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December 27, 2006

The Life-Cycle of High School Reunions

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

High school reunions, like their participants, have a life-cycle. And obviously the two are intertwined.

Before getting into that and my own reunion experiences and observations, here's some background on my high school -- which wasn't typical.

By geographical accident I attended Seattle's Roosevelt High, the school district's elite high in the days before an ill-considered bussing plan was implemented. Even though I lived in a census tract that was utterly average for Seattle, I was thrown in with children of University of Washington professors and the city's business leaders.

It was a competitive place scholastically. In my Junior and Senior years Roosevelt cranked out more than 20 Merit Scholarship finalists (and got a mention in Time for it). More than 60 percent of my class went on to four-year colleges -- a high proportion in 1957.

There was a good deal of social stratification and cliques abounded. Couple this with the intellectual firepower mentioned above, and the brew could make for interesting reunions.

I missed the first Class of '57 reunion -- the 10th-year one -- because I was at Dear Old Penn. But I got of taste of it via a booklet with biographical write-ups submitted by class members. The topic of many of the blurbs was career-building progress -- degrees earned, jobs gotten. Besides that, I suspect that many grads used the evening for padding their Little Black Books.

The 20th reunion was more of the same semi-subtle bragging, though with the dating aspect largely missing. Having moved back to Washington state, I was able to attend. What struck me most strongly was the appearance of my classmates. This was in 1977 when the male fashion fad was facial hair in the form of thick moustaches or sideburns of various shapes along with hair that would have been considered grossly long in 1957.

Then there were the girls who I remembered wearing modest sweaters and pixie glasses. Twenty years later they had contact lenses and low necklines. (Alas. Had I only known!!)

I'll skip over the 25th, 30th, and 40th reunions to focus on the 45th. (Did I forget to mention that my class was a wee bit social?)

The trend had been building since the 30th reunion and was clearly in place by the 40th. Career paths were pretty well set, as were family situations as class members aged into their fifties. By the 45th reunion we were in our early sixties, our looks fading or faded, family nests largely emptied, careers ending retirement-by-retirement.

At last we could deal with one another as human beings with a largely shared past. Whether one had been a star athlete, top scholar or cheerleader no longer mattered much. Though I can't deny that there's a whiff of schadenfreude when one discovers that a former standout has been cut down to size.

Overall, the impression I got from the 45th reunion was one of egalitarian good cheer that was dampened only when we heard of classmates who were afflicted with disease or who had died since we last gathered.

Next up is the big 50th reunion scheduled for September 8th. It's supposed to be the last "official" one, though I've heard tell of other Roosevelt classes sneaking in 55th and 60th get-togethers.

Even I got involved. One classmate, a now-emeritus professor of Geography, is compiling a book about our class for distribution a few months before the reunion. Part of the plan was to send out a questionnaire to furnish statistics and biographical information for the book. So I found myself drafting questions, doing data-entry and writing tabulation programs. Plus, I've been able to attend many of the event-planning meetings.

Entering data from returned questionnaires proved fascinating. I was at the computer with a pile of questionnaires to one side and a copy of Strenuous Life, the yearbook, to the other. (Roosevelt was named for TR, not FDR.) And I found myself looking up the Senior photo of each questionnaire subject in order to refresh my memory. Under the photo would be a list of five or six activities or personal interests (for those who weren't "active"). My voyeurism mostly took the form of comparing what the person had been like in 1957 to how they turned out 46+ years later.

This was entirely against the egalitarian spirit just noted. But I couldn't help it. There was no way I could enter information from the questionnaires and not think about it.

The book won't have the raw data I worked with -- just summarized and ranked items. But there will be autobiographical notes similar to what was in the publication for the 10th reunion, though with more of a life-philosophical twist. I hope it won't re-channel any of the worst aspects of the school's competitive atmosphere, and it probably won't. At age 67-68 most of us will be too mellowed-out for that.



posted by Donald at December 27, 2006


The different attitudes about reunions are fascinating. I practice active avoidance myself, especially when it comes to high school. I do have golden memories and good feelings about virtually everything and everyone connected with it; I'm afraid of darkening those somehow. I send them a check every year, so I'm always on the invite lists.

Posted by: thaprof on December 27, 2006 11:59 AM

Though I'm in the same class as Donald and grew up just down the valley in Portland, my experience was totally different. I attended Jefferson, which had four National Merit finalists and 2 National Honor Society scholarship finalists. I was in both groups, but was not a shining student. I shone in the dramatics department, went to NU on scholarship (same class as Ivan Doig and Paul Winter) and somehow ended up now in Ivan Doig's high school town. I may go to his reunion instead of mine!

In 1957 Jefferson and its rival Grant were the most outstanding schools in town -- though an argument could be made for Lincoln, where Gary Snyder attended about that time. Now Jeff is immersed in struggle with black and poverty demographics.

It is my eighth grade class that has reconvened. I have almost nothing in common with them but memories. Some have money, few have graduate educations, but they all seem to love having dinner out together once a month. Some of us went from kindergarten to high school graduation together -- a small town in a big city, now dispersed throughout the city as our neighborhood was invaded by Crips and Bloods, drug-raids and criminals.

The Classmates website constantly flogs us with teasers, offers of help, networking, locating services. Very strange to read about the experiences of recent grads.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 27, 2006 1:37 PM

Winners can afford to be egalitarian.

Posted by: ricpic on December 27, 2006 3:16 PM

I have to admit I"m too ashamed to go reunions, particularly at places where I earned college and grad degrees. I feel like I haven't measured up or accomplished what others expected of me and a immature competitive streak prevents me from being negatively compared. I don't think I'm alone.

Do you think the ones who show up at these things are those with bragging rights? Donald, perhaps your reunion was a distorted cross-section of graduates since only those who perceive themselves as successful will bother to attend ... do you think?

Posted by: Kris on December 30, 2006 12:58 PM

Reunions are mandatory events for fiction writers. They give a sense of where people end up and how incomplete your knowledge of a person can be. Everything is a surprise. Every time I go I end up "bonding" with a different person, usually the last I'd expect.

I attended my 20 year reunion last year and learned a lot, both about myself and others. Honestly, I can't understand why people avoid these things!

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 31, 2006 2:31 AM

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