The real reason we go to school reunions

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High School Reunions may soon be as out dated as Romy and Michele’s favourite movie ‘Pretty Women’.  Let’s face it a modern day version of the duo couldn’t even try to pretend they invented post-it notes because their entire class would have been able to track them since the high school dance. Reunions now begin way before the event itself with friend requests and group formations. Our social media footprint ensures few are untraceable or forgotten and, with profiles at our fingertips, we can have the reunion without leaving the screen.

So perhaps it’s understandable that many feel a High School Reunion is unnecessary and decline to turn up.

But I disagree.  To you social media voyeurs, I say step up and step out.  While it takes guts, a stiff drink and a couple of changes of clothes to attend a party with the living ghosts of your past, you should.  Because these girls and guys from your past are not ghouls, but gateways to a gift.

The first is a gift to self.  I’m not a nostalgic person but I admit when I joined a school reunion page this year I was sucked into a vortex of the past.  Amongst the posted photos I recognised myself at 14 in a red jumper only just shorter than my tarty tartan uniform, my legs long and lanky, my asymmetrical eighties haircut framing a baby face. The photos capture a time I hardly remember and a child I hardly know.  I see so little of her in me but perhaps more of her in my daughter.  One reason for going to a reunion is for that self-searching and reflection that came before the invite.  It’s fascinating to consider how much of the child you resides within the adult you.  And it’s lovely to meet her again.

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But there are reasons to attend that are far less egocentric as the teenager you once were.

I’ve just been to my two high school reunions.  The first for the school I left in Year 10 and the second for the school where I was then sent to get my act together.  I admit I didn’t go to the First Year Reunion for either. Or the Five Year Reunion. Or even the Ten.  At the time I told myself I wasn’t interested.  I was too far away.  But really, they were too soon for me and too confronting.  I was still running away from my school years so I could forge an identity, a career and life.  School is chosen for us.  Friends are forced collectives within the zoo of childhood.  Some of us need to turn from it to turn into what we want to be. 

But I’ve been to all the reunions since because I realise that I can’t compartmentalise parts of myself and because I’m not the only one who has had a change in attitude.  After 20 years the entire vibe changes and those chips on most shoulders have become mere splinters.  After twenty years, life has caught up even with the most beautiful, most talented, most popular.  After twenty-five years no one cares who was captain, prefect, sports star or dag, loser, reject. 

In fact, chances are the late bloomers will be hitting their peak and finding their power.  Because, as the cocoon of school crumbles into long-term forgetfulness, life becomes a great leveller.  We realise no one has completely escaped the pain of bad decisions or bad relationships, loss or illness, disappointment or drama. Maya Angelou once said ‘we delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty’.  By the time women are in their late thirties, the changes have made us less ‘pretty’ but certainly changed. And that’s made everyone genuinely more beautiful.   

I find it powerful to reconnect with the girls I once stood guard for while they smoked in the dunnies, the friends I threw chocolate cake at in food fights and the mate I tried to fail home science with as a feminist act of defiance.  At my second high school get-together, I found it joyful to reunite with the girls with whom I shared first love, first lusts, the horror of HSC exams and the hideousness fashion of the school formal (eighties puffy sleeved taffeta dresses and big hair).  I found both reunions joyful, liberating and fun. 

Well almost. 

I’m sad to say there was still some pathos.  When I went and kissed my best friend from my first high school she walked off.  When I tried again later she left.  I was shocked at the snub. I assume she’s still angry I left the school and I’m hurt and confused that she could hold a grudge for more than half her life.  But even that couldn’t ruin my night.

For those I did talk to, I saw compassion, confidence and calmness, the strength to show vulnerability and a power not to judge.  Few asked if I had children, no one asked if I was married and while we asked each other what we were doing it wasn’t in a career comparing way but of genuine interest.  We delighted in the fact that jobs ranged from tattoo artist to private investigator at one reunion and structural engineer to feminist apocalyptic science fiction writing at another but we recognised that how we make a living is not how we make a life.  It’s how we live it that matters.  When one group collated a questionnaire, people talked about success in terms of health, happiness, travel, doing a marathon and having interesting children.

Reunions are about pulling parts of our lives together.  If school was a petri dish where we began to take form, it’s important to look at it again to assess how we navigate the laboratory of life.

We go to a reunion to find our child within. To celebrate what we were and who we became. To recognise that life is rich, complex, painful, beautiful, disappointing, cruel, loving, messy and random.  To remind us it doesn’t matter who you were and what you’ve become but how you deal with it and how you make others feel. 

And you can’t do all that on Facebook.

 

22 comments

  • Good luck with that, but not such a joyous prospect for some of us blokes who were dragooned into boys' schools.

    I feel much happier knowing that I'll never again see the self-important and self-entitled bullies who lorded it over my hypocritical and obscenely rich single-sex 'Christian' school.

    Commenter
    Stephen
    Date and time
    November 05, 2013, 9:52AM
    • Agree - I also went to an all-boys school. They exhibited much the same behaviour as you've described.

