I had never been to any of the reunions with former classmates that, for me, can be of the high school, college, or law school variety. Each invitation found me either too busy or not particularly interested, or maybe a little bit of both. But when my wife decided she wanted to attend her fiftieth high school reunion, I found myself more than mildly interested in the experience I would have in observing, if not celebrating with, her former classmates.
Jeri graduated from Alhambra High School in Los Angeles in 1964 (the same year I graduated from Great Neck South, back in the New York suburb where I grew up). She warned me in advance that “no one” would know or remember her. She just wanted to have the experience of being with those of her classmates who would be attending. The idea struck me, at first, as being a little odd, especially if “no one” would know or remember her, but I did nothing to discourage her, and even arranged my teaching schedule to be able to accompany her to Irvine, CA, which was where the reunion was being held (we never found out why).
I learned a few things as soon as we arrived at the reception/dinner, which was held in a large ballroom in the Marriott Hotel in Irvine (which is in Orange, not Los Angeles, County). First of all, more than a few alums did know/remember Jeri, and several went out of their way to greet her as if she were a long lost friend. Another thing I learned was that even if one alum didn’t remember another, everyone was treated like an old friend. Initial conversations often turned on whether the alum was part of the college-prep group or the trade-preparation group, the latter consisting of those not inclined to continue in academic work after high school.
I spent fifteen minutes chatting with one of those grads. His name is Dennis, and he made very clear right at the outset that he definitely was not in the college-prep group. “Just workshop and print shop for me,” he said, without the slightest indication that he was humbled or disappointed with his educational deficiencies. It shortly became easy to understand why he wouldn’t have been concerned with his book-learning handicap, since Dennis, as he proudly revealed to me, is a very successful and wealthy business owner who is also the patriarch of a large family (three children, nine grandchildren, two nieces, two nephews, which, when he hosts the annual holiday vacation that has become a family tradition, totals 31 people, all of whom he wines and dines and rents resort lodging for every year).
His business makes rubber parts that are used in the manufacture of large machine-making equipment. In other words, he makes the little cogs for the big wheels and gets paid handsomely for it. Dennis typified one type of alum I saw: the guy who made it big even though no one might have thought he would. At the breakfast the morning after the dinner, I observed Dennis seated at the head of a large table of alums and their spouses, and he was very much in charge of the proceedings.
Another interesting alum I met was named Ray. Ray is a creationist and proud of it. His main claim to fame is an impressive hard cover book he has written that “establishes” that the Bible account of creation is absolutely and irrefutably correct. Ray was busy selling copies of his book to anyone whom he thought might benefit from reading it.
I chatted with him at length, questioning his science (which is really a series of non-sequiturs, kind of like solving unrelated mathematical equations and then claiming that the total of all of them proved an entirely unrelated supposition). He had written his book over 25 years ago. He claims over 300,000 copies have been sold and that it has been reprinted three times. I looked over the book. It has a lot of pictures of things like dinosaurs and pre-historic humans. It also contains a sizeable amount of text, so it’s certainly a serious effort. And Ray is energized about it, seemingly as much as he was when he first wrote it.
Jeri didn’t know Ray in high school, and I have no idea if he would have been considered a “most likely to succeed” candidate by his classmates. But succeed he most definitely has, even if his “science” is mostly pure nonsense. And he does appear to believe, the non-sequiturs notwithstanding, and as the evening wore on, I did see him selling a few more of his books, smiling all the while.
Dennis and Ray may not have been typical of the attendees at the dinner, but they did epitomize them in one distinct way. Just about everyone I observed wanted to share what they had been doing for the last fifty years with whichever old friend or acquaintance they met. Some were more reserved than Dennis and Ray, but almost everyone seemed more than willing to talk about what turns their lives had taken since that graduation day way back when. And in very few instances were those tales heavy-laden with grief or misery. Most often, they were in the nature of self-congratulatory testimonials.
Of course there is the nostalgia element, too, although I didn’t pick up on a whole lot of reminiscing from the conversations I heard. There would be a little bit of it, remembering certain teachers and classes or popular couples who had gone steady, but mostly the attendees at this reunion seemed to be more interested in sharing what they had been doing since graduation and where they were now.
A woman with whom I spoke (a spouse of one of the alums) may have summed it up accurately when she said, “People who come to reunions are happy people. The graduates who aren’t happy aren’t here because they don’t want to see their old classmates.”
I thought about what she said for a long time and wondered why I haven’t gone to any of my reunions.