Sometimes We Grow Up, Sometimes We Just Grow Old: The Other Side of High School Reunions
A few mornings ago, Margaret Manning tossed down the gauntlet, gently as ever, for all of us to consider how our last high school reunion went. That is, of course, for those of us who chose to attend.
Each of us brings to that gathering the dense, tangled emotions of those complex years. Some of us would never ever show up. Others, like me, attend regularly.
I Can’t Help But Notice…
My last was my 45th. My school is in Central Florida, a place which was undergoing segregation at the time. That it was difficult for the Black students of that day is expressed in the fact that not a single Black graduate has ever attended our reunions.
Nor does the man who organizes them, who was our school President, bother to note the passing of people of color who shared the classes with us, the same way he does those who were white.
That lack of human acknowledgement speaks a great deal not only to our times but the undercurrent of prejudice that still informs my small hometown.
Three years ago, I went to my reunion in a snug red dress that showed off the body-builder’s form that I have spent 45 years sculpting.
The curves and muscles I have are the result of intense discipline. I also sport the stretch marks of someone who has spent plenty of time obese. The difference between where I am now and the condition of the majority of my class members is a series of choices.
Most of my classmates played smaller. This isn’t a criticism. Florida, most of it, is the Deep South. People stay near family, most marry after high school and raise kids. That wasn’t my path.
While a few of my classmates also joined the service as I did, most stayed within striking distance of that humid citrus county, near the jeweled lakes and moss-covered trees that lined them. Their lives were defined by trips to Daytona Beach and Tampa.
Mine has been defined my adventures all over the world. Still is. In a few days, I head to Mongolia for a month, then Ethiopia for another month.
I spent time in the Army, ran my own business, became a Fortune 500 consultant. I have written two prize-winning books.
All of the above are based on different choices. None of these things makes me better or superior. However, the way my classmates respond to me is as though I think I am. Not in the least.
Small Town Politics
I’d maintained one friendship for years. Every year, I flew to Florida to spend time at their house and visit family in Naples. That year, however, the wife called me out of the blue and accused me of sleeping with her husband.
Not only did that shock me to the core – thank you, nothing of the kind happened – but the viciousness with which this accusation was delivered nearly melted the phone. After nearly 40 years, that friendship withered.
High school jealousies and insecurities do not dissipate just because we age. They only dissipate if we grow up.
Our class did have someone of substance, whom people now, grudgingly, have to admire. George Kalogridis, a soft-spoken young man, began working for Disney World the same time I did, back in 1971.
He bussed tables, I sold Disney ears. He lasted, I didn’t. Today, George, who has a lifetime partner named Andy, is president of that sprawling enterprise. A kinder man doesn’t walk the earth. While he didn’t arrive in his own helicopter, he might as well have.
Old high school acquaintances don’t respond to the arrival of a successful man the way they do to a woman who’s gone off the reservation. In the Deep South, there are still unspoken rules.
The same way that Black alumni are as invisible now as then, a woman who doesn’t marry, lives an outlier life, and shows up in primo shape at 64 is ostracized.
How? Absolutely nobody includes you in their reunion photos. When those are distributed later, you aren’t in them. You don’t even exist. I have some of my own. Standing by myself in a hallway. Just like in high school.
The Good Old Days
Perhaps the saddest thing to me is the amount of time folks spend talking about the Good Old Days as though they were the prime time.
The day we drove to Daytona Beach after the prom and got drunk. I wasn’t there. I was working full time and putting myself through school on my own. My good days are today. Tomorrow. Every single day.
After this last trip to Florida, a state where I would never live again for a multitude of reasons, I had to ponder. What’s the point? I have nothing in common with my high school classmates other than the shared history of a small town Southern school struggling with segregation.
Why on earth would I spend the time and money to go back again?
I probably won’t. Because being reminded of what it feels like to be ostracized for being different, a condition I share with all my Black classmates, is hardly worth the investment. Showing up for the sole purpose of being able to look down your nose at people simply because they made different choices?
That is just so high school.
What was your last high school reunion like? Would you go to another one? What things have you noticed about the people who attend? About yourself? Please share your thoughts with our community.