Okay, I know that there are folks who hear “high school reunion” and think, “I’d rather have a colonoscopy.” I am just not one of them. The reality is that our memories make us unique among beings in the animal kingdom (although there could be something going on in minds of elephants, I grant you). As animals with memory, we all have a history that lives in our minds. There are parts of that history that we prefer to remember more than others, which partially explains why high school reunions get such a bum rap. But, based on experience at my last four high school reunions (20th, 25th, 30th, and 35th), I have discovered at least three laws of reunions you should keep in mind before you decide against attending your own.
First law: Reunions are not the exclusive province of the svelte, happily married, hirsute, and highly successful. Every high school class probably has a Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and an Emmy-nominated actress, but these classmates of critical acclaim are often reunion no-shows. The vast majority of people at a reunion are relatively unknown teachers, stay-at-home moms, horse trainers, car mechanics, electricians, government employees, with some doctors, lawyers, and car dealers thrown in. Most have gained weight and many have lost hair. The truth of the first law speaks for itself: if only those people who looked like they did in high school showed up, reunions would have passed the way of the dinosaurs a long time ago.
Second law: Reunions are not parties for just the most popular in high school. After all, how many homecoming queens, cheerleaders, and football heroes does one high school class have? Also, great popularity in high school means very little in the world after high-school. Does anyone put “Prom Queen” on their resume or get elected to public office based on cheerleading prowess? I once saw the yearbook of a good friend in which she was depicted in full “most-popular” splendor — she was prom queen, homecoming queen, head cheerleader, just to name a few. On top of that, she peered from the pages with a face like a young Patti Duke, my favorite actress from way back when. But as I perused the pages, she explained how she “peaked” too soon and her life had been on a downward slide ever since high school. She contrasted her experience with mine as I was heading off to law school at the ripe old age of 35 and figured that I had a ways to go before I peaked, encouraging me to think that my lesser popularity in high school was a good thing. Yay, me!
Third Law: Reunions are opportunities to rediscover ourselves and, in some instances, find closure. In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker explores the nature vs. nurture debate, seeking to explain how human children become the adults they grow up to be. He concludes that it’s a pretty even split between our genes and environment. But considering environmental influences, he cites to research tending to prove that the biggest influence is not our parents or family, but our peer group. If this is so – and it does explain differences among siblings – our classmates (some for as many as 12 years) are our true brothers and sisters. So, their influence in our lives should be recognized. Yet, I’m always pleasantly surprised to find classmates who carry around little parts of me in their memories. Someone I haven’t seen since high school will often recall something about me that I had long forgotten or tell me about something I did or said that they admired or found amusing. And when one guy tells a group of us gals how he had been haunted by the memory of falling off his bicycle as we stood down the block, we could tell him that he should be haunted no more. . . we never even saw the fall from where we stood.
I’ve come away from every reunion with a sense of awe about the power of reuniting with those with whom I spent those formative years during which we acted with or reacted to each other, the events of the time, the teachers and other authority figures. No matter where we’ve gone in life and what we have or haven’t done, there is a divine element in bearing witness to our past and honoring the connection of our shared history. In this here-today-gone-tomorrow world of nowadays, the high school reunion is the place where everyone knows your name, everybody is somebody, and showing up is 100% of what it takes to ace the test.