Local View: Reunions no longer so daunting: What changed?
From the column: "There is one big difference between then and now — the one biochemical element of elephantine significance inside everyone who goes to high school."
After reading the invitation to my high school reunion, I forwarded it to my wife for laughs, just before deleting it. The prospect of attending a gathering of senior citizens whose faces only evoke unpleasant flashbacks from the 1960s seemed like torture to me.
Marianne tried gentle persuasion: “Isn’t there anyone you’d like to see?”
Well, okay, there’s Jerry Kamper, but we became good friends long after high school. And maybe Joyce Russell, one of the two females I was not afraid to talk to. The other, Lynn Seermon, was already a mature adult when the rest of us were still idiots.
But too many other memories from my time in high school I’d just as soon forget.
Like how I never set foot in the cafeteria. My excuse was the bland food; the truth was my painfully acute shyness. Instead, I hoofed it a mile to the diner every day and had a “home dog” and fries alone at the counter.
Or the Barry Goldwater fans in Coach Dykstra’s civics class who derided my defense of the Democratic Party during a debate and for the rest of the semester, jeered, “For the people — the people,” whenever I was called on.
Or the mortifying response I gave my young German teacher, whom I had a crush on, when she asked why I wasn’t keeping up with the vocabulary lessons. Still too cringey to reveal.
Or bullies ceaselessly tormenting freshmen, like the one who was trashing a poor kid’s locker at the end of the school day. When I tried to step in, the thug challenged me to fight in front of a swelling crowd of onlookers. I had little choice, and the entire bloodlusting horde followed us outside to the CSX railroad tracks, where after one or two wild punches, we ended up in the mud, in a clinch, till we both grunted assent to a draw.
So, given a choice between attending a school reunion and passing a kidney stone, I'd opt for the latter. At least, I wouldn't have to dress up.
But a funny thing happened since the arrival of that invitation: I went to another reunion in May for a different school which I attended before transferring. I still absolutely hated the idea, but Marianne somehow talked me into it (don’t ask), so I bit the bullet and showed up at the Embassy Suites.
I had equally dreaded seeing these other former classmates, since I was even more puerile at age 14 and 15. I vaguely remember having said and done cruel or ignorant things to people who I prayed would not show up at the hotel.
I was wrong; they were there. But I was also wrong about everything else: They either didn’t remember or just didn’t care about my defensive, smart-alecky responses back then or my social dysfunction.
“That message you wrote on the mirror in the bathroom,” said Tom, “was the funniest thing I ever saw.”
“You were one of the brains,” said Steve.
And that’s how the evening ensued. Everyone was kind. Charming, even. I listened with fascination to their life stories. And they asked me about mine. When Marianne called, since I’d asked her to ring my cell phone as a pretense for leaving early, I told her I was having a wonderful time.
“You’re saying that because there are people nearby?” she asked.
No, I protested, the reunion was remarkable, and I would explain it all tomorrow. Don’t wait up, I told her.
The next morning, I did not change my mind, wishing I had spent more of my life with the convivial, authentic, and generous group of classmates from 55 years ago.
After I asked Marianne for the checkbook so that I could send for my ticket for the reunion scheduled for Sept. 2, she asked what, exactly, reversed my opinion: Had the people at last night's reunion changed that much from when they were high schoolers?
She made a good point. They were all pretty much the same people I knew as teenagers, only with gray hair and stringy necks, like Danny, whose nickname had been “Motormouth,” or Mike, quiet and inscrutable, still reminding me of Gary Cooper.
But we were now able to appreciate each other for our differences, eccentricities, talents, passions, and each person’s endearing human touch.
Because there is one big difference between then and now — the one biochemical element of elephantine significance inside everyone who goes to high school, from the bullies and brains and greasers to the stars, the mean girls, and the nerds, but which is now conspicuously and thankfully absent: fear. Unrelenting, life-dominating fear of adulthood, self-image, peer pressure, the opposite sex, the future, and, heaven forbid, of wearing the wrong shoes.
Fear, without which we are finally free to be ourselves.
David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@ yahoo.com. This was published originally by the Chicago Tribune.