Why do we attend class reunions? Why revisit a time in our lives when we weren’t at our best and maybe were at our worst? Are the people with whom we went to school really so important to us that we really want to see them again? Why do we bother?
The answers probably vary from person to person. A Chicago Tribune article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz describes one woman in her thirties who went to a high school reunion to show her classmates she was not the superficial, money-hungry person she believes her classmates thought her to be. She wanted to redeem herself by changing how she was viewed. The article cites a study which found that those most likely to attend a reunion had been popular or recalled having had a good time in school. The rest of us–those who were socially awkward, unhappy with ourselves, and unpopular—tend to stay away.
I was painfully shy throughout adolescence and was mostly ignored by my peers, but, when I learned that my junior high class was planning a 50-year reunion, I made immediate plans to attend. We–the class of 1963 at West Side Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan–had for the most part been classmates not just during junior high but from kindergarten on. We had been together for ten years, and I was curious about what had happened to them.
As the Tribune article points out, 50-year reunions are big on nostalgia. Unlike earlier reunions, “There’s a sense that this could be the last time you see these people.” This reunion may have been the last time I have contact of any sort with them. Younger cohorts have found each other on social media sites, but we who are past midlife are less likely to have made such connections. I have accounts on both Facebook and LinkedIn, but have only one contact on them from my junior high and high school classes. In contrast, my sons, who attended high school in the 90’s, follow most of their classmates on Facebook.
The reunion was Saturday, June 15. Out of 77 graduates, 34 were in attendance. As I wrote recently, I expected that my classmates would have changed dramatically in appearance. Some had, but, on the other hand, several still looked very much like they did fifty years earlier. Fortunately, we were given name tags, so, when confronted with someone who looked totally unfamiliar, I at least knew who I was supposed to be trying to recognize. The experience was like one of those dreams in which someone looks totally different from your mental picture of them, but you still know who it is. Other than one person I didn’t remember even when I looked at her junior high picture, I eventually could see in everyone traces of their former selves.
I found that I had three distinct reactions as I mingled with my former classmates. First, I compared myself to them. Did I have more education? Had I achieved more? Had I had more varied and interesting experiences? This wasn’t about them, it was about me, or, more specifically, about enhancing my view of myself. I’m embarrassed that my initial response was so self-centered. I am glad that this was just an internal process; as far as I can tell, I didn’t brag and didn’t feel a need to impress anyone besides myself.
My initial desire for self-enhancement faded as I noted the characteristics of our class. I always knew that I hadn’t had much exposure to diversity when I was young, but our similarities are even more pronounced than I had realized. All my classmates are white; almost all are the children of second- or third-generation Dutch immigrants; the great majority came from middle class homes; all but a few grew up in churches affiliated with a particular Protestant denomination. Yet when I was growing up, this homogeneous group of people was my world, and I was as much or more aware of how we differed from each other as I was of how similar we were. One’s identity is clarified through the lens of difference; when people similar to me were the only ones I knew, my identity was hazy, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
After first comparing myself to others and then recognizing how similar we all were, I started appreciating my classmates for who they now are. I only knew the nascent life stories of these people; those stories had subsequently unfolded in remarkable ways. I was particularly struck by a classmate who in school had seemed shallow and goofy, someone I hadn’t expected would do much with his life. It turns out that after high school he worked for decades for a local furniture maker. He retired and took a job driving a minibus for a local social service agency, transporting mentally impaired adults. He enjoys forming relationships with the men and women who rode his bus, and has also become heavily involved in his church’s ministry to the developmentally disabled. He is concerned about the welfare of those less fortunate and is firmly committed to helping them. It doesn’t reflect very highly on me that, years earlier, I had thought so little of him. An apparently random opportunity—one he now attributes to God—had given direction to his life and nurtured gifts that hadn’t been evident (at least to me) when he was in school. I hadn’t just given him short shrift; I did the same to God. His story was the most memorable, but the lives of other classmates also contained much that was striking.
Now that we’ve reconnected, will I try to stay in touch with those who were at the reunion? Probably just a handful of them. Still, I’m glad I went. These people helped shape who I am; they are important to me. I’m thankful that I not only learned the details of their lives but also came to appreciate whom they have become.