Falling in love with the boy next door, 20 years later

Sharing a hometown or high-school experience helps make a connection


A glass of wine in one hand, an overflowing plate of barbecue in the other, I take a look around the dimly lit function room and fight a wave of anxiety. There, sharing a table, are two women from my adolescent soccer team whom I’d feared and idolized. A few feet away, a woman I’d geeked out with in high school drama club is laughing with a man I recognize from sophomore-year gym class. I sit down next to the woman who taught me how to drive stick shift while holding a cigarette, and take a deep breath.

Blasts from the past, all of them, and everyone now a grown-up. High school was a fairly angst-ridden experience for me, once a madrigal choir enthusiast and fanatic of all things turtlenecked, and I still get goose bumps when I spy someone who made fun of me in gym class. Or math class. Or the hallways. Hey, when you’re a teenager, Renaissance music and dumpy clothes make you an easy target.

Tonight, surrounded by former schoolmates, all I can do is remain calm and try not to spill anything on my wedding dress.

When I met my husband, Sam, in 2007, he looked awfully familiar. As it turned out, we both grew up in the same Boston suburb and had attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools, though I’d been a class ahead of him. We’d run in different circles and had never had a conversation, much less been friends. As adults, though, we clicked instantly, and when he proposed to me last year, I actually did a cartwheel.

I thought it was special, that two people who’d crossed paths as kids could serendipitously find each other a decade later and start dating, start a life together.

Was I way off.

Through Facebook and small town gossip, I’ve learned that Sam and I aren’t unique at all. By my count, there are more than 30 married couples from our town who graduated within a few years of us. Both spouses. More than 60 people who had unknowingly walked the hallways, high-fived at basketball games, and dissected fetal pigs with the person they’d eventually marry.

Some of these couples dated as teenagers, some connected in college. Others, like Sam and me, met as adults. Is this just a romantic coincidence or indicative of a relationship trend? For all our mobility and rootlessness, is a shared hometown a harbinger of couplehood, as it was for our ancestors? And is it a good thing if your formative experiences so closely mimic those of your spouse?

Yes, says Dr. Gian Gonzaga, the senior director of research and development at eHarmony Labs. Gonzaga, who holds a doctorate in social psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, has spent much of his career studying the emotional path to and effect of long-term relationships. He believes that when two individuals have a hometown or high school in common, it can provide a strong foundation for a relationship.

“[When you come from the same town as your partner] you have more information about who they are and how they grew up,’’ says Gonzaga. “You end up experiencing the person not just as who they are today, but also what led them to this point.’’

Ross Crowley and his wife, Miriam Speert, agree that the ability to measure your spouse’s post-adolescent social development can add emotional depth to a marriage. Crowley met his wife at our regional high school.

“We had just gotten our licenses when we met,’’ says Speert, who grew up in a neighboring town. “I remember driving around with him, half a lifetime ago.’’

The couple attended prom together and dated on and off through college, but didn’t begin taking their relationship seriously until they were both out of school. They were married in July 2010, and agree that sharing a background that stretches back over a decade brings unique depth to their relationship.

“I wouldn’t have necessarily sought out someone who I went to high school with, but the fact that Ross and I did means so much to me,’’ Speert says. “I love that Ross was a part of experiences that have shaped me. He knew my first dog, he knew my grandmother. He knew what I was like in high school - and those were awkward times.’’

Obviously, the ability to sift through the infinite online ether and connect with people from your past is responsible for the increase in retro romances. Facebook has serious yenta clout, offering endless suggestions for “people you may know.’’ Some of these suggestions - like the woman my ex-boyfriend dumped me for - can be awkward. But some, as Patience Bloom (née Smith) discovered, can be sheer magic.

“Two years ago, I’d pretty much reached a point where I was kind of fine with the idea of just being single and dying alone in my studio apartment 30, 40 years from now,’’ says Bloom, an editor at Harlequin Books. “Then, two years ago, out of nowhere, I got a friend request on Facebook from Sam Bloom.’’

Sam had been two years ahead of her at their Connecticut boarding school. He was popular, charming, and, so she thought, completely out of the league of a quiet and shy teenager. She hadn’t seen him since he graduated from high school more than 20 years prior.

Patience was stunned when she was contacted by her long-lost crush. It turns out that Sam Bloom not only remembered her, but had been intrigued by her. He even had a photograph of the two of them, taken the night of a school dance. Friendly messages begat more meaningful communication, which, in early 2011, culminated in marriage.

“People are shocked!’’ Patience laughs. “They’d never put us together. It is kind of a crazy coupling, and it’s strange because Sam and I didn’t spend a lot of time together in school. But, we do have a similar feeling about adolescence, and we both have a lot of warmth toward the school we went to. Sam kind of reminded me about how special that time was.’’

I can’t help but be in touch now with people from my teen years. Thanks to my husband’s enormous cache of step-siblings, I’m now related to some of them. Plus, Sam maintains strong ties with our hometown and many of the people he grew up with, so with his help I’m learning to loosen my kung-fu grip on residual teen angst.

I don’t think that Sam and I would have been attracted to each other in high school (repeat: madrigal choir), but who cares? What matters is that, despite our origins, our destination is now the same. Though we aren’t bonding over shared memories, we’re creating new ones.

Crowley and Speert, now married for over a year and together for 12, are doing both.

“When I took Miriam to senior prom I remember that as we were taking pictures beforehand my mom leaned over and said: ‘You know, you’re going to marry this girl.’ ’’ Crowley laughs. “I don’t know if she was prophetic, or she would have said that about any girl I went to prom with. But I’m glad she was right.’’

Sara Faith Alterman can be reached at sf.alterman@gmail.com.

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