      When I went back for my school reunion, a proportion of the worst dregs of my HSC year took over the night with constant pub talk and hyper-carry on. The quiet ones didn't say much all night and I felt like I'd just taken a trip to Mars. The most forgettable night I've ever had. Good riddance to that school and school reunions for me.

      Commenter
      RobP
      Date and time
      November 05, 2013, 4:00PM
  • I chickened out of going to mine, and enjoyed the photos people posted on Facebook way more than I would ever have enjoyed standing around in some football-player pub tottering on heels and pretending to be interested in seeing someone you haven't even thought about in 20 years.

    Commenter
    Jessem
    Date and time
    November 05, 2013, 10:09AM
    • Mine is coming up in 2015 and to be perfectly honest I won't be going, I was severely bullied during primary and high school and really don't want to see people that I don't care for. Yes they may have changed as adults but they will always be callous little thugs

      Commenter
      Sarah
      Date and time
      November 05, 2013, 10:13AM
      • What a really interesting and thought provoking article. Myself and two of my high school friends organised our 20 year High School Reunion in 2010. I wasn't the popular or prettiest or smartest at school, however, I was the one out of the three of us that is married but does not have any children, and had the time to go through our year book, get on Facebook, and contact as many people as possible, 340 in total.

        I, like most of us had the feelings of not wanting to relive the past, and the perceived embarrassment or shame or whatever the feelings were. I personally, and purposely, put that aside, and decided to provide a positive spin on the Reunion. We did have some people that outright refused to come, stating they had "moved on, and didn't feel the need to go to a school reunion" however, what we did find, was the people of our School past that did attend, were the most amazing positive, life affirming and friendly School Reunion Attendees. It was incredibly honest and sincere. There were no "I have done better than you" attitudes at all. Your article is spot on! The people that came to the Reunion thought, and believed the exact same thing. We did reconnect, and had a FABULOUS night. I even still have them all as Friends on Facebook, and meet up with my close 3 high school friends every 6 months for a Dinner and catch up, just us 4 girls. That is what we got out of our Reunion. And it was just so very Wonderful.

        Commenter
        Suzanne
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        November 05, 2013, 10:18AM
        • For many, school reunions are painful. If one had a difficult home life as a teenager, then it often isn't a time of your life you wish to celebrate or revisit. Not everyone has Facebook, and for those that do, they choose to keep their profile private, for friends only.
          Have you ever thought that maybe the girl at your reunion who you think snubbed you carries sadness or disappointment about where her life has headed?..maybe she does not wish to "celebrate who we became".
          Given that you write this column, she would know that most weeks you talk about your kids, your husband, your career, you travels, your wider family. What if she has sadness that she wanted these things but, for a variety of reasons was not able to achieve the goals she set herself? As they say, until you have walked in another man's shoes for a week, don't judge them....
          At my high school, life has been very unfair to quite a few..divorce, two widowed in their thirties, children with disabilities. Even the ladies who don't work can get a rough time at reunions, as people judge them, never mind that they might do lots of voluntary work, or cant hold down a job because they have partners who are always away, and they have to be both mum and dad to their kids.Some are jealous that they do not need to work for they have enough money not to. Please consider that not everyone is happy with their lot in life, and they choose not to attend, or if they do, they still find it painful to open some old wounds.

          Commenter
          Skippy
          Date and time
          November 05, 2013, 10:39AM
          • Is being asked if you are married or have children really such a horrible thing? I recently attended my 20th year school reunion and got asked both questions (yes and no) are the answers and didn't feel offended that I was asked. Surely it is part of who you are whether you're a woman or a man?

            Commenter
            Hurrow
            Date and time
            November 05, 2013, 10:49AM
            • No it's not such a horrible thing, but you must admit, one does get bored of replying.

              Commenter
              Jessem
              Date and time
              November 05, 2013, 1:46PM
            • Jessem I live overseas so on our once every two year trip back to Australia to see family and friends my wife and I tend to get the same questions over and over from different people, I agree it does get boring after a while. The reunion was like that to some extent but it's understandable that marriage and kids are fairly standard things for people to ask about.

              My take on the way Sarah phrased it though is that it would have been a bad thing to have been asked about whether she was married or had kids, presumably because it could have been asked or been perceived as being a competitive thing. I won't say that there aren't women (and men) who perceive it as being a competition but who cares, it's only a competition if you let them make it that way. Rather than worrying what some person who thinks of marital status and the number of kids you have as being a game that you try to win, be happy with who you are. It's likely to be far more satisfying.

              Commenter
              Hurrow
              Date and time
              November 05, 2013, 2:15PM
          • I went to my ten year reunion because it was a good chance to catch up with people I'd lost track of over the few years prior, but got on very well with before that, even well after graduating. It was good fun.

            But if you didn't actually like the majority of people in your graduating year, and aren't genuinely interested in catching up with any of them again, I really don't see the point. You aren't proving anything to anyone.

            Lastly, if you can't perform a self-assessment of how you've developed as a person in the ten years since you left school without measuring yourself against the 100+ other people who graduated, odds are you haven't developed particularly well.

            Commenter
            Markus
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            November 05, 2013, 11:08AM

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