When I mentioned my 30th high school reunion in my previous post I was surprised to read the following comment from Pearl:
“So nice that you have felt that bond with your school all these years, enough to go back, again and again.”
Bond with my school? But I hated high school! I’ve practically made a career out of dissing the Chicago Public School system and my four years at Von Steuben Senior High on the north side of Chicago. And yet Pearl was right, I keep returning to these reunions. What am I looking for? I know that it was my dissatisfaction with our 20th reunion that made me actively participate in the planning for the 30th. Working with three former classmates, we agreed that it needed to be a casual event inside our urban high school rather than a formal affair at some hotel in suburban Chicago that had absolutely nothing to do with our class.
When we were trying to locate people during the planning of the reunion some of our old classmates were adamant. “PLEASE take me off the reunion list, I am not interested and do not want to be contacted by anyone.” Others agreed to come but it was with the reluctance and trepidation of someone invited to an execution. Still others could hardly contain their excitement and said how much they looked forward to the event.
The reunion took place last weekend in our old cafeteria and it was, as far as I’m concerned, a resounding success. Writing about the planning of the reunion last August, I began to figure out why my mostly negative memories of high school didn’t turn me into one of those people demanding to be taken off the mailing list. I now believe that my cynicism was a protective device that helped me maneuver through the social minefield of adolescence as well as the acute numbing that I adopted following my parents’ painful divorce in the early 1970s. It was too risky for me to feel anything back then so I retreated into a cocoon of contempt and indifference where my only victory was the extent to which I could extricate myself from the realities of daily life and float above it all with an air of superiority and carefully studied insouciance.
I was hardly the rebel I pretended to be. I never got into any serious trouble and I maintained my straight-A average throughout four years of high school. It’s only now, with my own child on the precipice of her teenage years, that I can look back at my attitude during high school with compassion and sadness rather than as some kind of act of defiance I should be proud of. I deeply regret many of the experiences I missed by building such an impenetrable wall around myself. Planning and attending my 30th reunion was something of a healing process for me, one that wouldn’t have been possible 10 or 20 years ago. But thanks to age and therapy I can now look back at that scared kid with empathy and understanding and see my old classmates with eyes that do not dart away the second any contact is made.
I was surprised to discover at the reunion that several people I had rarely, if ever, spoken to in high school had seen my blog posts about my high school years. The Anderson twins confronted me about my charge in one post that the award for “Friendliest” student that Carol won senior year was undeserved. Gulp. It’s clear that it was my own attitude back then that prevented me from experiencing that friendliness since I was convinced that Carol and her sister Cathy were too popular to give me the time of day. At the reunion I was struck by how sincere and friendly both of them seemed. Is it too late to change my vote?
Alan Spector (voted Best Personality) told me that he was surprised to learn how miserable I was during high school because I didn’t seem that way to him. That’s probably because he really did have a great personality and I was always more at ease in his presence. Isn’t it funny how much our own attitudes color our experience of other people, and their experience of us?
I remember that line in “The Breakfast Club” when geeky outcast Ally Sheedy asks perfect popular girl Molly Ringwald why she’s being so nice to her. Molly looks at her for a moment and then replies, “Because you’re letting me.” It’s easy to play the victim in high school but if I’m really honest I’d have to admit that the people I most accused of dismissing me were the very ones I had already dismissed out of my own insecurities.
It was fun catching up with all sorts of people at the reunion, old friends that I haven’t seen in ages and people I never would have dared speak to when we were young. It took me 30 years to work up the courage to talk to Lajuan Amos, the classmate I always tried to stand next to in every class picture. She was amused to hear of my longlasting crush and I was thrilled that her fabulousness withstood the test of time. Lajuan was as glamorous as ever and still had the air of a superstar.
A few of our old teachers attended the reunion including Mr. Daniels whose filmmaking class so energized me that I was able to rise above my trademark apathy. That one class did more to change the course of my life than any other experience I had in high school. It was nice to be able to tell him what an impact he had on me all those years ago. Mr. Daniels didn’t stay very long but he was surrounded by hordes of former students. I was amazed that he remembered the exact content of everyone’s films even though he hadn’t seen most of us since Gerald Ford was President.
Of course we all played the favorite game at reunions the world over: “Who Got Fat?” Ah, finally a high school award that I could win! Truth be told, it was a shock to see how certain people had changed after so many years but in most cases the shock wore off after a few seconds. As a generalized comment I’d have to say that the women in our class weathered the years better than some of the guys but hey, we do the best we can. I was stunned to learn how many long-term marriages there were in our group including several high school couples who were still together three decades later. I guess my classmates never got the memo about our generation’s out-of-control divorce rates since more than half of them have been married for well over 20 years. We also had several grandparents in our ranks. Oy.
It was a largely professional group, lots of doctors, lawyers, nurses, and teachers and not so many people involved in the arts. Can I blame that on our old art teacher, Ms. Lignell, who used to grab my paintbrush and say, “no, this is how you’re supposed to do it” as she painted over my work? Several women listed their occupations as “stay-at-home moms” or “homemakers” without any of the self-consciousness that might have accompanied such a designation 10 or 20 years ago. Politically, we were all over the map, from the classmate who moved to another country after Bush was re-elected to the people who were thrilled that their sons were off “fighting for freedom” in Iraq.
Since I’m posting all these pictures of my former classmates without their permission I think it’s only fair to include one of my own aging process. Here’s me and my old crush Debbie Shub in a yearbook photo from algebra class and at the reunion last week. Debbie, now the mother of two grown daughters, looked great but I’ve obviously lost my luscious locks and replaced them with about 50 new pounds. Oh well, as one comedian put it, “Time marches on…and it’s marching over my face!”
I put together a souvenir booklet for the event in which I included the results to some offbeat questions we sent out to participants. In the category of “most memorable odor,” the winner by a landslide was the Von Steuben swimming pool which some said rivaled the contents of a toxic waste dump. In truth the pool was so loaded with chlorine that I’m sure no bacteria within a 12-mile radius could have survived. I’m surprised our skin didn’t look like Karen Silkwood’s following her scrubdowns for plutonium contamination at Kerr-McGee. Locker room odors came in second and consisted of, as one person put it, “a symphony of smells which were well orchestrated and played to a higher sensory level than I ever hope to experience again.” A bunch of people made reference to the aroma of marijuana wafting through the hallways and bathrooms at Von Steuben. Further discussion at the reunion revealed an inordinate amount of drug use at the school back then, even people snorting cocaine behind their books in the middle of math class! I was completely oblivious, of course.
In the category of clothes you wore in high school that make you cringe today, the winner was those insane elephant bellbottoms that often “dragged on the ground and became filthy, torn, and frozen.” Platform shoes were next (“I can still feel the pain I felt standing in them throughout a Marvin Gaye concert”) and several people mentioned our classmate Cleo’s famous pair of silver platform shoes and one pair that allegedly contained live goldfish in the soles. Only the black guys could get away with wearing platform shoes but us white boys committed our own fashion crimes with our plaid pants and hideous polyester Nik-Nik shirts that made us look like dancers in a Donna Summers’ disco extravaganza.
When we started planning this reunion I kept saying, “Let’s do this right because it’s obviously the last one we’re ever going to have.” Now I’m not so sure. I’m ready to start the planning for our 40th in 2016.