Wait! Didn’t You Used To Be … Reflections On A College Reunion

I just received a note from a friend who plans to attend hs 50th reunion at the boarding school we both attended. I graduated a few years earlier than he, so I have already missed that milestone, pleading distance, poverty, and commitment to my responsibilities at home.

All of which was true… and yet.

Reunions are weird.

I guess they were slightly less weird when I was ten or twenty years out of college and still felt like a genially irresponsible, unformed energetic wunderkind. At that point most of us still defined ourselves in terms of possibility, and familiar conditions and assumptions were still in place. I had a reasonably thick head of hair, I could sit and stand without much grunting, and I was able to squeeze into the pair of pants I had been saving for the reunion without losing circulation in my legs. I had been in touch with some classmates and looked forward to seeing how they had travelled life’s bumpy road. Was I an unmitigated success? Not yet, but the path still seemed clear.

At thirty years out, life had had its way with most of us.

We arrived with wives, or second wives, or with partners, or alone. Some of us were in recovery; some of us were active in addiction or alcoholism. A few had sent children on to our college; a few of us were terrified that our children had lost their way. The most glittering stories of success were not necessarily those we had thought of as golden children; the most devastating failures seemed to have landed randomly. Some of our number had died; a good number returned to campus having survived divorce, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and tragedy.

We were all looking back at fifty and wondering how many of us would not be back for the next reunion.

It was in this milestone year that I began to feel like one of the Lost Boys meeting the Pan who had aged. If I squinted and concentrated on one feature, I could see the boy I knew as an awkward eighteen year old from West Virginia hiding in the sleek Dallas executive. Overwhelmed by our transformations, I stood partially hidden in the college bookstore, site of reunion registration, trying to see if I could find something of myself in those returning from my era.

Some had aged well; they moved with brisk purpose, smiled easily, and fell back into familiar give and take with friends who seemed to have shared vacations in Sun Valley, Nantucket, Belize. They stood in the Christmas card stance, wife and kids in tow, shining, careless, beautiful.

Others wore every year with grim determination, gray people, tight-lipped, deliberate, pausing before stepping to the curb, patting a hip pocket to make sure a wallet was secure. Those with wives pointed to buildings and landscapes, offering a curt travelogue memory by memory. Portly balding husbands bought ball caps, preening a bit, perhaps looking as I did for the trace of themselves that remained.

In my time, the college offered local boys scholarships, tugging them out of the small worlds in which they had prospered. These had begun their time on campus with hesitant shyness, unfamiliar with the conventions of small college social niceties. As they shone in the classroom or on fields, they relaxed, found friendship, and claimed the place as their own. Their families had applauded too loudly when their names were called at graduation; they turned quickly, willing their families invisible. Many had thickened in the years since graduation, arriving with wives suspicious of this precious place. They appeared lost once again, looking about themselves as if to wonder who the person was who had once walked this campus so assuredly. They struck up conversations with teammates, quickly exhausting memories of Saturday afternoons in October when all seemed possible. Standing then, they clumsily disengaged, assuring each other that they would certainly call the next time they got to San Francisco.

I left early.

Last spring, however, the a cappella group I had started as a sophomore celebrated a 50th anniversary. Over the years, many in my generation had lived relatively near each other, celebrating New Year’s Eve by landing with family at the home of one of the singers, almost all of whom lived on the East Coast. They sang some of the old songs, particularly the ones that had been included on the albums; the less polished numbers were harder to recall. Decade by decade the tradition of a cappella singing had been kept alive as newly auditioned recruits replaced the older groups, allowing us at the 25, 30, and 40 year marks to stage concerts in which current students, recent graduates, and vintage relics from the early days joined together to sing the songs we had learned in common.

Healthy competition among the decades inspired us to master new music as well, learning our parts at a distance, at first with cassettes, then with CDs, and then with mp3s. The ramp-up to the 50th pulled most of us back into the group’s orbit, even those of us whose journey had taken us far from our roots. I had recently retired, had no meaningful commitments to speak of, and missed both camaraderie and music. Yes, distance was still an issue; travel from Oregon always involved several stops and at least a day in travel each way.

But singing our signature songs with close to a hundred men, some of whom are eighteen year old freshmen and one at least a seventy-three year old graduate, is magical, and 50th anniversaries only come around once. Pushing my reunion allergy aside, I booked the flight and started to learn the baritone part to three songs that were entirely new to me.

Here’s the thing. The nervous energy surrounding the preparation for the concert, and the shared risk taken on by, well, all of us, made the days on campus entirely purposeful. This was a celebration and authentic, not a reunion, which is, by its very nature, contrived.

A reunion calls each individual to the individual experience; we slip into the selves that we were, or we desert the selves that we were. We compete, measure ourselves against our classmates; we covet or pity. Friendships restored once a decade wear thin.

I had missed the particular pleasure I found in rehearsals, joking when we slipped off-key and puffing with pride when we pulled a new piece into shape, a friend of fifty years on my left, a recent grad on my right — just about as good as it gets.

The concert went well enough. Some of the decade groups were remarkably good; ours was not. The first number was solid, but we coughed up a hairball on one of our standards and limped through the last piece with enough dignity to leave the stage with some vestige of honor. We sat and listened and saw our legacy before us. Just about as good as it gets.

I’ll go to the next reunion, my class’ 50th in 2018, assuming I’m around and able. There’s a chance I’ll hide in the bookstore for a while, but I’m eager to find out how other lives have gone.

When I was young, I’d be dragged here and there and always asked the same question: “Will kids my age be there?”

Chances are, most of the folks at my 50th will be my age.

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