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Andy Schmookler: What makes a class reunion worth attending?

andy schmooklerI had not asked for the assignment. This was going to be our high school class’s 55th reunion. Because I’d thought that the “entertainments” we’d had at the 45th and the 50th had been a distraction from our reasons for coming together, I’d written to a friend of mine on the Reunion Committee to suggest that it would be good if the Committee would put something into the program to help us all contact why we’re there.

As often happens in such things, the guy who proposes something is told “OK, you do it.”

My initial reluctance to take on the job didn’t last long. Once I started remembering some of my long-brewing thoughts and feelings about reunions – prompted by my observing myself going out of my way to attend our class reunions back in Minnesota — I gradually welcomed the opportunity to talk with my old classmates about why our connection with each other still felt important.

(Important – even though we’ve variously wandered off from our shared experience to take our own separate and different paths in life. And even though more than a half century of personal and American history separate us from those shared experiences.)

Here’s what I said to my classmates in the five minutes the Committee gave me to speak:

Intro: The Question

It has been 55 years since we were students together at Ramsey [Alexander Ramsey Senior High School in suburban St. Paul]. That’s more than three times the age we were when we marched in procession to get our diplomas.

Despite the passage of all that time, all of us here found the idea of gathering once again with our former classmates meaningful enough that we made room in our lives – some of us even traveling long distances – to attend this reunion tonight.

Why? What is it that makes reconnecting with our old classmates matter?

A Time in Our Lives

Certainly, a part of the answer is there is something special about those years we shared.

That time in our lives was one of major changes. Along with our friends of those years,

  • We were navigating our passage from childhood to adulthood
  • We were struggling to discover who we were, and to decide who we wanted to become
  • We were learning where we fit into a wider human community
  • Hell, we knew one another when we were still virgins, finding our way into that charged component of maturity where we participate in the age-old story of life being passed from generation to generation.

When people share such intense (sometimes difficult) experiences – whether as fellow students in high school, or as foxhole buddies in battle – they can form important bonds.

A Time and a Place

It probably can be assumed that — on the whole — we who are here, and those who attended previous reunions, had more positive experience of those years than those who have stayed away. (Many factors of a personal and interpersonal sort doubtless figure into whether the memory of those years warms our hearts or makes us cringe.)

But I think it should be acknowledged that – in the time and place of our high school experience – we had a benign wind at our backs.

It was a time, in the larger society, for example, when our class could span the political spectrum without, so far as I ever saw, those differences marking any great divide of antagonism or mutual incomprehension. In hindsight, we can see that we benefited from that more harmonious, and in that way more innocent, America of that era.

At that point, I spoke of our particular school—and “the humane ethos” set from our fine principal on down through our faculty and then to us, the student body.

Revisiting our lives in reunions was made more appealing, I suggested, by the fact that “we were embedded in a school community where we could mostly rely on a decency, a spirit of fairness, that made our school lives happier.” And I mentioned that my having spent my junior year in a different part of the nation had enhanced my appreciation of “the culture of kindness” in our Minnesota school to which I returned for my senior year.

“I imagine that’s part of why I’m motivated,” I concluded that part of the speech, “not only to keep up with a few lifelong friendships from those years, but also to come back for these reunions.”

And I brought in one more motivating factor:

Swept Up in the Currents of Time

There’s one more part of my own answer to the “Why come back?” question. I am mystified by time, find it bewildering that we are creatures who are swept along by time’s current, that we each have a start as children and an end (if we’re lucky) as old people.

I watch old movies, and ponder the mystery of how the beauty of the people on the screen – like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – exists no more.

And when, every five years, I come back to our reunions, I get to see how the classmates I knew in our teens – my old teammates, the girls at whose basement parties I danced to “Tammy,” my fellow actors in school plays – are changing, maybe growing in some ways and inevitably deteriorating in others, as we all progress inexorably through time.

So these reunions provide an excellent opportunity to contemplate a basic human reality, as well as a chance to celebrate the important years we shared and the benevolent community of which we were part.

Column by Andy Schmookler

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