Thursday, July 18, 2013

Revealing Secrets, Repairing Reputations at Our 50th High School Reunion

I dropped by my high school reunion last weekend for the part I liked best last time around, 10 years ago. That was a casual lunch where people talked emotionally about what their high school experience had meant to their lives. It proved to be a significant question for 1963 graduates of Scarsdale High School who revealed their embarrassment –and occasional rebellion – at claiming this wealthy community as their hometown, especially during the Civil Rights era.
This time, the event moderator was a classmate who had risen in recent years to an unexpected spotlight: judge in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy case.
“Ten years ago, I had no grandchildren. I now have four grandchildren,” Jim Peck said. “Ten years ago I was a practicing lawyer in a big law firm in New York. Today I’m a federal bankruptcy judge. My life has completely changed in 10 years.” 
He suggested that this time our class topic for discussion be, “How we are the same, how we are different and where do we see ourselves going?”

 But first, he said, “Let’s talk about why we came back to this reunion, our 50th.”
Big mistake. The judge with the chops to manage a courtroom teeming with lawyers, had just lost control of a classroom of 67-somethings, who never got back to the theme.
Instead, over the next hour and 17 minutes, there would be tears, laughter and true confessions as classmates – many of
whom barely knew each other back then – sought to explain what had drawn them back.
For some, it was a chance to show each other the person they had grown into – not the teenager who’d only gotten B’s or done dumb things – sometimes so dumb and so secret that even their classmates had never heard the tales til now.
Like: “Pool hopping” –swimming naked in people’s backyard pools, then running down the street naked, trying to escape the cops that some neighbor had called.
Or the regular poker game played in an apartment in the next town, rented by 14 or 15 seniors for that purpose.
Or calling the geometry teacher, “stupid” – and doing so in front of the entire class.
“I came here to salvage my reputation,” said one classmate, after listing his own litany of detentions. “Because I don’t want you to remember those incidents. I want you to remember me as someone who helped kids in the juvenile justice system and foster care. I want you to remember me for working for 25 years to develop programs for families dealing with cancer. And I want to be remembered as a good father.”
 Me, at graduation
Said another: “I came because I felt good enough myself to do it.  I used to be ashamed of myself and now I’m proud --of everybody.”
Yes, “proud of everybody.” There was love in the air, though most had to squint at each other’s name tags to remember who it was.
Eric Baron, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's business school and a consultant specializing in corporate training (, said one of his biggest regrets –which he first realized at the 20th reunion -- was failing to take the time to get to know so many “intelligent, thoughtful, creative” people while he was in high school. “I was horrified I had never made connections with them.  One of the reasons for coming back is to see some of those missed opportunities and to grab a little of it during the few hours we have together.”

Or as Jim Peck said of the previous night’s dinner:  “I ran into people I hadn’t seen in 50 years and I had more meaningful conversations with them than with people I really know well for 10 or 20 years, but we didn’t grow up together.” 
“Magically,” he said, “we are more friends than strangers.”
What it is it about these teenage ties that brings out so much emotion after so many years?

“You’re my peer group -- who I feel I am, ” said one. Between 4th grade when he entered the school system and graduation, “I became identifiably me and we were doing that together and it’s created a kind of psychological reference point that’s very powerful.”

“This is the closest we’re ever going to come to time travel,” said another. Coming back in time to talk with each other.
And,  “The seeds of my life were planted here.”

For a few contrarians, what they did not do in high school became the kick-in-the-pants for the rest of their lives:
One who rebelled against all the academic pressure cruised through high school as an underachiever, only to discover that his 85 average wasn’t good enough to get into an Ivy League school. So for the first time in 50 years, he came to a class reunion, traveling from Hong Kong to tell us of his life’s success.
“I think it gave me the impetus later to be very very motivated to be successful,” he rose to tell the group.  “My mantra was to be as successful as I could be.
Baron, nagged throughout his life by the regret that he had never dared to try out for football, said it had made him determined to take risks, most of which have worked out.
Perhaps the teariest moments of that lunch,  the gregarious, laughing kid we knew in high school revealed himself as have secretly been reeling. Insecure in a new school, angry about his parents’ divorce, and suddenly diagnosed with Type I diabetes, he crashed his car and was saved just in time by a shot of glucogen. High school offered him the lifeline of a new best friend and his friend’s whole family, whom he adored, he said, tears welling.
“The microcosm that Scarsdale High School was to me was really to face adversity. Major, major adversity.
“A lot of you saw me as a very happy-go-lucky guy who seemed like life was easy, but I needed to put that out there because I needed people to like me.”
Wrapping it up, Peck said.
“Emotions are at the surface here, much more so than in an ordinary gathering of people some of whom I don’t recognize. Yet we are bound together. I think that’s really important. I’m glad I came here.  Especially for this conversation.  There are two truly important things in life: love and work,” he said, citing Dr. Oliver Sacks citing Freud. “There’s love in the room. I can feel it. I feel the connectivity in the room. Let’s not lose that.”

As for me, I later wondered: Did I choose to come for only a fragment of the reunion weekend because I didn’t want to open myself up to so much emotion? Had I come, instead, more as a voyeur than a participant, to capture this moment in this essay? Was I still carrying the baggage of my own insecurity, afraid, as I had been in high school, of not being accepted?
Disbelieving, as I had 50 years before, that these people had elected me “Most Likely to Succeed,” because I hadn’t  believed in myself.

Do you go to class reunions? If not, why not? If so, what's your experience?


Jordana Willers said...

Beautiful reflections - thank you!

Jordana Willers said...

Beautiful reflections - thanks!