By Lois Rubin Gross
I went to my high school reunion this past month. It is fifty years since I graduated from Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia. We were a huge Baby Boom class. Over nine hundred of us graduated in June 1967. Overbrook was an “urban” school, overwhelmingly African American. The white members of the class were mostly Jewish and crossed a physical bridge, every day, that separated the racially divided neighborhood. I have been told since then that many African American mothers sought out Overbrook so that their children could get the same education that the Jewish children got. It was a matter of giving your child the best possible tools for success.
It is more than forty years since I left Philadelphia to live my life in Denver and Florida and New Jersey. It is six weeks since I returned home to live in my hometown with proximity to my remaining family and my daughter in New York.
I fretted endlessly about the reunion, mostly about what to wear and, by extension, how I would measure up to my classmates who took very different paths than mine.
We are all now, the class of 1967, either sixty-seven or sixty-eight years old. Many live within miles of where we grew up. Many others have migrated across the country for jobs, climate, and fresh starts. This “ingathering” of classmates was not just a school reunion but also a real homecoming for those who had been away for many years.
First, I must say that our Reunion Committee outdid themselves in making the evening of August 19 a real “Night to Remember.” Second, to the people who didn’t come – and there were many – you missed something special, something that will never happen again, and the way I know this is that there was a memorial table when we entered the room that stopped most of us, cold.
On the table, were the high school photos of seventy-six of our classmates who, as one of the speakers put it, had “transitioned.” Our class was the class that grew up with Vietnam, the drug culture, and the AIDS virus. Cancer claimed a substantial number of classmates including my best friend, and other illnesses claimed more. There were boys who never returned from the war; accidental deaths, mostly in cars; one grizzly murder that made national news; and others who were whispered to have taken their own lives in desperation or in the throes of mental health crises.
We celebrated the mayor of Baltimore; a classmate who recently took a stand against the lines of racial and religious unrest that have recently plagued our country. Mayor Cathy Pugh was probably the star of the night and was celebrated with resounding cheers.
I’m glad I went to the reunion. I was dressed appropriately. I looked as good as many classmates, better than others, and not as good as some. I had a career, though not the one I planned on. Other classmates made a bigger place for themselves in the world and their accomplishments are admirable. Surprisingly, the differences in our achievements were not discussed. Instead, we reminisced about the people we were fifty years before.
If you have a reunion coming up, I have just one word for you – GO! In ten years or twenty, the memorial table will be much bigger and you may not be as fit as you are today, even if you don’t feel particularly wonderful now. The pains will be worth, the wrinkles more plentiful and, fortunately, your eyesight will likely be less sharp so that you will see your classmates in soft relief.
Here are some things to remember when you weigh the option of attending or not attending your reunion:
Every person has lived a life with highs and lows. No one will look down on you for the lows and many will rejoice with you for the highs. That is, after all, what old friends do.
Do not be afraid to confront your demons. While the boy who dumped you at prom or the girl who broke your heart by returning your class ring may figure prominently in your memory, no one else will remember. The hurts do not have to be unearthed unless you are looking for catharsis. In truth, reunions are about the happy times.
Find a person in the crowd who was unkind to you and forgive them. You don’t have to speak the forgiveness. Just think it and do it. You have grown and matured in fifty years. You can afford to be generous. Remember that our lives are shaped by misfortune as well as by success.
Accept the compliments that are given to you. They are sincere and come from a place of love. Thank you to all the people who told me, in one way or another, that I now looked like a pocket-sized version of Jamie Lee Curtis. You made my evening.
Find a person who was important to you and tell them so. I was able to tell several friends how important their friendship was in high school. The Reunion Committee got our class advisor to attend and I finally thanked him for giving me a passing grade in Chemistry when I didn’t deserve one so that I would not have to repeat the course. I also thanked him for the extra-credit assignment he devised (“Outline a chapter of the textbook in a way I would find interesting”) so that I would earn at least one A in his class. I have never forgotten that kindness. Now he knows that I remembered it.
Savor every moment of the evening because this unique experience with these special people, many of whom were your first friends, will never come again. When the Master of Ceremonies asks you to sing the Alma Mater, do it in full voice because it is something that binds you to the people around you. Those classmates share a special part of your life that you cannot recapture, but only remember through the filter of years.
As we sang together, “Hail to thee, Overbrook High/ Our memories we will hold dear”, those were the truest words possible. We, the class of 1967, are bound by the memories, the friendships, and the softly tinted days of late adolescence, before we were overcome by life, responsibilities, and what we would grow up to be.
I’m glad I went to my fiftieth reunion because, despite my misgivings, it was an important passage for me. I remembered only the good times, let go of the not so good times, and left with memories to sustain me in years to come.
Lois Rubin Gross is a librarian, storyteller and book reviewer.