09/17/2013 04:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Reunions, Privilege, and Growing Up on the Wrong Side of the River

My high school class recently had a reunion. Good old Grandville High. I’d looked forward to attending, but couldn’t because of a death in the family.

Missing it disappointed me, so I followed the goings-on through a group page on Facebook. I looked at the pictures of people I hadn’t seen in years, listened to them talk about what a great time they had together. It looked like fun.

Turns out there was another guy from my class who didn’t go either. He wrote on the Facebook page about why he chose to stay away, and it got me thinking about the hurts we carry around with us and where they come from.

He said he didn’t come to the reunion because he didn’t feel particularly close to most of us. He’d lived on the north side of the river growing up. Apparently, among the kids who’d lived north of the river, there’d always existed a feeling that they didn’t belong.

In short, he said that the kids who lived north of the river felt like the poor relatives nobody wants to see show up for Thanksgiving dinner. A few of the people who’d also grown up on the north side chimed in, “Yeah. What he said.”

One woman, who finally decided to come back and make peace with the community she’d left behind years ago, said that she was pretty certain that none of the people gathered remembered that she had pretty much disappeared after our ninth grade year. Another commented that she was amazed at how many people didn’t realize that her parents had moved our senior year, and that she lived with another family all year.

What I found especially interesting, though, were the number of people who wrote to say that they had no idea such a division existed. They liked high school. They liked their classmates. And 30 years removed, they couldn’t for the life of them believe they had unwittingly treated their friends from the north side that way.

No, I mean they were sincerely shocked to learn about a division they hadn’t known existed.

I know, because I was a bit taken aback by the notion that such division existed. I didn’t know. Or, if I did know, I certainly couldn’t have so eloquently described the pain it caused as my north side friend did on the Facebook page.

If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said that our suburban high school experience was, if not perfect, then pretty close to it. I knew there were problems, but I would have said that we lived in a quiet and supportive community -- one that didn’t divide kids into classes based on their parents’ incomes or the vagaries of geographical location.

Apparently, though, my experience doesn’t adequately account for everyone else’s experience. It sounds foolish of me to say, but I guess I thought it did. Nothing quite like high school to remind you about your amazing capacity for being clueless.

I know people often decry high school as a nightmare of conformity, bullying, and just general awkwardness. But that wasn’t my story. Oh sure, I had my own problems with high school culture, but nothing that made me hate it. And though as an adult I know in my head this isn’t the case, I guess I blithely assumed everyone in my high school had a similar experience.

It occurs to me that we often take our personal experiences as the baseline for “normal.” We assume, in other words, that just because we happen not to be hurting at any given moment that everyone else is also doing fine.

But what if everybody else isn’t doing fine? What if my satisfying life is the outlier?

Newsflash: Being male, middle class, and white confers a set of benefits that too often remain transparent to folks like me because our privilege places us at the center of American cultural life. We have the luxury of thinking that normal ought to be pegged to our experience of the world, because … why wouldn’t it be?

Although we’d be reluctant to say it out loud, people of privilege tend to believe that we are what the rest of the world would want to be if they knew what was good for them.

That’s a painful sentence for me to look at. But I’m not writing this in an attempt to reposition myself as a person of privilege who’s now at least self-aware in the way that all good liberals like to assume they are.

I’m writing this because those of us who are privileged and who claim to take Jesus seriously need to say it publicly in ways that hold us accountable for how we pursue a world where it’s not just the people born on the right side of the river who get to define what normal looks like.