When I was in my last year of high school, my divorced mother couldn't afford to pay for frivolities like senior pictures or a class ring. All the money I earned at my after-school job went to Mom to help pay for the mortgage, groceries and stuff for the younger kids.
Naturally I was too proud to tell anyone about our unhappy financial situation, so instead I avoided all the senior class stuff as much as possible. The indignity of being photographed at school was always an ordeal for me -- even back then I was painfully unphotogenic -- so I was also quite delighted to skip going to the photography studio that handled senior pics that year. If I remember correctly the only traditional event I attended was my senior Prom, and only because my boyfriend at the time bought the tickets and the dress and made me go.
I don't miss high school or any of the class souvenirs I couldn't afford, but as I've grown older I have wondered how they handled the yearbook listing for me (when it came out that year I didn't look through any of my friends' copies; again the pride thing.) I convinced myself that the yearbook staff had probably done something really lame, like put up an empty gray space above my name, or list me as "No photo" at the very end of the senior class pics.
Over the years I've kept in touch with a few people from school, and truth is I could have found out how I was listed, but that silly pride thing wouldn't let me. Of course by then I was so sure that whatever they did had been so wretched and embarrassing that it wouldn't help me to know. As time rolled on that feeling just ballooned until I couldn't think about it without feeling sick.
An old school friend I hadn't heard from since we graduated got in touch recently, and on impulse I asked if he still had his yearbook. He didn't, but he sent me a link to a copy of it that someone had scanned and put online on one of those alumni sites. One click and I'd know. Finally I could see what they'd done to me.
Of course I went and looked; I was tired of my huge hot air balloon of hopelessness. The guys who at seventeen I'd thought were cute looked a bit goofy now. I didn't remember that half the girls in my class had Farrah Fawcett Fail hair, and the other half Dorothy Hamil Wacky Wedges. And all that lip gloss we used to wear, oy -- even in black-and-white, it's blinding.
Everyone from senior class was there, though. Except one person: me. No gray square, no photo from a previous year, no missing-in-action name listing. There's exactly zero for me.
They skipped me.
I have the diploma, of course, and a single blurry photo of me being handed it the day I graduated, but otherwise it's like I never existed. Which is the most perfect thing of all. All those horrible indignities I've imagined never happened. I'm safe, and I've been safe all this time. Which made me laugh at myself. A lot.
Writers are hard-wired to imagine anything and everything, which is probably why we are so often victims of our own creativity. We fill in the gaps of what we know with what we convince ourselves must occupy that space: That manuscript was rejected because [my writing stinks]; the editor didn't return my e-mail because [my idea stank]; my entry to the contest didn't win because [I stunk]. The frustrating thing is that we often never know what actually fills in those blanks. The sad thing is when we start to believe what we imagine, and begin blowing up those balloons with a lot of nothing.
So the moral of the story is: Don't imagine, find out. If you can't find out, let it go. Like any balloon, if you really turn it loose eventually it'll float away or pop.