High School Reunions…Made for Other Folks

BannerEvery summer there are high school class reunions going on, or there are plans for one sooner or later. It’s clear many people like to attend them, enjoy catching up with friends from ten, twenty, thirty or more years back. It’s almost an American institution, perhaps a more grown up rite of passage. They meet before and after the official reunion dinner and dance. They gather for drinks, for lunches, for fun outdoor activities. I’m guessing about this–I don’t know the trends for current high school reunions–as, so far, I don’t intend on attending a future one in the Midwestern town where I grew up. I don’t have the energy, patience or perhaps steely nerves.

I did go to a reunion once, in 1988. That was my class’ twentieth reunion. My age, 38. I can bring to the fore a picture of my spouse and me standing in front of my parents’ house in the town of my childhood and youth. Marc wore a nice suit and looked darned good. I was tan, slim with muscular arms and legs. My hair was cropped very short and streaked with blond. My dress had a straight black skirt with bodice of blue and white floral design, a funky but trendy combination of feminine/sporty. I wore high heels which about ruined me by end of night.

The tan and body shape were partly a result of being active outdoors even then, without any taint of sunblock. I also wrangled five kids daily. But the main reason was that I engaged in serious weight lifting and circuit training four times a week or more. I had a thing about being fit, storing optimum energy for 24 hour use despite regularly feeling undermined by: migraines (newest aggravation then), a lifelong digestive disorder treated but often downplayed, PTSD and sporadically managed alcohol abuse. Oh and the fatigue that’s part of parenting five. (Sorry to have to put those two sentences together. I love my kids!)

But you couldn’t really tell all this by looking at me. That was the point. I suppose that is the point for all who attend these things–we want to put on our best faces. But first there was the challenge of even trying to place name with faces–and if the face changed much, the names become irrelevant. I mean, twenty years! Greetings were enthusiastic but brief.  Conversations seemed truncated, casual in a studied way, friendly without effecting significant interest. The main topics were career choice/trajectory, place of residence, marital and parenthood status. And a boat load of reminiscences. Recollections of the good ole neighborhoods; games won and lost together; foolish escapades survived; people longed for or dated, left or found (careful what you reveal–they might be sitting across from you); demon and angel teachers and trying classes; college experiences and degrees; travel to far flung places since then. And so on. That might seem a lot but it’s said in bursts of fast paragraphs with short sentences while others try to talk over you. I strained to acknowledge everyone courteously, with small successes.

I had little idea what to say in those rapid exchanges. I am verbal, for certain, but under either less or more personal circumstances. How to abbreviate my own history? I considered: well, I had married twice, was raising a bunch of children. I’d embarked on a career path that included developing/overseeing geriatric programs/services. I had studied painting/creative writing and sociology/linguistics. Not quite what folks expected since I had been raised and trained to be a classical musician. Or at least a singer. But I was not singing anymore nor did I play cello much. I had not even gone into theater. During my youth, I’d been in plays, even written a few, adored being in musicals. I still loved to dance, however, and when the DJ got things going Marc and I go out there and shimmied and shook. Rhythm is not a small thing to us, but a uniting force. I was relived to not have to make small talk so let it all loose out there. Afterwards, some people asked if I was an aerobics instructor, which I found strangely satisfactory yet also dismal.

Other than that, I have little memory of the whole thing. I felt too dazed to record it in my memory bank. It wasn’t that I drank a lot–I drank nothing at all since I’d been sober quite awhile. But I do know no one really spoke with my spouse; he was not from the area. He was rather an undefinable race (multiracial, now). Our small city was quite insular in certain ways, more upper class and educated than not, far more white than not, generally conservative as well as civil and friendly. People inquired after my parents, who were well known and liked, and my ambitious siblings. The food was decent, the music loud and appropriately nostalgic. Everyone was bright eyed. Still, all seemed a bit hazy, off-kilter even stone cold sober. I felt like a reluctant participant in a vaguely familiar cabaret.

Conversations ran out of steam sooner than expected. I had imagined we’d have lively interactions, that there would be some heft in our exchanges–we were grown-ups now, right?– and that it might be fun to rejoin friends of yesteryear. It turned out the ones I hoped most to see didn’t come. Maybe there were too busy or intimidated or bored with the idea. I wished I had their numbers.A famous classmate, the cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, arrived stealthily in a trim, beautifully tailored pink suit and left just as invisibly. We didn’t speak; I felt it crass to push through the tight circle around her. We’d shared drama and English classes, had once talked about creativity and adolescent angst. But it was okay with me–she was living a weirdly famous life doing something I’d never predicted. I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do with my own life besides navigate the wild endless seas of motherhood and wifedom.

