Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Don't Go To Your 50th High School Reunion!

I recently attended my 50th high school reunion -- an "interesting" experience. 

This was my first reunion with my classmates over the years.  I've received notices for the interim gatherings but it never seemed worth the expense and time to attend any of them.  However, the 50th seemed significant somehow -- a milestone worth acknowledging.  It also seemed to fit in with my more reflective and nostalgic tendencies associated with retirement.

One thing I learned right away is that the internet has made reunions much easier to promote and to manage.  Websites like ClassReport.org, Classmates.com,  MyEvent.com allow organizers to display information about the event and to provide biographical and contact information about alumni.  (I'm sure that Facebook will soon find a way to supplant these independent venues and make it even easier to do this. For the potential downside, see my cautionary blog about Facebook.) Very slick.

I graduated from South High in Denver.  We were the South High Rebels, a designation clearly linked to the Confederacy and the Civil War. On the reunion website was our logo, the profile of a confederate soldier.  We were obviously less culturally sensitive in those days (imagine being one of the few Black students at our school during a rally to cheer on our Johnny Reb football team).  Just for kicks I went to the current website for South High and found that the "Rebels" term is still used, though the soldier has been replaced by a more neutral block letter "S."  The current website also extolls the school's diversity (not a defining characteristic while I was there) and its goal of developing in students "...a sense of civic responsibility to contribute to their global community."  Sounds great.  I just hope they don't still wave little confederate flags at the rallies like we did.

Since I really didn't keep in touch with very many of my classmates after graduating, I was curious to read the biographical information posted on the website.  I learned three things from this.  First, I couldn't remember most of the people in my class (this might be due in part to the sheer numbers involved -- there were 700 in my graduating class).  Second, of the ones I could remember a disturbingly large proportion of them were dead.  Third, the people I recalled most fondly were often those with whom I had also attended junior high, where we were "tracked" -- the same group of kids went from class to class for three years and we got to know each other very well.

At the event itself we were given id tags with our yearbook photo and name.  This was very helpful, because most people didn't look much like they did in high school.  Even when I could place either the face or the name, I was often at a loss to remember the context in which I knew the person.  It was an exhausting cognitive effort to bridge a gap of 50+ years when there was no connective thread between then and now, nothing in the middle.  By the end of it I came to the painful realization that as emotionally charged as those days may have been at the time, they have little relevance for my life today.  Revisiting memories of those times was actually a little depressing, because it didn't reveal any significant truths about who I am today (as I thought it might) and instead presented a puzzling and disjointed picture of someone I hardly recognized.

I realize that for many people high school memories are very positive and that reunions are a joyful and heartwarming way of maintaining meaningful relationships.  My high school experience was not so great.  It was a period in my life of great uncertainty, social isolation, and near-calamitous life choices. Somehow I pulled out of it in time, and I now think high school was something I survived, not something I enjoyed.  The reunion did what I guess it should have -- it reminded me that now is the most important time of my life, not the past.



22 comments:

PaddleDoc said...

Nostalgia is an interesting concept. My daughter says I have none, but that's an outside opinion brought on by lack of attachment to most old things. I have attended some reunions over the years, maybe 3. The 45th was the most recent and it was fun as an event and only stirred up a few negative memories. Probably the main difference is class size. We were 36 I think, so I knew everyone whether I wanted to or not. While I haven't stayed in touch with any of them it was interesting to see what became of them. I learned I liked most my life choices and wondered why some of my classmates made some of the choices they did. The people I liked then are still the ones I found interesting, though I saw more redeeming qualities in some of those I ignored in high school. I recently spent time with an old friend who told me of his many years of alcoholism (I didn't have contact in that period) and his is the most complete story I have of what it means to be mired in misery and then to reclaim a real life. To say it was sobering is not just a pun. I'll probably go to the 50th which will probably be the 51st as Carole's class and mine do this together. Thanks for the blog!

Sandi Woy-Hazleton said...

I have had a very different experience with my high school reunion(s). I went to a very different kind of high school, however. Ben Eielson High School was on an Air Force Base at Mile 26 on the Richardson Highway, south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Students were military dependents and the children of anyone who lived in the district. We had a graduating class of 52 and we knew each other pretty well, but one characteristic of transient lives is the ability (or necessity) to make friends quickly. We were stuck with each other, there were no other people our age anywhere near, we were literally an enclosed community. There were some cliques, but everyone went to the basketball games and the wrestling matches (only indoor sports in Alaska…). Our experiences were shared, whether you wanted that or not. We all had the same teachers, lived in the same houses, and on Friday and Saturday nights went to the Teen Club or the movie or maybe a party in someone’s basement. The closeness was, of course, artificial, in another environment you would never have been friends with the people whose yearbook you signed “forever friends”. On the other hand, our little world was quite idyllic, it was integrated to a degree unknown in the “lower 48” at that time. Certainly my parents’ values played a role, but living on a military base for five years prior to going to university meant that I was willing, and quite prepared to be the first white woman to room with the first black woman to attend Valparaiso University in 1965.

