High school reunions exist to keep you humble. Even though you are perfectly content with your life and accomplishments, you can’t help but compare your life’s trajectory to your erstwhile classmates.
At early reunions — five years, for instance — you learn that you may have had really bad taste in choosing friends, but in general you can have a lot of fun. After all, except for those few who are Rhodes Scholars, you are all pretty much in the same boat — wondering what to do with the rest of your life.
You prepare yourself for subsequent reunions by going over your mental checklist. Married? Check. Job? Check. Kids? Check. You and your spouse and kids have avoided a prison sentence? Check.
Then you go to the reunion, and find that you needn’t have worried whether your credentials stack up. Your old classmates aren’t really interested in what you’ve done. They just want to tell you what they’ve been doing. If you’re a good listener, you’re a success, and will be remembered as being “really nice.”
I recently returned from two reunions — for my own high school, and the high school of my college roommate (long story for another time).
My reunion was held in Framingham, Massachusetts, where our old high school is now an office building. No one in my family lives there anymore, and I couldn’t even get my sister to come with me to visit our old haunts.
I felt very much a stranger in my own home town, measuring my childhood memories against the new reality. As I drove the streets past my old house, my grade school, the library, my church, the ball field, the playground, I felt as though I were seeing it all on a movie screen. Inside my car, with the windows up, I was far removed from any real life.
Almost all the other people I saw were encased in their own vehicles, and there are way too many vehicles in Massachusetts. There were no kids playing in backyards. No one on the baseball diamond. No one on the soccer fields. No dog walkers. Not even any street workers, because it was a weekend. It was like visiting a ghost town, peopled with ghosts from my own memories.
The Friday night “meet-and-greet” was held at Ken’s Steak House, an institution even in my days there, owned by the family of a classmate. But that classmate didn’t show up. We were given name tags with our names in type too small to read from a distance. About twenty years ago, I might have thought guys were staring at my chest, but now I knew that their bifocals just weren’t strong enough.
After living away from Framingham for over 40 years, my list of “must-see” classmates has been whittled down to a relatively small group. Our catch-up conversations were wonderful, but only underlined our geographical, chronological, and experiential separations. Still, we had a shared history to refer to for comfortable connections. One of our common experiences was an English teacher, Gerard Hottleman, a genius who taught us all to write well and opened our eyes to the world in a way that our parents — busy, harried, burdened with parental duties and expectations — couldn’t. Many of us still credit him with our career successes.
The next night, a banquet held at a country club was well-attended. I was pleased to see how good everyone looked. The program at the banquet featured as MC a classmate who was a popular football player, who now apparently does some public speaking. It was a lot like listening to a motivational speaker using sports metaphors, except his metaphors were other old guys sitting in the room (and those deceased) — and a few gracefully aging cheerleaders. Our class president, when given the opportunity to say a few words, did mention the teachers who gave us such a good education, but for that crowd, they weren’t as memorable as the state trophy in hockey. A friend sitting next to me was extremely put off by the sports motif, but as another friend said, it was only an hour out of our lives. As opposed to the four years out of our lives that sports trumped academics in high school.
Our class was about 400 strong, and there may have been as many as 150 people at the reunion. I didn’t remember a great many of them, and they didn’t remember me. I was surprised to have several classmates approach me with yearbooks in hand, wanting me to sign it if I hadn’t done so back at graduation.
“But you don’t know me,” I said to a few. They professed not to care and handed me the book and a pen. I wrote, “I’ll never forget you!”