Let’s go back a few years. Okay, decades. I’d just entered my second high school in two years, Louise S. McGehee in New Orleans. I was nervous because I didn’t know anyone, most of the class had been going to school together for years, and all the students were girls, which was a first for me.
Fast forward to our 50th high school reunion last weekend. I attended, wondering if anyone in our class other than the three I’d somewhat kept up with over the years, would recognize me. Especially since I was only at McGehee for sophomore year. Granted, it was a small class, about thirty-five. Still, it had been a loooong time.
I bought a plane ticket, packed a bag and went. My excellent friend and host, Margaret, picked me up. Within a short time, we were laughing. Which is what we did a lot of back in the day.
I had a marvelous time re-connecting with former friends and getting to know some cool women I barely remembered. Some time during the weekend, I realized that McGehee was my favorite of four high schools and had a profound influence on me. Probably I felt comfortable going to Smith College, an all women’s school, because of the fine year I’d had at McGehee.
At the reunion, I learned a few things I’d like to share with you.
There are dozens of reasons not to go, most of which boil down to: high school, ugh. But people do change as they experience more of life, and they’re more interesting now. And if you stumble across a person or two who’s not, you can always move on to someone else who most likely is. If you don’t go, you’ll miss an experience. Treat it as an experiment; one always takes away something of value from an experiment, no matter what the results turn out to be.
Time Is a Great Leveler
The vast majority of women I met were warm and welcoming. Sure, some had forgotten who I was and vice-versa (didn’t matter once we got talking) and some simply were more interested in seeing closer friends than hanging with me.
What never happened was the kind of petty high school behavior we all remember. The snarky stuff sloughs off the farther away from graduation you go. And all those reasons I wasn’t close to this person or that one in high school? They seemed pretty stupid and didn’t interfere at all in our relating to each other now.
Sometimes people suggest having low expectations, which is fine as far as it goes. I didn’t expect a lot of women to remember me, and then was delighted if they did. On the other hand, I definitely expected to have a good time. What’s more interesting than listening to the story of a person’s life? We discover a lot in common that way. I figured I’d learn from other’s stories and experiences, and I did. Believing I’d have a good time increased my chances of actually having a good time; I went in open and optimistic, and tried to remain flexible about what would constitute that good time.
Allow Yourself to Take Breaks
Unless you’re the kind of person who gets energy from a crowd (think Bill Clinton,) be prepared to find the process of re-meeting and catching up with folks tiring. It’s not that you’re a loner or curmudgeon; this stuff takes concentration and energy and will, all of which can exhaust those of us who have to expend energy to have fun in a group.
Be rested when you arrive. Step outside for a breath of air if you find yourself flagging. Eat well, especially proteins, for nourishment. Try not to drink too much alcohol, even if, or especially if, you’re nervous. Liquor not only makes for loose lips but can tire you out all by itself. It’s a depressant, remember?
Be prepared to step right up, introduce yourself and shake hands. Insert yourself into some groups. I found myself doing a lot of this on the first day. Then when we saw one another the second day it was more often hugging, which I tend to do when I’m glad to see someone, which I was by then.
Have some questions ready. Here are five conversation starters. Often, people are too shy, uncertain, or self-involved to ask questions. I found that asking questions I really wanted to hear the answers to about a former classmate sparked wonderful conversations. One has to remember to stop asking at a certain point—it isn’t an interview—to allow time for the other person to get their queries in and control the conversational direction.
Know what you want to tell folks about your story, perhaps a quick outline for those you’re not sure you want to open up to, and a longer, more intimate version for those you think are amenable to it and who might reciprocate in the same way. If you’re a bit prepared, you’re less likely to either appear boring or secretive by saying very little—or to blurt out items you might rather have kept to yourself.
Lest you think I had nary a qualm during the reunion, let me assure you how important it was for me to go with a buddy. My pal Margaret and I didn’t stick to each other like glue, we did a lot of mixing, but I knew if I felt too lost or exhausted, I could go stand next to her. And I knew we’d go home (to her house) together at the end of the event.
Do Your Best Not to Compare
Typically, we compare ourselves only to those who seem to be doing far better than we. “Better” can mean making more money, being more famous, having more kids, having kids who sound more successful than our own, looking younger than us, and so on. But reunion is not about the comparison, it’s about sharing ourselves with folks we were once young with.
Each of us has had our successes and our good fortune; hold on to and remind yourselves of them! It’s not like someone else’s having good luck used up all the good luck in the world.
Beware of comparing how someone else appears on the outside to how we feel on the inside. ‘Tisn’t fair. To us. Who knows what that person is going through on the inside? Maybe if we try to get to know them, we’ll find out we have more in common than not.
Tracking people down and getting them to attend a reunion can be time-consuming and thankless. Make sure you express your appreciation to those who put the reunion or various events together, whether classmates or not, and thank them more than once. Maybe even in writing after reunion ends.
I also recommend staying in touch with some folks you particularly enjoyed. For example, I’m likely to see my friend Sherri’s daughter when she visits Boston this summer and again when I do a book reading in Austin next year.
With social media and email, it’s easy to reach out these days. Being connected with people you used to know tends to enrich your life. At least, it has mine. I’m looking forward to heading back south in five years!
For more tips on high school reunions, check out this essay.