We also shared the bond of awareness of the dangers our families (fathers and brothers) faced in the military. From our classroom windows we could see the smoke billowing into the air from a runway plane crash; everyone worried about whose father was the pilot, or on board. We were cognizant of the Vietnam war years before it became a public concern; most of our fathers and most of our classmates served in that conflict. This is a long introduction, but it could help explain why, when the internet made a reunion possible in 1999 it started a biennial get-together.

The first gathering was a huge effort, everyone who had ever attended the school was invited. As it happened, 12 of the 52 attended. We realized that despite the passage of time without any, or much, contact, we were all pretty similar in our concerns and our outlook on life. We had all developed in different occupations, but had views that were far more global and diverse than other friends and neighbors, we had a lot in common. We also remembered our high school years fondly. It was actually a very innocent time, a very protected atmosphere, one that would be hard to replicate today. We had such a good time we decided to meet two years later with just our class. A concerted effort was made to contact all 52 graduates and many who were in the next class also. We now have an email list of 48 and good communication on Facebook. Since then every other year we have met somewhere different, so in 2001 it was San Diego, 2002 Dallas, 2005 Reno, 2007 Austin, 2009 Oxford, and 2011 San Francisco. I think 2013 will be Chicago. But the amazing thing is that we are planning on going to Alaska for our 50th. The number of attendees has varied and spouses have been welcomed into the group, overall we have had a lot of fun and look forward to these three-day reunions. The bottom line is we all enjoy traveling, and in each place we have had outings to see and do things in the area as well as chill with food and drink.

Richard Sherman said...

I'm envious of those of you have reported positive HS and reunion experiences. I agree with the suggestion that size might have something to do with it -- my class of 700 made it difficult to make close friends and didn't foster much group identification. My junior high experience, which I pointed out led to richer relationships, was much more positive, likely because my section was just 20-30 kids and we were with each other all day.

Coleen Hanna said...

I am reading this post at the right time. My class of 1973 wil soon be planning for our 40th class reunion. We were a Roman Catholic school of all girls. For the 10th reunion, most of the women brought partners. After that, the number of men dwindled. For the 25th, my husband was the only man in attendance. No men were at the 30th. My high school years were dysfunctional to say the least. I enjoyed the more recent reunions because everyone seemed more like real people than they did in high school. At the last reunion, I talked at length with the only black student in our class. We discussed so many topics that no one would ever even think of bringing up in 1973. The biggest learning for me, overall, was that I was not the only student who felt alone back then, and that my isolation had much more to do with my circumstances than with myself or any malicious intentions on anyone else's part.

I NEVER associated southern confederate BS with Denver!! Learned something new there! Thanks for the blog--fun to read.

Anonymous said...

What in the hell is southern confederate BS? Slavery was in Penn,NY and DC.

xenophon 9/09 said...

When I hear stories like yours, I feel so grateful for my own experience, and sad for you for yours....I cannot imagine going to such a large school-my high school was 500 plus a few- my own graduating class 135 students as I recall. The kids we marched with under the daisy covered arches at our high school graduation were the same kids we shared graham crackers and milk with during snack time in kindergarten. Many classmates still reside locally and those who don't put out the effort to come to the reunions...we have them every five years(:
Anyway, for me, great memories of a wonderful time in my life. I feel very fortunate to have lived in a small town...

Anonymous said...

As all are aware, each has their own view of high school life; good, pleasant, unimportant, boring, exciting, painful, etc., and each can write novels defending their personal views and experiences. For me and to put it simply, I agree with Richard that reunions are reminders that the most important time of one's life is in the present and not the past.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight. My 50th is coming up and I have been mulling over going or not. The organizers have called and applied some pressure to show up. Most of my friends from that period went to other schools and after reviewing our yearbook I found no one I had any sort of relationship with other than being in the same place at the same time. Kind of like meeting with everyone who was with you in a Walmart on a certain day. I picture people walking around with the yearbook looking at name tags to see how a person aged. Well, I suppose that could be fun.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I'm not interested in being seen by people who see me like I was in the past....50 years ago, and have no respect for the "much growth" that took place between high school graduation and today. Think that it's quite childish and unproductive, I don't want to put myself in that situation.

