"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 18, 2013

Class Reunions–Not What You Did, But Who You Have Become

I have gone to only one class reunion and that was for my country day school.  I hadn’t seen any of my classmates since I graduated 40 years before, and I was looking forward to it.  We were 15 years old when left Muirland Country Day, too young to have any pretenses or even recognizable personalities; and if we became kind or pig-headed, that happened only much later. It would be a treat to see my childhood friends and to see who they had become.

I was not prepared for the snap of time, the peculiar moment of seeing someone as he was and as he had been. For one split second Herbie Carlton was a boy and a man.  There was no mistaking him, and I knew who he was the instant I saw him.  The same Mickey Mantle face, discolored front tooth, short blonde hair, and pudgy arms. He was old and young at the same time.  Time collapsed in a millisecond.

I sat with him at dinner, and much to my surprise he was the same Herbie I had known long ago.  He had the same sense of humor, the same reserve, and the same irrepressible goofiness. I remembered why he had been my friend and knew that he probably still could be.

After dinner we all sat in the bar of our hotel and told stories – what we had done after Muirland, how many marriages we had had, and how many children.  I was not surprised at the histories, but was at how different my classmates had become.  Bobby Parsons, the class bully – 100 lbs. heavier and a foot taller than the rest of us – had none of his old braggadocio or intimidation.  The bully had been beaten out of him so thoroughly that I could hardly recognize him.  He was a teacher at a small New England boarding school, taught English, patrolled the sophomore halls, and monitored the dining room.  He had never advanced or moved.  He had obviously accepted his lot in life, although unhappily, and had lost the energy that fueled his marauding through the 8th grade.  I hated Bobby Parsons as much as anyone then. He tripped me going down stairs, knocked my cafeteria trays to the floor, and picked fights every week.  Yet I liked his beaten, sad, and totally defeated slouch of today even less.

Nancy Freeman had been a cipher in the 8th grade.  Dumb but game, braces, frizzy hair, and irrelevant questions to the History teacher. Now, forty years later, she had become hungry, predatory, and a woman on the make.  There was too little time and no place to find out why, but she had turned into a totally unattractive woman.  It was not so much that her teeth had never straightened and her hair had become even wilder and more savage.  She was an ugly person.

Tina Wharton, on the other hand, a tall, quiet, skinny girl in the 8th grade, had turned into one of the world’s beauties  She was even taller than she was then, but elegant, and fine.  She wore no makeup and dressed casually, but she was simply the most attractive and alluring woman I had ever seen.  She had a confidence without a trace of arrogance or dismissiveness. She was warm and attentive, and absolutely irresistible.

In the others there was little or no discernible change.  Jeanie Larkin was as homely and awkward as she had ever been.  Ronnie Mallard was affable, jolly, and humorous; and he was that way as a kid.  Nothing ever phased him – he seemed to ignore the deadlines, academic demands, and social pressures that affected the rest of us.  Ronnie never cared that he flunked just about everything or never rose above water-boy.  He was too dumb to realize the advantages of his inherited wealth.  The influence of his family, the founders of our school, assured that he would graduate no matter what – and he certainly enjoyed himself.  As for the rest, they turned out the way they were supposed to, not because of character or personality.  Tommy followed in the footsteps of his investment banker father.  Gary had joined the family business; and Joyce became a Harvard-trained surgeon like her father and grandfather.

I never bothered with high school reunions. We were too old when we graduated to have matured or morphed into something else. Although our trajectories may have taken us in strange directions, we were a privileged post-War generation where jobs were plentiful and there was little risk in resetting the flight plan.  I would not have been surprised if I had learned that John B. had gone from law to Kraft Foods; or that Barry O. had majored in theatre but changed to economic consulting.

I had even less interest in returning to my university for reunions.  I had heard from others that the first ones – 5, 10, and even 25 – had been ego trips.  Resumes recited in the bathroom, litanies of degrees, bright children, and successful wives over drinks; and impossibly pretentious presentations meant to highlight achievement, status, and promise.  My swallowing of this scenario might have been an unwillingness to share my shabby CV with more successful colleagues; but it was more likely because I felt there was no point in schmoozing with strangers simply because I went to school with them.  I had kept up with a few friends from my college years, and that was enough.

Next year is my 50th college reunion, and I am going.  I changed my mind and am in fact excited about attending because I feel that at this age there is nothing to lose and much to gain. I recently had lunch with a college classmate whom I had not known when we were students but with whom I had become acquainted through social media. In person he was just like me and the 20 or more other classmates with whom I had kept up at informal breakfasts and lunches on the Chesapeake. Although we had all chosen different professional paths, all of us were successful and happy with our choices.  We were as a group intellectually curious, ambitious, and confident.  It was our premier, elite university education which was largely responsible.  In only four years we were sculpted into the graduates the university had in mind.  We would be presidents, diplomats, business executives, scientists, and teachers; but above all we would be confident in our ability to negotiate the world and navigate its unpredictable waters.

So my university class cohort would be invaluable now – not to share new ideas about climate change, genetics, or Shakespeare or to hear about grandchildren; but to tell how they deal with being 70, far closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. Are they afraid? Indifferent? Compulsively efficient? Depressed? Satisfied?  Who, better than classmates who had been selected according to the same criteria for admission; and had been subjected to the same ethos of learning and achievement, to share experiences with me?

I am prepared for the worst.  I am sure many of my classmates will be fat, bald, and nattering; but am hopeful that most will be like those I already keep up with.  Whether or not I will have the time or opportunity to explore weighty questions is another story; but I will simply enjoy looking.  Just as I saw things in Bobby Parsons face so obvious that I didn’t need to hear anything more, I am sure I will see something in the faces of Doug Brand, Mike Lefferts, and George Rally; and that will be enough.

Just in case, I have reserved a room at a Five-Star hotel and made dinner reservations at the area’s best restaurants; but I have a feeling I won’t need them.

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