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September 16, 2007

The Shock of Non-Recognition

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Whatever there is that has to be said about high school reunions has almost surely been said already. Good. That means I can write to my heart's content without straining for profundity. So raise those cliché-protection shields and batten down the banality-absorbers -- I just had my 50th high school reunion and I'm here to blather!

Does anyone remember an illustration done around 40 year ago in response to the Beatles song "When I'm 64" where the artist tried to project how the Liverpool lads might look when they got that old? There might have been more than one such attempt because the one I turned up via Google doesn't seem familiar.

The imagined 64 year-old Beatles were still recognizable, which is more than I can say about most of the 68-ish-year-old attendees at my reunion activities. Not a surprise for many of us: my reunion-happy class has now thrown five or six such events since graduation -- including the 40th and 45th -- so we were getting conditioned to the shock of non-recognition.

Fortunately, we had an especially handy visual aid in the form of name tags with a 1.5-times blow-up of our yearbook portraits and names in really large type (see example below).

My 50th reunion name tag
At the 40th reunion the name tags had actual-size yearbook photos and type so small that our 58-year-old eyes weren't up to the task. There was a lot of leaning close to the wearer's chest to discern the fine print: hope the ladies didn't mind too much. We learned that using yearbook photos was a good idea and that small type wasn't.

For the first time, I was involved in reunion committee activities and got an inside look at the process. Plenty of ideas were advanced during the first few years of what, for some of us, was an effort lasting more than five years. When the Big Event got close, new proposals tended to be rejected unless they were refinements of existing plans, and some side-events under consideration were rejected to keep an already busy weekend from fragmenting. Nevertheless, five reunion-related events were held: a Thursday golf tournament (about 20-25 participants); a Friday luncheon for women at the Women's University Club in downtown Seattle (nearly 60 signed up); a Friday evening "ice-breaker" event at a hotel not far from the main reunion site (nearly 200 showed up); a Saturday morning tour of the recently rebuilt Roosevelt High School (between 100 and 200); and the main-event Saturday evening dinner at a 1920s vintage suburban country club (400 attendees including a few surviving teachers).

A committee co-chairman informed me that around 240 classmates attended at least one event. This was out of about 530 classmates for whom we have contact information, about two-thirds living within driving distance.

It seems that there were a few people whose contact information was discovered but wanted to remain "missing." This is expectable, from a statistical point of view and psychologically. Some people had a bad high school experience, others might have evolved into privacy freaks and a few might be too lofty to deign to get involved with such "kid stuff."

As best I can tell, most attendees had a good time. Bragging about career progress and maintaining old social distinctions evolved to mellowness by the 40th reunion. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the not-presently-married set were on the lookout for date material: that seems to happen at all reunions.

Sometimes other things don't change. A woman with whom I shared a mutual dislike in grade school tried to zing me immediately after we greeted. Oh well.

A topic that briefly popped up in many conversations was how hard it was to recognize people. Those name tags were essential; simply looking at only a name on a tag and the person we were facing would be inadequate for memory-jogging, especially for classmates who hadn't been close friends in school.

I experienced many instances where another's face had changed beyond recognition. That seems to be a human oddity: can any reader who knows more about zoology than me (and I know nearly nothing about it) tell us if there's another mammal that ages similarly?

After the reunion dust settled I got to thinking about the people I could recognize. I made a list that included those I definitely recognized along with others whose name tag I read before catching their face -- but who I might have been able to recognize regardless. Based on the attendance data mentioned above, I'm pretty sure I recognized at least ten percent and possibly as many as 15 percent.

But my high school was huge. Perhaps as many as 750 were classmates at one time or another (around 670 graduated). I didn't know them all. That means there were some at the reunion that I might have recognized had I known them back then. So I leafed through my senior yearbook and tallied people I knew or knew of in my class, coming up with a little more than half.

If I assume that I "knew" half the class, that would mean I recognized perhaps 20 or even 30 percent of such attendees. But wait! (I'm almost done with this boring stat stuff -- bear with me.) Those attending were more likely to be from the group I might be able to recognize than those who failed to show. That means my recognition score is lower than 20 percent.

So let's say I'm able to spot 15 percent of the people I knew 50 years ago. The same might be true for you at your 50th. Sobering thought, isn't it?



posted by Donald at September 16, 2007


I've heard that reunions can be disconcerting because you think of people you haven't seen since school as looking like they did then, not as they do now. Was that your experience?

Posted by: Peter on September 17, 2007 9:23 AM

At my 25th, one of the girls kissed me on the cheek. I said "I'd have killed for that when we were 18". She said "You weren't so handsome then". She'd been a diplomat in the meantime.

Posted by: dearieme on September 17, 2007 4:27 PM

"But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the not-presently-married set were on the lookout for date material: that seems to happen at all reunions."

Ah. Well. Ahem.

Meet Mr. and Mrs. Kman and Cowtown Pattie. Known each other since seventh grade -1966 - 67. Only good friends in those past yester-years...UNTIL their 30th class reunion.

"There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright,my Kman." (Fernando didn't mind the liberties, he said.)

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 17, 2007 5:00 PM

Peter -- I've been a steady reunion-goer since my 20th, so I've gotten used to the gradual aging.

Pattie -- Nancy and I knew of each other in HS and college, but sparks flew at our HS 45th. So I know whereof you speak.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 17, 2007 10:59 PM

1. It'd be fun to find out how many romances and marriages are of the "we knew each other in high school but only reconnected at our 30th" sort. I bet there are a lot. It can be so much fun to rediscover old friendships and recall old flames. Plus there's no big need to get to know each other in the breaking the ice sense. Nice!

2. It'd be fun to know as well the ages at which people's looks change the most dramatically. (As well as how that differs in different countries, in different social classes, etc.) In my own class... The 10th was striking. Although no one had turned 30 yet, a number of the guys were putting on weight and going bald. Meanwhile, a lot of the gals were looking a lot better than they had in high school -- more confident, pulled-together, standing prouder. Many of the girls who'd seemed like nothing special in high school suddently looked scrumptious, where a lot of the guys were already going to seed. But I guess I'd say the most dramatic change was at our 30th. Up till that point, most everyone still looked pretty much like their high school selves, in however decayed a version. But at the 30th ... Well, a lot of people were pretty unrecognizable. It was as though by the age of 48 a lot of people had said to themselves, "Screw it, I'm just going to let time do what time wants to do and not fight it any longer." Possibly a sign of good common sense and mental health, by the way.

Between the 30th and 35th, not too much change ... Stay tuned for how everyone holds up at the 40th.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2007 12:11 AM

I skipped out on my 40th high school reunion two years ago. I couldn't get past the image of a bunch of Al Bundy types showing up in letter jackets that fit like boleros.

Posted by: Fred on September 18, 2007 2:26 AM

I'm not a reunion-goer myself, but I'm enjoying these essays.

Michael's comments remind me of something a HS friend told me shortly after our 10th, which he had attended (both of us had by then moved far from our upper midwest hometown): "Everyone was the same, only fatter, and the guys had less hair."

Posted by: Linda on September 18, 2007 8:14 AM

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