The Past is Never the Past: Paradise for a People Junkie

Twenty-four hours ago an email popped up on my screen from Jean asking whether I among others had interest in a fortieth high school reunion this year. Suddenly enthusiastic emails with news and memories appear from Maine, Norway, Florida, Texas... The news, interestingly, is only perfunctorily about our 'now' lives, jobs, and families. Much is inquiring about others in this class of one hundred thirty. The memories are from elementary and high school and our only-ever reunion twenty years ago. I picture teenage faces, but get to know mature people in cyber space. Although I probably only said hi a few times to Frank, another of the reunion organizers, we now volley emails and I get to know someone who became the mayor of a small town in the Deep South standing up for civil and women's rights. Bill did not become an ichthyologist after all, but after three decades of corporate America threw in the towel and is helping to preserve the environment. Bob, now Robert, is an elementary school principal who shows the picture of his/my fourth grade class to incoming children and parents each year. As I think ahead with enthusiasm to our reunion, I'm thirsty for everyone's stories. I'm hungry to see them all.

Looking through the website list of classmates, my eye scans down the list and I feel a chill deeper than the snow outside as I read "deceased" next to 13 names. "Oh god." I say out loud. How could a small blond boy slumping behind a second grade desk looking up over his glasses be dead? How could the vibrant teen who opened her face and sucked in air as she smiled be dead? And a little girl with naturally curly hair, a third grade member of the Jolly Five Foresters - dead? Children and teens looking vital, energetic, and strong, but lying in bed dying? I can't get my mind to reconcile these images. I find my reaction mirrors that of others and it brings us closer, across distance and time, realizing just where we stand in time's pageant.

It's been eight months since that email and I'm psyched (do people still say that?). I think about how many words and concepts never even existed forty years ago - computers, calculators, Internet, cell phones, awesome. And I am fascinated now with the opportunity to observe and feel close up where personal history and the larger world intersect. What better place than a high school reunion to feel historical and social change juxtaposed with individual growth?

On a brilliant fall day we begin to gather at the school. One by one we arrive in cars at the entrance where we once practiced k-turns in drivers' ed. We see each other approach walking. Outside the school the most obvious passage of time is visible: where we used to eat lunch next to small birch and maple saplings, now we stand among strapping trees of considerable girth. Our clothing has become larger or smaller to accommodate us; our birthday suits underneath are looser. Hair has migrated from head to chin or disappeared altogether; certainly gray or colored when present at all. It's comforting to know exactly how old we are; there's no lying, guessing, or hiding. I look at the group of old friends and classmates and see what looks like a grandmother, a limp, a paunch. But suddenly I am slammed with the realization of how I must look as they peer out from their long ago teenaged eyes and see me just as I look at them. I remember what was written in my yearbook. And just as suddenly I realize that I once wrote in their yearbooks. My god, what did I write?

We peer at the nametags we have been given which bear our senior (as in high school senior!) picture. We need to get up close, put on our glasses. Our gaze rises from the lapel and studies the face. The face has creases, crevices, and crinkles, maps of where we have been, pain we have endured, pleasures we have experienced. We look into the eyes and there is the recognition! I feel instant hugs. (It is several days later when I reflect with wonder that we all hugged each other when forty years ago we never did.). It is exhilarating to see people whose ancient history I share. Any of us can say a word, a phrase, or a name and instant recognition flashes in the other faces. It's like we speak a private language of code words that only we can understand. We share a common lineage. We are extended, long-time family.

We tour the campus - a bunch of old people in a strange building that has been renovated almost past recognition. The old walkways, once only covered with a roof from the elements, are now completely enclosed. The students now can't enjoy having their hair freeze after gym or seeing the long, skinny worms emerge on rainy days when spaghetti was inevitably served in the cafeteria.

Miss Montgomery, Mr. Freeman, and then-principal Mr. Lawler join us. Now all retired, we hear how much teaching meant to them as we try to get used to calling them Peggy, Gil, and Joe. They were a decade or two younger than we are now when we last saw them.

At dinner that night, I feel energized by the warm feelings flowing so freely. I am so energized that by breakfast the next day, John and I compare notes about not being able to sleep. I get to know Jean, whose genuine, gorgeous smile lights everyone up. A prime mover in making the reunion happen, she was not from my circle of friends in high school. In subsequent emails she shares deeper sides of herself and I am privileged to get a glimpse. Sitting next to me at dinner is once Candy and a cheerleader, now Candace with a deep spiritual core that makes her a passionate facilitator in conflict resolution.

This reunion offers a wonderful opportunity - getting to know and appreciate people you never discovered before. Maybe they and I have finally come into our own. We're too old to have to impress each other with accomplishments and conquests. We remember so much, so many anecdotes, all different. Some memories are certainly apocryphal. Who cares? What's truth and history anyway except how each one of us perceives and remembers it? This conversation Keith and I have at dinner and it is picking right up on a school bus ride conversation that we had a hundred years or perhaps a moment ago. Forty of us now, and the many more of us forty years ago, taught me how to see and understand other people. Our teachers left indelible imprints, but our peers were in every measure as much our teachers. They all are the history of the world as I came to know it. We are still here. We haven't changed really so very much. But now we realize the extraordinary gift of being alive, of feeling connected to an immutable community.

Ellen Hirning Schmidt

John Jay High School 1965