Long-time readers may recall that I’ve tried to build a convincing case for high school reunions hoping folks will attend and end up enjoying them as much as I do. Admittedly, my efforts may be akin to cultivating affection for root canals, but I persist. I believe that if I come up with enough good reasons, maybe I can get some of the fence-straddlers to come down to my side.
Believe me, reunions can be addicting. Our class of ’71 enjoys getting together so much that many classmates clamor for something more than the regular five or ten-year reunion schedule. For example, in April of this year, we held a get-together to celebrate our 65th birthdays, which we advertised as a Medicare Part-EE. We similarly celebrated our 50th and 60th birthdays even without clever names for them.
Obviously, we wouldn’t keep doing this if there weren’t a big group of us who relish spending some hours together, catching up with old friends, hearing forgotten stories, or finding a connection with someone we only knew distantly in our school days (or daze). The most common complaint I hear is that the parties aren’t long enough!
At our last event, I attempted something new – by squinting just right, I could almost envision my fellow students as their younger selves. Instead of schmoozing around on the floor of Scholz’s, we were milling around between classes, after lunch, at a party, or in the Holiday House parking lot. Did those youthful versions, I asked myself, ever imagine we’d be singing ourselves “Happy Birthday” at the ripening age of 65? Hell, no!
But, did we ever think we’d be gunned down at our high school before we could even graduate? Never!
I’m still haunted by Emma Gonzalez’s words at the March for Our Lives describing the reality that she and her surviving classmates at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will face for the rest of their lives:
Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR-15, and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kyra “Miss Sunshine,” Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan, Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp, Helena Ramsay would never hang around after school with Max, Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch, Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never, Cara Loughren would never, Chris Hixon would never, Luke Hoyer would never, Martin Duque Anguiano would never, Peter Wang would never, Alyssa Alhadeff would never, Jamie Guttenberg would never, Jamie Pollack would never.
I can still see her face as she held the marchers in stillness for the six minutes and 20 seconds of horror that the students endured. As I stood among my treasured friends celebrating our 65th birthdays, I could only add to her list of “nevers” — the murdered students will never celebrate a 10th high school reunion, nor a 20th, 30th, 40th, or, in fact, any. The victims of that Parkland high school shooting will never get together and celebrate their qualification for Medicare cards or any other of life’s milestones.
Our class maintains a list of deceased classmates. I think we started compiling the names and posting them at our 25th reunion. It was a short, partial column with the names of about 10 students, a couple who died before graduation in accidents, a couple of suicides, a flood drowning, a college murder, etc. In the years since then, the “In Memoriam” list has grown to two full columns, each addition being a somber reminder of our fleeting time.
Looking around at the 65th birthday party, I thought about that list and tried to imagine it with 16 additional friends that we would acknowledge, no doubt, at our very first reunion. Which 16 among our student body would it have been? Would we never have known the iconic bakery owner, the award-winning playwright, the various actors, singers, dancers, or the educators and counselors who have shepherded so many young souls? Maybe some of the doctors and surgeons would never have grown up and been able to treat us, our friends, and families. Who among the lawyers, volunteers, professors, government employees, and the mothers and fathers would be missing from our ranks?
It made me realize that the best reason for being there that night and at every other reunion event is much simpler than anything I had thought of previously. The best reason is because we can! We can get together and remember the idiosyncrasies of that English teacher, the hoopla over dress code hem lengths, student council battles, keg parties, crazy choir trips, the tree-scaling ski boat, war protests, and all the other things that consumed us back then.
The Parkland victims will never get to reminisce, to laugh about crazy high school antics, and remark to one another, “It’s amazing we’ve lived long enough to qualify for Medicare!” The Parkland victims will never get to share each others’ stories about surviving cancer, caring for their elderly parents, the joy of grandchildren, or finding love after a bitter divorce. Sure, they are spared life’s disappointments and heartbreaks, but who wouldn’t argue that they should have been able to make their own calculus of whether good times outweighed the bad? Why was a mentally disturbed gunman given the ability to shatter their dreams and liquidate their futures, good or bad?
All I know is that whenever classmates gather, we are defying so many odds and celebrating the special bond of survival . . . one that we took for granted and that no other high school student can ever do again. (Here’s where I spare you the diatribe about our politicians who won’t regulate guns in our society. You know what to do about that.) I’ll simply suggest that the next time you find yourself pondering whether you should attend your high school reunion, remember the murdered students of the many American schools where gun-toters have planted their rounds of “never.” Show up and celebrate simply because you CAN!