Anonymous said...

I looked at my high school yearbook from 1965 and really didn't recognize any faces or names. The exceptions were persons I went to elementary school with and a few that were in my classes. None of the people I hung out in high school was in the year book as they had dropped out of school, I was the lone exception I looked down the list of former classmates that were signed up, I recognized very few names. I decided that the whole affair would be too socially awkward, so I passed.

Anonymous said...

Recently I attended my 50th reunion. Like Richard, my HS class was composed of 600-700 people. I did not have a happy home life. I was no one's 'princess'. This led to a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem which must have been projected to other students in my class. I was not a cheer leader or home coming queen. I was fortunate enough to have close friends and we have remained in touch.

This was the first reunion I had attended since the twentieth. At the twentieth I noticed that even though I had overcome much of my awkwardness in High School, and had succeeded in life, I was not acknowledged by the class 'elite' who seemed to be stuck in 1965 - I was still treated like white trash.

So fast forward to a few months ago at the 50th. I guess the 'organizers' just didn't know what to do with us so they placed us in the 'back 40'along with a collection of people of other classes, like 'left overs'. The cheer leaders, home coming queens and jocks sat together at the prime tables, still maintaining their little cliques. We did not interact. We were still invisible - even after 50 years!

This gave me the opportunity to take a good look at my life as it was, how far I have come and how thankful I am for how I live today. I have taken care of myself. My friend told me I was the best looking woman there. Never-the-less, a former jock who is now a sloppy, fat, bald man with a flowing beard said he couldn't remember me when I tried to make conversation with him. A former cheer leader who is now barely moving and unrecognizable would not look at me or return a smile. I guess sometimes old habits never die.

But guess what? I will be at next years reunion - as a reminder to them that people change, that exclusion gets you nowhere, that compared to them, I am now both jock and queen.

Richard Sherman said...

This is a great comment! For some people this might be a good reason to go, after all -- to track the life trajectories of classmates and realize that happiness and achievement may be correlated in complex ways, not simple ones, to our experiences in HS.

Thanks for posting.

RS

Anonymous said...

I also had a huge graduating class of 800 students and assumed when I attended my 40th reunion that almost no one would remember me. To my utter astonishment, as I walked into the hall and up to the reception desk, several people called out my name and exclaimed they thought I hadn't changed a bit! Since I had very few close friends in school, I asked them how they recognized me after all these years. I was quite moved to hear that many people thought I was very friendly and dressed fashionably in school. I won the prize that night for having the most marriages (3) and can't wait to go to my 50th reunion after losing 30 lbs at Weight Watchers and reaching my high school weight and also now having been married 4 times!

Richard Sherman said...

Vindication is sweet! I'm glad that several of you who didn't have such a great time in HS have had positive experiences at your reunions. Maybe there ARE good reasons to go ..... I guess when I think about it, my own 50th was partly a matter of realizing my life over the intervening years had been pretty good relative to a number of others in my class.....

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

RS

Susan Alexander said...

I'm in the mulling stage right now. Sorta want to go; sorta don't really want to go. And sorta don't want to spend the $1,000 to $1,500 it's going to cost me, between airfare, hotel, rental car, event tickets, etc. On the plus side, I can't help but think it's got to be one of the more interesting experiences we can possibly have, i.e., seeing people we knew in kindergarten but fifty years later. I figure they'll all look like they're wearing stage make-up to appear older for a class play. I, too, was in a class of 700-ish. But if I do decide to go, it will mainly be to see just a handful of people I still care about - maybe five or six of them - and share that experience together. I read your blog post because I was hoping your comments would talk me out of going, but the responses you've received have talked me back into it! Would still love to hear more stories from folks who've gone. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I was called today from an organizer looking for me. It's the 50 year reunion. I've never been too far from the high school I graduated from, but they've never 'found' me before. I never went looking for a reunion, either. My high school years were filled with a lack of confidence, not knowing where I was going. My home life was full of anger, arguing and alcohol between my parents. The support I needed wasn't there. I do remember a few friends from the earlier years. The biggest challenge was not getting 'busted' for smoking in the girls head. As each year passed I just wanted to be done with it and out of my folks household. With Viet Nam on the horizon for my boyfriend, the 'free love' movement, the Beatles and the Stones, and the introduction of 'grass' I don't think it's hard to understand the path my life was taking. Those became very confusing and tumultuous years that continued past graduation. Even though they helped to shape who I am today, the past needs to stay in the past.
I'm not that person anymore.
GOD bless each of you. HE is the way, the truth, and the life.

Anonymous said...

