In exactly a week, I will attend my high school reunion. It is our 35th. If that seems like an odd year to celebrate, you should know that since our 20th, we have met every five years. Apparently, we genuinely like each other.
People who have moved to the St. Louis region from other parts of the country seem stymied when they are asked where they went to high school. Contrary to popularly expressed opinion, I don’t think we ask this question to assess each other’s socioeconomic backgrounds. I think it’s because we tend to connect with others starting with which football team we cheered for as teenagers and continuing with how many kids we have, where we like to vacation, and which coffee shops we frequent. For St. Louisans, asking a new acquaintance about their high school is a starting point in a conversation about community.
I realize that for many people, high school is a memory they would like to obliterate. To be sure, there were popular kids in our school who were both resented and admired. As time has passed, however, those distinctions have become largely lost to memory. As for bullies, I’m sure they existed, as they always have, but I have no idea who they were. I tend to think we were nicer to each other than my children’s generation is, but that too may be a measure of diminished memory.
I sometimes wonder if the era in which my classmates and I started our high school education had something to do with how well we get along today. It was 1972. We grew up seeing war and riots on the evening news every night. Social unrest was the language of our childhood. We were literally the children of the 60s. Martin Luther King was more than just the name on a holiday to us.
We entered high school just as the racial issues that had plagued our school district were dying down. We spent four years together, walking the halls, sitting in the quadrangle, going to homecoming dances and football games, and generally just being kids together. When we graduated, our class was down-the-middle, 50/50, black and white. It never occurred to me that our experience was not the norm, but it has influenced my belief that integrated education is the best way to overcome our nation’s racial divide. Spending my formative years in such a diverse environment taught me to see race very differently from the way my parents’ generation did. When I see a black person, I just see a person.
When I entered middle school (when did we stop calling it junior high?), the first real friend I made was Janice Hollis. She was the smart, funny black girl who sat in front of me in math class. She has recently reminded me that we first met at the bus stop, where we discovered we were both “new” kids on the block. I had come from a Lutheran school, so this was my first public school experience, and she had come from another school district. We have now been friends for 41 years.
Just as so many other Americans have done, many of my classmates (Normandy High School, Class of ’76) have reconnected on Facebook, but even before our generation stole that social networking goldmine away from our kids, my high school classmates were getting together every five years. Janice has spearheaded many of those reunions, including this year’s, because in addition to (still) being smart and funny, she is also a great planner.
So, in a little over a week, we will get together at Cardwells in Clayton to eat, dance, and be merry. We will show off pictures of grandkids this time around and talk about our empty-nester vacation plans. We will welcome many classmates back who have moved to faraway states. Hugs and cameras will be everywhere. We will take a minute out of our reverie to silently remember the classmates who are no longer with us.
The ties that bind us, fused in an era marked by assassinations and protest, connect us, but they are not all that we are. New generations, 35 years of history, a changing world, and personal stories of loss and growth too intricate to explain in paragraphs, are part of who we are too. And it’s all part of the conversation that started so many years ago and that continues when we reunite next week, as a class, as a community, as friends.