Last Saturday Mike and I attended my 40th high school reunion. My inner child cannot comprehend that I graduated from Streator High four DECADES ago already, but the grownup that my kid runs around in truly looked forward to the chance to reconnect with old friends.
Interestingly enough, an op-ed piece on this very subject (no, not how old I am personally) appeared in the Chicago Tribune just last week. Clarence Page, a member of the Trib’s editorial page, wrote thoughtfully about why class reunions matter so much.
“I used to wonder why high school reunions seem to mean so much more to people than other reunions,” Page commented. “High school is where we begin to shape the adults we are about to become for the rest of our lives. It is a monstrous task confronted by complete amateurs. I would not face it again if you paid me in Powerball winnings.”
As Mike and I walked through my old high school, I wondered: would I do it again if I could go back plus the peace I have now and minus the baggage I carried back then? Some sage once wrote: “If youth only knew – if age only could.”
At the casual supper that followed the tour, the most common queries had nothing to do with location or vocation. Instead there were the furrowed brows of now-who-were-you –back-then—followed by the light of mutual recognition. As we sat around the table, one after another of my former classmates spoke up. “Whatever happened to…?” “Has anyone heard from…?”
“After 40 years,” wrote the Tribune columnist, “you’re happy merely to see who’s still alive and able to show up.”
For me, the highlight of the evening was the slide show our former class president put together of pages from our yearbook, the Hardscrabble. We gathered as a group of 57 and 58-year-olds, but when we watched the photos light up the screen we were 14, 16, 18 again. Names were shouted out of classmates long gone, but they lived again on Saturday night.
“We were such babies then,” my friend Peggy said. “We just didn’t know it.”
Now the Class of ’71 contains many grandparents – our babies have babies of their own. But in each older face I saw quite distinctly the young women and men we were then – teenagers trying to find our future place in the world. And as Mike and I left the hall I felt a bit bereaved. My classmates and I share collective memories no one else on the planet owns. Good, bad or ugly – they are our stories and they have shaped us into the adults we have become.
The late Chicago advice columnist Ann Landers once wrote, “At 20 we worry about what everyone thinks of us. At 40 we don’t care what they think of us. And at 60 we realize that they weren’t thinking of us at all.”
But today I am thinking of the people who stood grinning and begowned with me on that football field in June of 1971 – the ones who wrote in each others’ Hardscrabbles, “Never forget…” and “Always remember…”
I did and I haven’t, but one thing I know for sure: I am out of high school, but high school will never truly be out of me. Those experiences – the painful and the proud – are buried deep within, like a small ring in an old-growth tree, but who would I be without them? I am grateful.
For one weekend the Class of ’71 was reunited, and it felt so…good.