The main point was this: I had no idea who these names and faces really were. I welcomed all exterior presentations, recognized most despite a few false starts. But gone was the easy (or lukewarm or uneasy) familiarity that had been engendered during our youth. That had been so important to us all. Like many of the others, I had left our city, more or less, around eighteen. I had lived all over the place. My closest friends had moved, as well, and they hadn’t gotten plane tickets. I had also married right before age twenty-one, unlike most other women I knew–they’d finished college and embarked on careers before making such a momentous decision. And I’d divorced, remarried. My life was complicated. Weren’t theirs, too?

Well, I’d never know. It turned out that people don’t speak of personal matters at class reunions. I guess this demonstrates reasonable personal and social boundaries but still, I got such little sense of how and why they had changed and what mattered most that it all may as well have been occurring in an unreal environ. For one thing, I noted they tended to huddle together with whoever they’d hung with during school. It was surprising that aging cheerleaders and athletes circled up, the intellectuals and creatives convened in another spot, the proud but less-well-heeled here, the ivy leaguers with understated elegance there and so on. I wished everyone would break it up, then circle up in a quiet place (sans alcohol) and just tell us who they really were and what the heck they enjoyed doing these days. And throw in a good story or two. Or heck, I thought, let’s just make a snake line and sing out, dance and shout–that would be more fun! Except for the drunks who had only started on their alcohol goals.

It became apparent there was no clear cut spot for me as Marc and I sat back and watched. I could feel him getting twitchy; he’s even more an introvert than I.

Perhaps that was true even twenty years earlier. I’d been an athletic girl but mostly into the arts and academically oriented;  middle class but with well-educated, outgoing parents and talented siblings. And I dated plenty in between studies and performances. But there were other things going on that no one knew of, or if so said nothing. Of course, most kids grow up with difficulties of one stripe or another. But who admitted it as we once strode down those long hallways, flirted, joked and tussled, strove to be cool or at least act unruffled? Back then I was pretty sure my issues were as apparent as a brash tattoo. The school was small enough that rumors; even real stuff circulated fast. I’d acted as if none of it was anyone’s business and worked harder to excel.

Twenty years past that time and it seemed we were all still on exhibit. I was chafing under a barrage of superficial anecdotes, forced laughter, a sour waft of alcohol on everyone’s breath as they awkwardly hugged or whispered in my ear. Trying to catch meaning of basic content over roar of music and tangled conversations was…trying. When people resorted to yelling, I retreated in defeat, my spouse holding my hand.

Marc and I kept smiling back, enjoyed a last couple of rousing and also tender dances–the best part of the night, perhaps–then left long before eleven o’clock. Maybe the more interesting stuff happened later. I was so glad to breathe fresh air and then drive away, even though there were good folks inside. I wondered how they really felt about the hullabaloo. Most probably had a blast worth sharing. Well, we each have our needs, our ways and means.

But I decided that would be my last reunion. If I wanted to better know old acquaintances or once-dear friends there had to be more effective ways. In time, there were. On its way to our homes and hands was the internet with attendant gadgetry–all the social media we could ask for and more. But do these modes of communication help us genuinely reconnect? I remain unconvinced.

So it may seem antithetical that I’m part of an online group that helps old school chums get in touch. Or at least check out current data, maybe a photo. I’ve shared thoughts with a few. Mostly I’m just as curious as the next person, so drop in to see who is where and doing what. It’s a very brief cyberspace greeting, less personal even than Facebook. I’m not sure why I keep my membership up as it hasn’t brought any real satisfaction, no more than that night in 1988 when we clinked glasses, tossed about a few words.

The real surprise: the number of people who have visited my profile. It’s a large number and it utterly baffles me. Why and how might so many think they remember me? And more so, the comments they leave at times are…well, they can move me a little. When someone noted that they always felt good when thinking of me, it was as if that person had offered a thing both generous and undeserved. I was so intent on slogging through life in the 1960s that survival mode took much of what I had; likely the rest went to music. Trying to undo damage of trauma with random drugs didn’t work too well. Seeking spiritual wholeness in ways and places that often led right back to a harried life was fraught with booby traps. I was adrift between grief and a fickle hope; the steadfast buoy was my small, heavily tested faith in God.

Honestly, I was apart from those youthful crowds. I strode on stage and performed, asked probing questions in class, enjoyed friends, dated good-lookers, brainy types. I so wanted to be kind. I wanted to be smart. And fun yet far deeper than that. But I was not optimistic, not certain of any future at all. I felt as if I walked alone despite the lovely and not so lovely people that came and went in my life.

