This month marks the 50th anniversary of my graduation from high school. Now there’s a sentence that really makes me feel old! Over the years since I graduated from Mechanicsburg High School in 1964, I’ve received many invitations to reunions – the 10th, 25th, 40th, 45th, etc. Each time I received another one, I would briefly consider attending and then decide I just couldn’t face it. But this year when the information arrived, I made a different decision. It was, after all, the 50th anniversary, plus one of the reunion events – the alumni association’s annual dinner honoring the 50-year class – seemed less intimate and intimidating, so I decided I would attend.
Understanding why going to my high school reunion has loomed impossibly scary for so long involves revisiting those first couple years after my family returned to the U.S. from Africa. I wrote about this last year in a post called “Re-Entry.” As I described in that post, my American high school years were fraught with anxiety and extreme self-consciousness. With typical teenage narcissism I was pretty sure at the time that I was the only one to feel like a misfit. This was my eighth school experience in as many years. As a 13-year-old coming from another country and entering the second half of 10th grade fully two years younger than my classmates, I think I had ample reason for feeling like a foreigner. In retrospect, however, I also think I not only may have misjudged them but also did not realize how many of them probably also felt like misfits.
One of the main reasons I have never attended a high school reunion is that I have not kept in touch with most high school classmates. I never knew them all that well. Except for those who went to church with me (most of whom were not in my class), I hardly ever did things outside of the school day with them. We didn’t have the shared experience of having grown up in the same small town and going to school together since kindergarten. I always felt like something of an interloper. For example, on my first day at Mechanicsburg, the guidance counselor assigned another student to take me under her wing and show me around. The student was very kind and helpful but she had her own group of friends, so I felt like a tag-along who wasn’t really part of the group. It was a relief when I graduated and went to Messiah College where I was among people who understood better where I had come from and who I was.
The reunion weekend is over now, I attended the dinner, and I came away with a few observations and take-away lessons:
– It helped to go with a friend and a husband. My best friend Mary, while a junior at Mechanicsburg the year I was a senior, had been in classes mostly with seniors so she always felt more a part of my class than her own. Dale, who is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of his high school graduation and has no intention of attending his own reunion for reasons similar to mine, had no problem tagging along with me and being my support system!
– Name tags are essential at these occasions, not to mention old yearbooks. I found my copy of the 1964 Artisan, the Mechanicsburg High School yearbook, in the black hole that is part of our basement and I looked through the senior class photos a couple times before going to the dinner. I was surprised to discover that I actually recognized and remembered more names and faces than I thought I did, and it was fun to read the notes some of them wrote in my yearbook. But the photos were of high school seniors, not senior citizens 50 years later, so being able to look at name tags at the dinner helped a lot. What I really wanted to do – surreptitiously, of course – was walk around to everyone, check out their name tags and then look them up the yearbook!
– I wasn’t the only one who had struggled in high school – which shouldn’t be a revelation to me, give my much better understanding of emotions now than I had then. At the dinner, I talked to several classmates, including one who also came to Mechanicsburg in 10th grade (although she always seemed perfectly put together to me!), someone else who moved in and out of the area several times during her school years, and another whose father died when he was young and who felt like he came from the “wrong side of the tracks.” It’s quite possible that many of the outward things that I was so self-conscious about as the new girl from Africa weren’t even noticed by many of my classmates. It’s a shame that teenagers, at least in those days and in my experience, weren’t better at talking with each other about their insecurities. Maybe we could have helped each other.
– My self-consciousness and insecurity convinced me that no one would remember me because I had been among them for such a short time and hadn’t distinguished myself in any way. Reality is a little different. While there were those at the dinner who looked at my name tag and obviously had no clue who I was, others remembered me, if for no other reason than I had come from an exotic place (Africa), had a bit of a British accent, and must have shown off my very (very!) limited knowledge of Ndebele, one of the African tribal languages with interesting clicks.
– There were four events over the reunion weekend – a meet-and-greet evening at the home of a classmate, the alumni association dinner, a dinner cruise on the river, and a brunch back at the same home. The only event I attended was the dinner, but in retrospect, I should have been brave and gone to the meet-and-greet. It would have given me a better opportunity to reconnect with and learn to know and appreciate in a different way the classmates I barely remember.
– The best thing about the dinner was that I reconnected with my closest friend in the class of 1964. After I had established my own relationships apart from the girl who was assigned to help me when I first arrived, I became friends with Melenna. One of the things I remember most clearly about her was her infatuation with the Beatles, who arrived in the U. S. for the first time during our senior year. I was fairly clueless about popular culture at the time (we didn’t have a TV in our home and never listened to popular music), so her obsession with the Beatles mystified and fascinated me. In the years since high school, especially since we’ve had the Internet, I have periodically searched for her but could never find anything. Yet there she was at the alumni dinner, having recently moved back to the U. S. after many years of living in Germany as an army nurse. And she was hoping to see me too!
All in all, I think it was easier to go to the 50th reunion than it would have been to go to the 25th, for example. Twenty-five years ago, many of us were still in the middle of establishing careers and raising families, and there might have been a greater tendency to compare our successes and failures with others, to measure ourselves against each other. Now with many if not most of us retired and/or enjoying grandchildren, those successes and failures don’t matter so much; what’s more important is relationship and connection with people we knew when we were young. And who knows, in five years, when the 55th reunion rolls around, maybe it will be even easier to participate!