar complete with food, beverages, music and a photo booth. Because my 7th grade friend/ex-boyfriend had been such a gentleman to drive me home the night before, we rode to the party together. I smiled as his truck’s speakers loudly bumped the bass of ‘90s music, and we arrived in style. (It should be mentioned that we required a stop at a gas station for energy drinks first...we weren’t teens anymore, clearly.)

As more smiling faces arrived, I recognized those from multiple high school cliques -- the jocks, the preps, the academics, the band kids, the freaks, etc. But now, we weren’t so separate after all. Instead, we made an effort to talk, to connect, and it was a beautiful thing. I had my people with whom I am still close, but also became friends with those I only “sort of” knew, and met people with whom I never remembered crossing paths -- aka football players. Collectively, we found common ground, friendship and a good night was had by all.

Journey Into the Past

All weekend felt surreal, as though no time had elapsed. Truth be told, two decades passed in an instant. We are adults now. Some of us are doctors, lawyers, are married, divorced, or are now parents. All weekend I found it easy to channel my playful spirit and act like a teenager again. I felt energized, alive, vivacious and as though I was in touch with a part of me I hadn’t seen in awhile.

For those considering reconnecting with their former classmates at an upcoming reunion, I highly recommend it. Why? Because I had more friends when I left than when I arrived.

This is dedicated to the Tallahassee, FL Lincoln High School Class of 1997. Go Trojans!