Let’s start with the most obvious cliché: “It’s hard to believe it’s been fifty years”. Am I right? I guess. Truth is, I have been thinking about this time in my life for way too long. Actually since graduation day. So unprepared and naïve was I from my public high school experience in an industrial town in the northeast that anything seemed possible but my anticipation was not one of joyful expectation. It was instead, a fear and loathing for the unknown. I wondered what could possibly become of me, fifty years out.
The party and pre-party were quite wonderful and casually organized to maximize conversation among what were for the most part strangers. I recognized none but a few and found myself doing more talking than listening, a cardinal sin of elocutionary etiquette of concern, I’m sure to some as I was voted “most courteous male” by our senior class. Oh, well. I guess my pride was showing. But, at least I was sober and engaging and got to see everyone with whom I at least remembered having any meaningful association.
Those who show up for reunions are likely those with strong residual feelings about that place and their high school days. More still, have the pride and confidence in their life’s achievements to want to somehow keep score with old friends; and some simply never left the community and have spent their lives near other members of the class at church, work, and their kids’ schools or shopping at the Big Y Supermarket. For them, it was just another night out. Many mature people simply move on from high school physically and emotionally and have no need to return to a reunion, or they simply have more urgent things to do.
It was the ones who weren’t there, though, the ones the committee never found, that got me thinking. More than that, it gave me an ache in my heart, and not just for the 13.6% of us who were known dead but for those who did not show because they were never really connected yet had some impact however slight on our own early lives.
These are the ones for whom I ache. I think of the young kid who, even as a senior in high school was tormented by bullies, constantly teased and never involved in school activities.
Or the boy who would come to school angry and full of hate, spewing all forms of nasty racial, ethnic and blasphemous invectives, learned at the kitchen table from a drunken psychopath of a father.
Or the girl down the street who might have been years ahead of us in her sexual development. She enjoyed exploring her talents yet suffered the continuing humiliation of “a reputation”.
The fun-loving boy that went off to Viet Nam as a Spec Four and returned a mere speck himself, drug addled, angry and lost.
And finally that kid with whom I spent so much time as a pre-teen then abandoned in high school as he behaved “differently” than the rest of us. I learned recently that he’s bona fide gay.
These are the lives I’d really like to know more about. What happened to them? Are they happy? What would they think if I said a week never goes by when I don’t think of one of them and was happy to have known them all? Yet part of me is glad somehow that they weren’t at the reunion.
We learn so much more about ourselves from these outliers in our lives, but we fear and loathe what we don’t know as we imagine those lives thus lived from such difficult beginnings.