Newsletter 109: Class Reunions and the Occasionally Necessary Warm Bath of Retrospection

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from June 2018. This was right before I went to my high school class reunion. I believe there is value in looking backward, not that it’s likely gonna help us much moving forward.

One of the most disorienting but fascinating things about getting older is watching people you’ve known since childhood turn into the exact same adults we used to be both amused by and terrified of as kids. When you’re young, adults seem impossibly old, and even though we totally think they’re wrong and stupid about everything, you can’t help but think, just by virtue of being older, they possess some sort of wisdom or life lesson simply by living longer than you have. You grow up and realize this is wrong, of course, but kids don’t know that. So it never fails to bewilder me to look at people I’ve known for 20 or more and realize that not only are they not that earnest high school kid or that searching college student or hungry twentysomething anymore … they’re just another dumb adult now like the rest of them. We all turn out a lot bit more ordinary than we thought.

Later this evening, I will attended the reunion for the 1993 graduating class of Mattoon High School. I haven’t made it back since the 10-year reunion, which — thanks to an ironic and unexpectedly successful run for class president that apparently is an office with the tenure of a Supreme Court justice, or a Pope — I had to organize despite living in New York City at the time while 90 percent of my class was still in Mattoon. It was a miserable experience, not because of the reunion itself, but because corralling 200 classmates from 1,200 miles away in the days before Facebook was impossible and frustrating and unrewarding in every possible way. I vowed I wouldn’t be planning any others, class president or not, and I haven’t. I would have gone to the later ones, planned by others, but the schedules haven’t worked out, or I couldn’t get back, or all the sorts of reasons that life conjures up for you. But I am back for this one.

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Going back for a reunion brings back all sorts of complicated memories for a lot of people, apparently, but I’ll confess I am not one of them. I have been surprised by the number of friends of mine who have flat-out refused to even consider going to the reunion. One friend responded, when asked if he were going, flatly “F — k no.” One friend said she was haunted by even the thought of the reunion, that she had nightmares in the days after it was brought up. Another said “I haven’t seen those people in 25 years and I do not miss them.”

These sound like the memories of people who were traumatized in high school, but — allotting for the fact that I cannot know every other person’s every single experience — I was around all these people in high school and if they were constantly getting bullied and picked on and beaten up, to the point that they’re still terrorized by it today, I must have missed it. I suspect they weren’t, or at least they didn’t have to deal with any more high-school related anxiety than anybody else has to deal with. I have some friends who did have to deal with some of that, yet they still come to the reunion and are affable and cheerful about it. High school’s hard. But what happens after that is much more difficult.

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My hypothesis is that it’s the specter of seeing old high school acquaintances that affect us rather than actually doing it. That’s to say: I think we’re more concerned by how we’ll feel about ourselves at a reunion than what other people will think about us. The last time we saw most of these people, our lives spread out before us in infinite directions, full of endless possibility. We could be anything, or at least we thought we could be. Twenty-five years later, we are all weighed down by actual reality. I don’t think most people’s actual realities are all that terrible, but I bet they feel that way when you compare them to what they, or others, imagined they would be. You can be the best car salesman, or nurse, or postman, or lawyer, or whatever, but all it takes is one person at a reunion to say, when you tell them what you do, “Oh, I always thought you’d be a [insert something with more imagined glamour than whatever the actual job is]” and you’re off into Existential Crisis Land. Reunions can force us to reckon with what we and others thought we might be, and how it contrasts with how we are.

But they really don’t have to be that. They really can be a lot simpler. The most common thing people who don’t go to their reunions say, at least the less traumatized ones, are that a reunion is “not my scene.” I am not sure I have ever met the sort of person whose reunion is their scene; part of the point of a reunion, in fact, is that you are getting away from your usual scene. (If it were your usual scene, there’d be no need to reunite. You’d already be there.) I think this kneejerk cliche means, essentially, “I don’t want to be the type of person who wants to care about a reunion.” But this gives a reunion too much power. It is simply that: A reunion. A way to see people you haven’t seen in a long time. There is no need to make it more than that.

One friend who lives nearby and knew I was back for the reunion texted me last night and asked if I wanted t o meet up this weekend at some point. “I’m not going to the reunion, it’s not my thing, but I’d be happy to see you,” he said. I’d be happy to see him too. It would be happy, lo, to reunite with him. He is curious to see how someone he hasn’t seen in 15 years is doing. But he doesn’t want to go to the reunion. Not his thing. There are many people I am curious to see whom I have not seen in many, many years. Some of them I’ll be happy t o see; some of them surely I won’t. But I am curious. These are people with whom I have a unique shared experience. How did they do when blasted with the real world that was unknowingly awaiting us all? How’d they turn out? Are they OK? Who have I forgotten? What have I forgotten about them? We went through this together, a long time ago. We’re all still here. That seems worthy of revisiting, at least for one night. I’m glad I’m here. It’s not a massive deal. I don’t think it’s a referendum on my life or anybody else’s. It’s just a chance to see some people I don’t get to see anymore. I only wish I could see more of them.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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