Oh Gosh! I guess I'm one of those organizers calling people- and hopefully only putting pressure on for the purest of reasons. I was not the popular kid by a long shot- and seemed to be associated with looking like Twiggy- which may have been fabulous now, but was disastrous in the sixties, but, nonetheless went to a planning meeting for our tenth reunion. It turned out to be an eye opener. It was like group therapy with the entire group feeling like they were not popular and basically having awful memories with the good. I couldn't believe that these people I thought of as the popular group were as insecure as I was. I loved it! You know, misery in your teen years is just part of growing into an adult. I know high school was just a mixed bag, and I regret not being more sensitive to others, however I never thought a tone would think my approval mattered. I know I'm a better person, a more caring mom and citizen from my Twiggy moments. Ha! My girls think it's hysterical I would be embarrassed by being too thin! I hope we get a really good attendance for our fiftieth, as I want to greet and congratulate all the classmates I grew up with, for just coming together. I admire especially the classmates that were gay, so hard to be different back then, and so stupid of us not to get it. There are always plenty of people that made me laugh, that I'd forgotten about, Just heard about a classmate that recently had a heart transplant. Never sure in life what may happen in the future, but I love being in the present, and that means embracing the past, and looking forward to the future, and maybe finding a few old friendships a long the way.

gary ockunzzi said...

I feel much like you do. I survived high school. Wasn't a good athlete, student, nor did I live in a fashionable or right neighborhood. While I did attend my 50 year class reunion, I am glad that it is over. You are right: the only time that really counts in our lives is "now." That's all that we really have. And what we are in the present moment, seldom resembles what we were in the past and if it does, then we haven't grown very much.

Frieda Lipschitz (Audrey Choden) said...

My high school class of 1967 is having its 50th reunion this fall.The classmates who are attending are the ones who went to the previous reunions. They belonged to different cliques in high school and at each reunion they relive the roles they had back then. The Jocks, the musical production clique, the rich kids clique, the gang's clique (which took a group photo for the yearbook showing the rest of us the finger), the sports cliques and the clique of popular kids who were prom queen and king, the prettiest girl, the most handsome guy, and so on. On the Class of 1967 Facebook group, which announces who is going, I posted two messages: one asked them to reflect upon the expectations of life they had at graduation with the actual life they have now 50 years later. The other one asked what they remember about life in 1967 and what was important to them then. The questions were viewed by 189 members and only 2 shared their responses. I assume the low number of responses was due to their reluctance to reveal the truth about themselves. Just like in high school. I'm expecting one of the gang members to give me the finger.

Richard Sherman said...

FriedaAudrey --

Thanks for your excellent comment. It is too bad more of your classmates didn't share their answers to your questions -- I suspect they would be very interesting and somewhat mixed in how closely they see their expectations as aligning with their actual lives. For some (perhaps many) of your classmates who read but didn't answer your questions it might be that they didn't *know* the truth about themselves rather than being reluctant to reveal it. Hopefully you may have stimulated them to start that self-examination.......

Anonymous said...

I HAD A VERY SMALL TOWN HIGH SCHOOL CLASS...made up of cliques, bullies, jocks and all the other immature folks that if you weren't part of the mentioned you were an outcast shunned, or worse. For those that were popular, well liked and 'stars' ...where are they now? As for The 50th reunion ...for those one time 'stars' YES... DO GO it will look like a HIGH SCHOOL PLAY where the part called for TEEN CLASSMATES to be made up to look OLD...NOW THEY CAN'T TAKE OFF THE MAKE-UP! For those of us who were miserable
STAY AWAY! THESE PEOPLE WILL ONLY BRING BACK WHAT MADE YOU UNHAPPY. FIFTY YEARS IS A LONG TIME AGO BUT SOME OF THE BAD MEMORIES LAST FOREVER. Enjoy what you have now..THE PAST IS PAST.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm going to my 50th HS reunion this month...

In HS,I was in the non-jock, immature physically and socially, and no real friends categories. I went to college far away, and never lived at home after I graduated. Since I left HS, I have had zero contact with any HS classmates.

Why am I going? Maybe to play golf at the posh golf club where I used to work as a caddy, busboy and toilet cleaner.

Or maybe schadenfreude, since I have done fairly well in life since I got my stuff together, in and after college. I am in good health, and reasonably well off financially. I suppose I expect many of my formally elite, insider classmates to be less healthy and well off. Nice, huh?

So off I go. I know I'll be thrown back into the awkward, stressed and needy state in which I existed in HS....please, somebody be my friend...No? Fine! I didn't want to be your friend anyway!

I can't wait to see how this turns out. With any sort of luck, I won't even need my lawyer.