When I attended my last high school reunion, from Reading Central Catholic School, twenty years ago, I was so excited that I shockingly had a bout of diarrhea before heading out the door. I never get worked up like that, not even speaking in front of 500 people. I wasn’t nervous to be seeing my old peeps, just happily excited. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how the event impacted me. When I walked into the restaurant, twenty years ago, I was shocked to see that every single last woman classmate had a black dress on except for me. I asked if there had been some dress code that was passed around that I did not receive. “No”, a classmate said. “Black just makes you look thinner.” This year, at our 45th, it was entirely different. No irritable bowels and women dressed however they were most comfortable, not caring, all still looking very nice, but feeling much more accepting of who they are and who they have become. It was refreshing and inspiring to see how far we have grown and that theme continued throughout the entire night.
The event was held in the surrounding countryside of Reading at the Beverly Hills Tavern. With the 40+ classmates in the dining room, plus many spouses, it was challenging to get around and deeply connect with many of them. We did not know what kind of work our classmates had been doing, how many children or even grandkids anyone had, who was retired or still working, whose parents had passed, etc. It was unfortunate, but it did not matter so much in the end.
The room was small enough that we could ask each other who that person was across the room whom no one recognized. We had to first determine if they were a spouse or an actual classmate. When you got up close to some, you had to lean in close and read their name tag. When you discovered who they were, you exclaimed exuberantly, “Oh my goodness! Great to see you!” You did that regardless if you actually knew who they were but some names sent you running back to the yearbook table to look them up and make the connection.
One such woman was Mary, a Hispanic who in high school, had been a shy, skinny, introverted, young student. At the reunion, she was outgoing and vivacious and animated and beautiful and glowing. She had put on some weight which made her more substantial in a good way and was no longer a sprig of a girl. She was one classmate whom I had to resort to the table where the open yearbooks sat to try to connect her name with her present-day face. What a transformation. She had come into her own and just blossomed over the past 45 years. Since I am taking my husband to Cuba next week, we talked of her heritage (Puerto Rican) and she enthusiastically shared how she returns to her ancestors’ home each year and what the island is like today.
A few women looked remarkably exactly the same as they did in high school- with their hair dyed and even up close, had no visible wrinkles and no weight deviation from their high school weight. Quite a few men lost all their hair and were harder to recognize, but as soon as they smiled and spoke, a flood of happy memories came back as to who they were and what you had shared with one another. One or two walked with a cane. One or two looked uncannily exactly how I remember their mothers looking, the ones I knew from grade school whose homes I had played at. The ones who were so sweet in high school, like Janice, looked even sweeter 45 years later because she had lived that way for 45 years more, and it was etched in her face.
A few of us talked about how times have changed for the better. One particularly loving classmate committed suicide in their 30’s who had become HIV positive and could not deal with the challenge of coming out as a gay person. Thank goodness times have changed for those folks, but too late for this classmate.
There was talk about how bigoted our parents had been back then, particularly our fathers and how some of us were threatened if we danced with our one token African American classmate, or God forbid married him. We classmates, however, treated Nelson as a unique gift in this nearly all white Catholic school. To us, he was very special and to his great credit, Nelson was a wonderful human being, who was kind and good and so, naturally, everyone loved him.
Some classmates claimed their elderly parents who are still alive, have continued to be bigots to this day. I think the sooner that generation passes into oblivion and takes their archaic beliefs with them the better. Personally, my son’s girlfriend of many years is Black and if my father was still alive, it would bring me great pleasure to watch him adjust and accept and evolve as a human because he would be forced to. To me, it sounds crazy to even consider people who are different from we privileged whites as less-than’s, although we remarked that somehow, those sickos are emerging out of the darkness and coming to the forefront again.
We remarked how we had three token examples of diversity in our school- Black Nelson, Chinese Robin and Hispanic Mary. If sounded strange to me now when my daughter Sierra, chose Temple University over the other dozen schools she got accepted at, when she learned how one dorm floor had over 25 countries represented. The rest of the universities we visited had 99% rich white kids. Sierra sought out and chose an experience where she could experience great diversity in her college years. Forty-five years ago, my high school class had very little and hence we did not experience that gift growing up.
The brainy classmates did not perhaps get the attention they deserved in high school, as they were not typically not as social as they had their heads embedded in their books. But 45-years later, most of them really came into their own. They had been valued for the gifts they became to the world. They were some of the more surprising classmates we encountered at the reunion. The same held true for some of the very shy classmates. Some had developed confident, outgoing personalities which threw us for a loop. “Who is this person? I don’t remember them?” And we would wander over to the yearbook table and find their photo. “Oh my God, that’s HIM!” I went back to one such classmate, Bob, and remarked that I did not recognize him at first, even though I leaned in to read his name tag when I made my rounds. Some of the other women even remarked that this individual looked better, more handsome than he did in high school. (He had tossed his glasses and gotten contacts). He reminded me that the two of us sat on the bus on our class trip and he said, “Don’t you remember?” but I sadly did not. There are many memories gone from my mind. But he had been very shy and although I was not one of the most popular girls, I was in the comfortable middle, and could easily hang with those more or less popular than me. Being quiet in high school, sitting with talkative me, must have made an impact on him back then!