The bigger story, of course, is that we each suffer, strive, fail and begin again if we are fortunate. It’s a gift to be able to go on; some of us, let us not forget, do not. Those who must, do change somehow–we’re human, we have an adaptability quotient– and sometimes a great deal. We may yet own personality characteristics displayed in school years. And we might have grown into a talent, garnered success predicted in hale and hearty yearbook messages. Or maybe we chose far different courses in life, became persons no one suspected would emerge. But we have certainly moved on, most of us, by now.

At reunions or in other transitory encounters, the real and true story will likely remain hidden from glimpses shared. But you never know what can happen when you reach toward the past or are reached.

Recently a friend I made at age 14 found me on Facebook. I know, a twist of fate since I have been critical of such things but time will tell. She meant a lot during the short period I knew her. She was funny, fascinated by everything, endearing in her kindnesses with a creative spark lighting her up. She hailed from the West coast; that alone made her exotic, so of interest. We hit it off, had great times for a year and a half. And then she moved away. I so missed her. I’ve often wondered: what happened to that firecracker gal? I even borrowed part of her name for a character when writing a novel.

So when she found me, it was a delight. Now maybe I’ll be able to fill in some blanks. Who she is yet becoming, what and who she cares about, what she adores about getting older and what she finds annoying. Or maybe we’ll have a warm moment and then…nothing. I’ll take the small risk. I suspect it will be worth it.

But another reunion of my graduating class? I’ve done that already. Give me the chance to sit across from a person, share a meandering conversation. Let’s take a hike and enjoy the mysteries of the wilds. Let me listen closely and embrace a kindred spirit or discover someone I didn’t ever expect. Life that means something tends to surprise.

I will offer and hope for an authentic, a true person. There has been great artificiality and terrible deceit in the world–was that what we thought would aggregate as we rallied for world peace and better education, for freedom of speech and greater equality? I may again protest, will work for common ground and share the love I believe keeps this world yet turning. I can also be a better friend today as my world overlaps yours at many a turn. But the resonant multi-layered truth is what I prefer even as it becomes complicated. It was always and still remains one of those sacred things. In this regard, I won’t likely change.


11 thoughts on “High School Reunions…Made for Other Folks

  1. Went to my 50th class reunion two weeks ago! With that in mind, I read your post and empathized. I graduated high school in 1966, Antioch High. A school for white urban/urban-rural kids just outside Nashville–before bussing. Like you, after graduation I moved away and didn’t go back. So at reunions–I’ve been to three of them in the past fifty years–I’m always amazed to see how so many of my classmates stayed put. Several couples live on the same street as they did when growing up. That’s not a criticism. I just wondered if they wished they had moved away…somewhere…for a while.

    There’s the woman who in ’76 was the talk of our first reunion. She was the class nerd who turned totally sexy, wore bikinis in California, had silky smooth skin. Now, she wears loose, baggy dresses, she has advanced osteoporosis. She told me she still lived in California and she was studying French at a university Continuing Ed program. We had a long conversation.

    And of course there’s the “death” table: pictures of classmates who have died. My sister in law, with whom I graduated, told me later when she first saw the pictures she became mad. “Where’s my picture?” She thought it was photos of us when we were young…there were so many. “They’re the dead ones.” Another classmate told her…bluntly. “Oh,” she backed away. “No. I don’t want to be there.” We laughed about it.

    Ah, how good to be alive. A bottle of water in our hands, instead of beer. Laughing, smiling, sharing. The “death table” reminds us to be grateful, to be glad you’re still here, and to be kind to each other.

    Thank you Cynthia for the wonderful post.

    1. Paul, a great response with some of your experiences shared–thank you for that. The death table anecdote was funny and sad…well, realistic! One day the rest of us will be there and then…no on left. Odd thought but, hey, the final breath comes to us all.How we change, and do not change–that fascinates me as we of all the creatures have such varieties. Yes, the lovely also get to age, as nature demands! I so agree–life-giving water within reach, moments to savor, opportunities for growth–we ARE fortunate! Peace returned.

  2. A wonderful take on such reunions. I’m not one for them, either, but my younger sister is about to have her 40th annual such event this year. The group had dwindled, but they still do it.

  3. Being on the other side of that….wow. Very moving. My high school classmates and I are still dreaming, still wondering what life is going to look like in five, ten, twenty years and swearing we’ll always be the best of friends. This was a lovely, if sobering, retrospective look at the season I’m in now. I loved it!

    1. Sarah, I’m pleased it had impact, perhaps spurring you to further consider your years and how you may want them spent–looking forward and backward can clarify… The part you wrote about “swearing we’ll always be the best of friends” hit me, though. I think that perhaps is what I should have written about–the ones I did not get to see and sorely missed. How they yet reside in my heart, not only memory. For generally they are beyond my reach, yet their lives have resonates through my personal history. Well, another post…!
      Thank you for your kind and thoughtful commentary.

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