By Tracy KeenanAugust 22, 2016
Reunion by Tracy Keenan
August 21, 2016
The whole event had been planned on Facebook. Class members who still live in the area got together for planning meetings and made YouTube videos, too – raucous scenarios punctuated by barks of laughter encouraging everyone to come. I’d find myself smiling as I watched them, already enjoying hearing the voices that haven’t changed and seeing the remembered teenagers behind the faces.
The first night was to include the classes before and after ours, but mostly it was us: the high school class of 1976, the Bicentennial year, marked by bravado and much partying. We are decades older now, and many conversations included the word grandchildren. Not so much bravado and the partying was way gentler. Some had lost weight, some gained it; some were luminous silver, and some had barely changed a bit.
Remember the scene from the movie Hook, when the Lost Boys tugged at Robin Williams’ face to see the child he had once been? “Oh, there you are, Peter!” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6s8ZEFUSYAI]
We did the visual equivalent of that with each encounter. No name tags that first night. Just the willingness to be embarrassingly wrong as we made guesses, or worse yet, asked someone if they remembered who we were. (Um, help?) But once the name landed with a small splash in the mind’s surface, the ripples spread and with them moments and vignettes dredged up from who knew where.
There was John, all six foot three of him, head smooth and face earnest and behind it was the small whip of a boy who had had a mass of black curls, glasses, and had walked around with a look of astonishment most of the time.
There was Jill, whose intelligence and wit had been known mostly within her close circle, and whose high school years had seemed to have a decidedly cerebral focus. After her husband died, leaving her a youngish widow, she began working with a personal trainer, and is running and lifting and finding joy in inhabiting the body she carries with new confidence.
There were the popular girls, still lovely and fashionable, but softer and kinder. I watched one of the lovely queens take to the dance floor with a fellow who had been a smiling presence from the edges of the high school noise, and they both rocked out to some old and rowdy tune, busting hilarious moves and grinning unselfconsciously. I love these people, I thought. We grew each other up.
One quiet boy has grown into a mountain man who canoes and camps and has a Grizzly Adams beard. One girl with an easy smile has become passionate about animal recue. This guy is retired already, and that one is a cancer survivor who approaches these months he did not know he would see with staggering appreciation and joy. That woman is another cancer survivor, a stunning beauty still, but with a depth of acquired wisdom underlying her smile as she says how important it was to her to make this trip. We matter to each other because we carry one another in our DNA. Those years, for better or worse, are part of who we became.
I talked with Mike and we shared fragments of memories. We mostly had friends in common, and this was the longest conversation we could remember having, right now, forty years later. I remember when you said this thing. Interpreted a Led Zeppelin lyric. Said Sting couldn’t sing. Pointed out a grave mistake or passionately defended another. We talked about the feeling of self-doubt vs. how we appeared (or disappeared) to the small high school world. Who could know what was going on in those heads of ours, all feathered shag haircuts, acne, blue eyeshadow, or mustaches?
What seems to be at stake in high school is one’s entire identity. Where there is of it during those years is both hard-wired and malleable. It’s where we’d try on personae like outfits, and wail against slights, real and imagined. We’d be filled with outrageous courage and crippling insecurity all at the same time, and it came out unevenly. We’d think we are impervious, but we absorbed everything. And yet, now we remember moments that no more define us than the platform shoes we were wearing on, say, the first nice spring day in 1976.
Maybe that’s the thing we want to tell teenagers, and that they will not really hear until they have years under their belts, miles of road that has polished their angst and given them new vistas, new sorrows to survive (or not), and new understanding of what matters. During those years, we practice different ways of being somebody, never quite realizing that we already are something wonderful that is simply struggling to come into acceptance. We howl and hide, mis-step, mis-speak, and mis-read others, but in the midst of that is the burgeoning of a soul that is just trying to find its way.
There was a black-draped table off to the side with votive candles and the names of those who have passed on from our class. Fifty-two names. Some died young: accidents, suicides. Some in those later years: AIDS, cancer, complications from other illnesses. And some later still, mostly due to that villain cancer again. You could hear the soft intakes of breath as people coming to that table discovered another name, and remembered another face that would not grow old with the rest of us, someone whose life is already bookended by dates, their names always to be spoken with a tinge of sadness.
A friend from elementary school touched my arm and asked for prayers just as I was leaving. He’ll be facing surgery tomorrow. Another friend from middle school gave me a fierce hug and said she’d call soon. Again, I thought of how connected we are, despite the distance of years and miles.
It was an evening of reckoning: looking back at the crucible we had come from, sharing what brief synopses of our lives since then we cared to share, marveling at how we could still see the children behind these faces of ours, and knowing that our time here matters. Our kindness matters. We matter.
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