SAMOHI — Of the various sections of the Santa Monica High School yearbook, superlatives beg the most questions. How successful are those once deemed Most Likely To Succeed? Does Most Musical still play her clarinet? Is Mr. Best Hair bald? Is Worst Driver dead or in prison?
If you’re unfamiliar with superlatives, they are the yearbook distinctions doled out democratically by the senior class. Students vote on, for instance, the Most Talkative male and female in the class. The duo then poses for a thematic picture together; in the case of Most Talkative, they might have duct tape over their mouths. Superlatives started appearing in the Samohi yearbook, “The Nautilus,” intermittently in the late 1970s.
The most burning question: What happened to the Best Couples? The conflict is built-in. Of the reoccurring superlatives, they are the lone package deal. And while only the rare few rise to the godly heights of Best Eyes or Coolest Car, Best Couple is universal. We’ve all fallen in love for the first time; The Best Couple is lucky enough to have one of their most vulnerable and confusing relationships plastered into school history.
So what did happened to Samohi’s best couples?
The 1989 Santa Monica High School class was a prescient one.
Steve Macko stands behind Melissa Reed, his hands on her hands, her hands resting comfortably on the drawstrings of her pants. Behind them is an ivy wall. Melissa looks like she’s just finished laughing. Steve is smiling, looking the camera dead-on.
“Melissa used to hate Steve,” the caption reads, “because he always threw Skittles across the room at her. However, somehow throwing Skittles turned to throwing kisses.”
How one throws kisses is unclear. Melissa says they got some of the facts wrong. But there it is, forever captioned below the ivy wall and the Best Couple photo taken 25 years ago.
And throwing kisses turned into a marriage of 20 years, three kids, and a home near San Francisco.
They met in biology class their sophomore year. Back then Samohi started in 10th grade so it was their first year in high school. It’s true, Melissa said, she didn’t like Steve. She thought he was obnoxious. By November they were dating.
“We definitely spent a lot of time at the beach during the summer,” Melissa said. “But we weren’t spending a lot of time together, then, because we were busy with school and sports. We actually played a lot of wiffle-ball in my backyard. I don’t know how else to say it but we made each other laugh and we both liked to be active so it was easy to spend time together. It wasn’t just about being boyfriend and girlfriend.”
She broke up with him. They got back together. They got to know each other’s families. They liked a lot of the same things including, in their senior year, colleges.
“I will say it was not really planned,” Melissa said. “We applied to a lot of the same schools. We both really liked (UC Santa Barbara) and that’s where we went.”
They broke up again their sophomore year of college. This time it was Steve’s call. He wanted to remain friends but when Melissa made it clear that wasn’t an option they got back together.
Their senior year, they got engaged. In 1994, they were married. Six years later they had their first child.
Melissa recognizes that most people don’t meet their spouses in biology class but she said their relationship is pretty standard. Their challenges have been like those of any couple: traveling too much for work, buying their first house, becoming parents.
If they hadn’t gone to the same college, they both acknowledge, it might not have ended the same way. When they got engaged at 21, Melissa wondered briefly if they were too young.
“I wasn’t worried that I wasn’t marrying the right person,” she said. “I think it was more just, have I completed my own puzzle?”
Today, Melissa Macko doesn’t think twice about her decision to get married when she did. The advantages, she said, are unique.
“I like to know a lot about people. And not that you can’t know someone really well if you meet them at 25, but there’s 25 years of their life that you’re not there for,” she said. “And maybe for some people that’s a great mystery and they get to hear the stories over the years unfold. But each person can keep some things private that they don’t want the other one person ever to know. Even though I didn’t meet him until I was 15, I still knew every one of Steve’s friends that he’d grown up with. I felt like I knew him inside and out.”
When people find out they we’re high school sweethearts, Melissa said, they say: “Oh my god, I can’t believe you’ve been together that long. I would never have married the person I was dating when I was 15.“
“If I was dating someone who was a jerk,” she responds, “I wouldn’t have either.”
Perhaps the most unique appendage from their sophomore year is the way they hold hands: Melissa places her pinkie between Steve’s pointer and middle fingers, her ring finger between his pointer and thumb.
“We’ve done that since high school,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe everybody holds hands that way?”
Lori and John met in their junior year. He was in the band. She was in the orchestra. He played the trumpet. She was a cellist. They shared the same music room.
They were platonic at first, best friends, said Lori Koutouratsas. In the 1984 yearbook, Lori is wearing black and John is wearing white. They are hugging, faces turned toward the camera. They look like one thing.
Behind them, a pine tree with a thick base splits into a “Y,” two distinct segments growing apart. It’s an uncanny analogy.
Thirty years ago, according to Daily Press research, they were the first Best Couple in Samohi history.
Their story starts similarly to the Macko’s: they both go to college in the L.A.-area. They stay together. They get married and have three kids. They attend their 10-year high school reunion together.
But by their 20-year reunion Lori goes with her friends. John shows up with his cousin.
“I went a little late, or later than he did, and people came up to me and said, ‘John’s here,’ Lori said.
“Yeah, I know,” she responded.
“But you’re divorced,” they said.
“But we share three kids,” she said. “It’s OK. We can get along. We’re grown-ups.”
John had left the marriage when the kids were young, Lori said. They stay in touch and he’s stayed in the lives of the kids.
Looking back, she said, she could see that in high school she struggled with codependency. Today, she is eloquent and open about her past, as if describing a different person.
“I also had endured several significant traumas before meeting John and, unbeknownst to me, I can see it now, I was pulling away from my friends and even my family because I was isolating myself,” she said. “That was my response to the trauma. John in essence was fresh and new. It was what I needed but looking back on it now it was very superficial. There wasn’t emotional depth to the relationship. That felt very comfortable to me. It was safe. It was not deep. I didn’t have to reflect. I didn’t have to address anything.”
It’s hard for Lori to imagine a life in which she didn’t marry John. For one thing, she’s overwhelmingly grateful for the kids they had together. She’s worked through her past in therapy and today she feels like she’s flourishing.
“I am who I am today because I went through that,” she said. “I’m hoping that I would have been aware enough somewhere along my journey of life to have done the work that I needed to do to heal the childhood stuff. It didn’t happen during my relationship with him but it did when it ended.“
Even Lori’s youngest child – her daughters are graduating 10th and 12th grade at Samohi, her son is 20 – is almost at the age that she was when she met John.
They talk openly about young love, Lori said, and her kids have even coined a phrase – a word of warning – based on her relationship.
“When somebody’s dating, whether it be one of my own kids or one of their close friends, they say, ‘Oh well don’t do the John and Lori,’” she said. “So they make it ‘the John and Lori,’ which is marry your high school sweetheart and end up in divorce.”
It’s not hurtful, Lori said, and she’s proud that her kids are “far more wise,” than she was at that age.
Lori looks back on the Best Couple designation with amusement. It was significant at the time, she said, because she was 17 years old and a different person.
It was fun, she said, like reading a horoscope: “It’s entertaining but I don’t live by it.”
“It’s not like when the marriage was ending I’m thinking, ‘Oh no! But we were the Best Couple,” she said, laughing.
John wasn’t at the 30th reunion last year but Lori was, this time seeing what seemed to be a room full of new people.
“What I’ve tried to teach my own children, is that you’re so young in high school,” she said. “It’s like they have Best Hair, or whatever. Well great. It’s a great thing to have Best Hair. But the surprising thing for me in the reunion is like how the hair changes and the guys lose their hair and they put on weight and you can’t recognize them so you’re like, well shoot. Who are you now?”