Is there a better incubator of love-hate relationships than the high school reunion?
If you are 1) still in touch with your class clique, 2) filthy rich, 3) married to a celebrity or 4) all three of these, you can't wait to get this party started.
If, on the other hand, you were 1) a loner, 2) the target of bullying or 3) still emerging from your teenage shell, a root canal looks more inviting than chitchat about what you've been up to since getting snubbed through four years of high school.
As a denizen of the vast middle ground — neither homecoming queen nor geek — I've had mixed feelings about my occasional trips down Memory Lane. My 10th high school reunion, at a children's camp in the park, mixed married couples and singletons, all of us with something to show off: a baby, a plum job, a fabulous makeover from that unfortunate yearbook photo. By my 20th, at the VFW hall, we were swapping stories about spouses, fiances or exes, and passing around photos of children and teens. The 30th I chose to skip, saying good riddance — I thought — to these bittersweet get-togethers.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my 40th class reunion: I got overwhelmed by my curiosity to see if, as George Orwell famously put it, "At 50, everyone has the face he deserves." Arriving at the reunion venue — a restaurant in downtown Metuchen, N.J. — it hit me: Over the last four decades we had morphed from Mean Girls belonging to The Breakfast Club into Golden Girls acknowledging that Something's Gotta Give.
Those obnoxious cliques had gone the way of the Berlin Wall — not just fallen, but crushed. As everyone embraced everyone else, I was happy for name tags. The loose girls and bad boys were now happily married, with jobs and families, and the nerds, now paired with attractive significant others, had taken their revenge.
I had spirited conversations with people who wouldn't give me the time of day in high school. A classmate I'd known only slightly sat down for 30 minutes when he heard my husband had died a few years before; he told me about losing his wife of 22 years, then getting remarried, and he wanted me to know that things would get better. When I revealed the crush I'd had on a popular guy senior year, he yelped, "Why didn't you tell me?" and bought my drinks for the rest of the afternoon. (We now have a close friendship.) And every time someone asked, "Why didn't I know you were like this in high school?" I could only reply, "Because you never bothered to find out."
So, was Orwell right? Well, maybe. Many of the women seemed to have aged gracefully, whereas many a former teenage stud had clearly surrendered in the battle of the bulge — and hairline. But the way I see it, Father Time may have given them a blessing: They finally get to display their inner beauty to the world.
Speaking of deeper meaning, let me mention how my 40th reunion enriched my life in a way no therapist's couch ever could:
- I was able to deep-six a lot of resentment. Many of the people — mostly males — who ignored me back in the day have become email pals in the present. We make a point of meeting for a catch-up dinner whenever they pass through town.
- I reconnected with my best friend from high school. Jane and I lost touch several years post-college when she got married and I moved from New Jersey to Manhattan. We now see one another each time I go to Metuchen to visit my 93-year-old mother; when Jane comes into the city, we always hit a museum together.
- I've learned TMI — Rick's a breast man, Joe checks out derrieres, and Bud never married because he's a player — but hey, it's all grist for my novel-in-progress.
I'm looking forward to this fall, when we hold our 45th. Though the deaths and serious illnesses of several classmates have forced us to confront our mortality, this reunion is shaping up to be bigger and better than the last. So party like it's 1969 (or '59, or '79): You never know what — or whom — you'll find on the other side of that name tag.
Mary-Ellen Banashek has been a magazine writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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