What was especially wonderful were the flashbacks that occurred while you were talking to a classmate or looking at them from a short distance. Suddenly, I would seem them in my mind’s eye, plain as day, of how they looked or behaved 45 years ago. It was remarkable and stunning at the same and completely lovely to remember, which of course would never had happened had I not been at the reunion and had my memory inspired and stimulated to jog back in time. That process of suddenly recognizing someone from long ago, felt delicious and it happened over and over again that night. It was like finding something that you did not know that you lost that you cared about.
There were shared stories of demerits for insubordination and time spent in after-school detention. There were shared memories of being a majorette together in the band front, taking ballet class, Sister Agnes’s art class, Sister Dolores’s English class. Many classmates that were present go even farther back with me to grade school and we talked about walking to school together and dropping each one off at their homes, ping pong parties on my family’s patio, the neighbor kids commuting to school in my father’s station wagon, and prom dates. Many remembered my parents who passed over 35 years ago.
To be honest, nearly everyone looked like they were doing well. Maybe the handful who were not, either already died (we lost 18 already out of a class of 180) or stayed home. Our one classmate who did not come, is confined to a wheel chair much of his days, for he sadly grew a brain tumor a dozen years ago and when they operated, the surgery impacted and disturbed other parts of his brain which controlled his appetite etc. It is a very sad story and I for one, wished he could have braved it and came. I would have loved to wrap my arms around him and told him how much we valued his presence in our high school history. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That 16th century quote by John Bradford, has been swirling around my head a lot these last years. It enables us to live in a more constant state of gratitude for what we do have and what could disappear so quickly.
I believe, one of the things we are meant to reflect upon at a reunion is the passing of time. Forty-five years since high school is a long time. How have we changed? What rivers of living have passed by in the meantime? The one thing that remained remarkably constant is that we all still loved one another. The reunion was one big celebration for who we were once were in one another’s lives, and the fact that we are still here today. We were able to honor that period of our lives as well as feel grateful that we have arrived here intact and happy. Everyone was happy at the reunion. Maybe that is not the normal state of attitude in everyone’s life but it was at the reunion and that is enough in itself. If nothing else, it reminded us that we have a group, a tribe, that we once so closely were connected too. It is a great gift that we care enough to reconnect after so many years and honor one another. That is what a class reunion is all about. Lifting up that period in our lives and being grateful that we had it and had each other. We all need reminders of gratitude.
Because of Facebook, I am convinced we were able to pull this off. That social platform has been a remarkable tool in bringing people together from our past. We don’t need to become close friends again, meeting for coffee, for walks, for dinner dates. It is enough to just see one another and deliver a meaningful warm hug. It is saying, “I honor who you have been in my life.” A huge positive affirmation.
When I said good bye to some classmates, I said, “See you in five years at the 50th,” and one remarked, “God willing.” I was shocked by that comment for my Italian grandmother used to say that to me every time I said good-bye. “See you later Grandmom,” I said, as I kissed and hugged her good bye. Back then, I thought, how morbid. But one time, it did happen, she passed and I did not see her again.
A lot of water can flow over the dam in the next five years and sadly, probably everyone who was present at the 45-year reunion, may not make it to the 50th. We are in our 60’s and could go at any time- another reality check as to how old we have grown although I do not feel it at all. One classmate was remarking in conversation about retirement and said, “I am sixty-three you know,” as if I did not know his age and I laughed and said, “no kidding, we all are 63 here.” I was struck with how strange and unique that was to be in a room where everyone was the same age. No other time in my life since the last reunion or high school itself, has that been true, but instead we’ve led lives where we’ve always been in the company of mixed ages.
On the drive to my reunion last night, my husband said that he did not go to his 5, 10, 20, 25, or 40-year reunions at West York High School- none of them. He is not sure if they even had them. No one down in York County knows how to get ahold of him if they did. He did admit that he doesn’t even care but I said that I felt sorry for him. Some say why bother, who cares, it was so long ago.
You can’t make a person care about their high school classmates, (and he did have a happy and rich high school experience), but I would be willing to bet that if he did go to one of his reunions and his classmates responded in the way that mine did, he would be happy that he made the decision to go. But I am not sure the dynamics would have been the same. His area of West York is a predominately Pennsylvania German area whose personality traits are famous for being reserved and restrained. Whereas at Reading Central Catholic High School, our school was located on the edge of the city of Reading and we had a wide assortment of European descendants, albeit still all-white, but many Poles and Italians and Irish etc. They are more known for their outgoing warm affectionate nature. One of the more heart-warming occurrences at the reunion was the out pouring of affection. Everyone hugged warmly and embraced, even the men. Classmates draped their arms around the others’ shoulders and comfortably kept them there. It was not staged or faked, it was genuine real love.
I told my children when they called the next day to hear how the event was, that for all the bad shit that has gone down in the last year about the sexually abusive priests (and we all know some), in our high school Religion classes, we were taught Jesus’s principals on how to love one another and why. I specifically remember learning about how to care for each other and remember marveling at that. I am not sure that is taught today or was ever taught in public schools, but we were definitely taught it in parochial school and that is to their great credit.
Since just publishing my new book, The World is Our Classroom – How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education, I remark in there how, in the end, a body of knowledge means nothing, when it comes to passing on information to our children; but more importantly how good they become, how much they care- for their fellow humans, the planet and its creatures. Nothing is more important. And if our 45-year class reunion is any indication, I would say Reading Central HS succeeded in giving us the best kind of education we could get- we learned how to love.
(photos courtesy of Anthony Stajkowski)
Posted in: Life's Moments and Lessons