“I’d never do … like that. Hell, see people … barely knew back then…. I’ve always given my high school reunions a pass. Not worth … old times … trouble. Aren’t … just for showing off?” Richard’s voice, breaking up over a bad Skype connection, was still understandable. I’d just told him I was planning on going to my 30th High School reunion. This was another thing he didn’t understand about me, perhaps about Americans in general, that we’d do something like this rather than spend a weekend gardening, reading a good book, cooking, or visiting friends.
“I like to people watch, I guess,” was all I could offer. “The Divorcees will be on the prowl, the Captains of industry will be showing off their watches, the Rejects like me will be looking for eye contact. Everyone will get drunk and tell their life stories to the most high-status person who hasn’t already been glommed onto by someone else telling their life story. It’ll be great. Just like High School all over again.”
“Really?” Richard’s voice was perfectly clear.
“I’ve been to the 5th, the 15th, and the 25th. They were all fun. I guess.”
“What? You’ve been to more of them? You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s the people watching. I guess.”
“Well, good luck” Richard offered with a smirk.
A partial truth, but still true: I did have a curiosity to see how classmates were navigating their lives, even a prurient interest. It had never been a game of one-upmanship as much as a research project, even search-and-rescue—what do they get that I don’t get? What did they see that I missed? Who did I miss? And as much as I’d be watching, I’d get watched too—and that makes for the best people watching. Oh god, there’s Strother. He was weird, wasn’t he? I hear he makes furniture. Like, WTF? Anyway, whatever. Pretend to be in deep conversation with me so we can avoid having to say hello....
But none of this ironic, snarky and distanced interest explained why I was shelling out a few hundred dollars to make a pilgrimage to vague, indirect humiliations and bad catered food. Plus, they had replaced the open bar with a cash bar. I ask you.
After I hung up with Richard, I began to wonder if I wasn’t one of Those People that give High School reunions a bad name, the prime locale for Life Accomplishment Comparison Shopping, Social Vendetta, and Regrettable Reversion to Old Selves. I thought back to my behavior at the 5th reunion.
I had returned with the conscious interest of connecting with old friends and reminiscing, maybe meeting someone I didn’t know well and finding common ground (our class was about 400 large). I was part of a band of maybe 10 who always ate dinner in Ropes Hall, the little, 5th dining hall on the second floor. There we would toss salt shakers up onto the picture rail moldings and make the plates throw up. Then we’d joke about how one day we would reminisce about making the plates throw up. This is hard to explain without a video, but think of two plates, one covering the other, like the top and bottom of a jaw. The food on the bottom plate, accompanied by barfing noise, could be ejected from between the plates with a simple shake of the wrist. We added characters, dialogue, and complex back stories to our barfing plates. This is one reason, among many others, why my friends and I were largely ostracized by the alpha males and females, those mature, serious and talented kids headed for responsibility in life. We were the immature geeks. And proud of it.
Side note: I attended one of those schools, a fancy-schmancy elite boarding school. This fact, combined with my full name— Strother Beeson Purdy III (yes, a triple sticks)—has largely been an albatross around my neck. Making connections with people who aren’t elitist privileged Northeastern pricks, has been doubly hard for me, as most people who get the double dose of my full name and High School assume I must be an elitist, privileged Northeastern prick. Even just using my first name in public has caused me trouble.
“My name is Strother.”
“No, my name’s not Strawberry. It’s Strother. It’s a Scottish family name.”
“Oh. That’s interesting.”
The term “interesting” is one of the most beautifully ironic terms in the language, meaning precisely the opposite. It’s also the most powerful conversation ender I know.
But back to my 5th reunion. I had hoped to talk over old times, laugh, meet people I had admired or appreciated but never gotten to know. Sadly, only one of the old gang showed up (the rest were too smart, I think). And we couldn’t really celebrate having made the plates throw up because, well, it didn’t seem like the thing to do. Instead, we mingled, traded lack-of-accomplishments with multiple far-more-successful-people who were not interested in getting to know us better, performed a few social vendettas, turned into our old, horrible, adolescent selves, and then I got horribly drunk and told some sober and not-amused fellow that people don’t laugh enough. And then I told him my life story, sounding like an elitist, privileged Northeastern prick. Or started to, as I believe he walked off part way through looking for something to piss or barf in. I continued the story to the end, relieved there was no one listening.
Oh Shit. I was one of those people. So, Yeah. Why the hell did I go to the other reunions? Good thing I got so drunk I can’t remember them. And now want to go to the 30th? Yet another opportunity to display social incompetence? To see those calculating eyes and public smirks when I walk up? The hardening of postures and uncertain silence as I extend a hand? I don’t really want to know these people, whoever they are, or were, do I? Nor do they. I was a very awkward, defensive, difficult kid. Some of them were too. Of course we don’t want to know each other any better; but here I am extending my hand. It must be some kind of perverse enjoyment, these encounters, Byron the light bulb style, strobing at a frequency that causes epileptic fits. Not really. The real trouble is that I enjoy humor, which requires a slightly imperfect fit with social expectations. I don’t enjoy harm, which always fits within expectations. Humor relies on a curious misreading, a doppelganger definition, of a situation. You’ve lost the crowd when they tell you you’re inaccurate, rather than seeing the insight in the misreading. I should be nicer. Not so defensive. Not so afraid.
Perhaps the Great Tradition of High School Reunions, like binding feet, can’t stand the light of reason and moral examination. It is at heart a shameful endeavor, rejoining vague acquaintances from 30 years ago intended to make everyone slightly uncomfortable for undisclosed, quasi-therapeutic reasons.
But it’s more complicated than that, to paraphrase Ted Sizer. It’s always more complicated than that. And indeed, at the 25th reunion, apprehension turned to delight as I stood uncertainly on the steps of the main building, waiting for the class picture to be taken. A burly fellow came up and stood next to me. We looked each other over quickly and read each other’s name tags.
“I didn’t know you.” I offered, mildly worried he’d take a swipe at me for some offense I’d forgotten long ago that he hadn’t.
“I didn’t know you either,” Doug replied, “and that means we could be friends.”
I laughed as heartily as I had in years. Since then, we’ve indeed become very good friends, finding an enormous amount in common and much respect for each other in the ways we differ. Though no friendship is subject to rational explanation, I do wonder if the shared, intense and formative experience of a few years at Andover hadn’t created the opportunity to be close.
So that’s why I go back to these things: curiosity and opportunity. And to walk through the bird sanctuary. And to visit the art gallery. And to see a good friend and her family. Those are better reasons.
Jeannette and I took Priscilla, as we live about 150 miles away, as the weather was perfect and as we had nothing to carry except our clothes. Priscilla needs some explanation, even a digression, as she explains much. She is a ’79 Harley, a true rat bike that I got from another close friend. Dave is one of the wisest people I know: wise in hand and in head. A doctor of Eastern philosophy. Fluent in Chinese. A highly skilled carpenter and contractor. A writer of much skill. A former truck driver. A serious rider and mechanic of Harleys. He has a wide-ranging mind capable of holding multiple contradictory thoughts at one time.
Such a strange friend! you might say. Please understand: I build furniture. Write. Hunt and eat deer. Have four years of work toward a doctorate in English literature. Ride and wrench on motorcycles. Travel to and live in strange countries such as India, Slovakia and France. Teach woodworking and English. Still listen to Devo and The Clash, also Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in spite of his abhorrent politics. And worse, I bring up old movies in chit-chat conversation to avoid narcolepsy, and people just don’t know what to do with me. Dave, a mutual friend Andy, and I fit hand in glove, mourning the steady decline of skilled tradesmen in the US over good beer, discussing Frazer’s concept of magic in modern politics and recounting jobsite pranks (though neither appreciate the genius of Firesign Theater as much as they should). This is why I don’t quite fit in at Andover reunions. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Why do I go to these things again? I’m reminded of the story of the pessimist told by his therapist to try optimism. He tried it, but it didn’t work. He knew it wouldn’t work. But he still went to the 30th.
Like lost children at the Country Fair, Jeannette and I wandered through the crowds of other classes, but instead of vaguely bumping into classmates, greeting civilly, and continuing in the maze, we connected and talked. Repeatedly. With some really interesting classmates I never knew existed. They offered genuine thoughts and genuine opinions. I listened. I offered my genuine thoughts and genuine opinions, and they listened to mine.
“Who was that teacher, the cleft asshole with the beard?”
“Mr. -----. “
“Yeah, him! The bane of my existence.”
“Mine too! He got a hold of a pained and despairing letter I had written to my parents. He read it, and nearly put me in a DC for what I had said about him in it. It’s hard to believe a teacher would do that.”
Ok, a lot of the banter wasn’t particularly intellectual. But the opinions were genuine, honest. All the bullshit seemed to have washed away leaving shared experience, shared vulnerability. We reminisced.
The afternoon before the big dinner, the reunion organizers put together a panel discussion on Success and Happiness. About forty of us showed up. Four classmates talked about the work they do now, their evolving concepts of success and happiness. Each had something disarmingly honest, even painful, to share. It was as if we were finally beyond the need to impress one another, looking for understanding instead.
The discussion afterwards veered into more honesty, frank admissions of looking back at former selves with apprehension, not fully understanding who we were then as we do now. One had the courage to admit to being not very nice back when. Another suggested that reunions are in part pilgrimages to our former selves, to make peace.
“You know, I’m beginning to realize you’re not all as awful as I thought,” came a comment that brought the house down in belly laughs. As a slow processor, it was all a bit stunning. I sat silently, wondering if I had tied my shoelaces backwards that morning and ended up in an alternate universe, everything reversed. I felt my hair and found my part was still on the right side. Must be reality, then.
One spoke of the challenges and satisfactions of being a camp director. You wear a hundred hats—from boss to plumber, from public relations firm to conflict negotiator. But in exchange, you get to help create and witness truly magical transformations in the kids. At camp, you get to be who you really are, away from school and family. The satisfactions of such work run deep. I completely understand why he does it.
Afterwards, I wanted to thank him for his talk. With humor of course.
“So, Camp Director,” I ventured. “Like a bucket full of hammers to the head, right?”
“Not really,” accompanied by a puzzled stare, was his reply. Someone else standing nearby who had overheard laughed.
A .500 average is considered good in horseshoes and hand grenades, right? No wait, I got that saying wrong. This happens a lot, such as when the little finger is pointing at E, and while E stands for Excellence in my book, I believe it means we’re out of gas.
This is why I go back to these things. Glad to finally figure that out.