Essay: Reflection on 50th High School Reunion

Aug 1, 2014

High school cheerleaders from 1965
Credit flickr, Beth Scupham

[Originally aired in August 2011]

About 30 years ago, when my father’s class from Milwaukee’s old North Division High School got together for their 50th reunion, they enjoyed it so much they decided to keep on meeting annually. They elected my dad their class president, a post he held for many years until his advancing Parkinson’s kept him from attending the annual get-togethers.  Every year he would prepare a speech that was really an essay, looking backward over the decades, and memorializing those who had died in the intervening months. 

My siblings and I thought it was cute that the old people were still getting together more than fifty years after leaving high school. They were part of that “Greatest Generation” that had survived the Great Depression and World War II.  They had raised their families during the 1950s and were enjoying the prosperity they had earned. 

Fast forward 30 years. We had our fiftieth reunion from Washington High School this month. Ours had been a huge class-- over 500 students-- and we have, indeed, lost many classmates over the years, but despite that, and the fact that some of us have retired, we proto-Boomers do not feel old. (Perhaps my father’s class didn’t either; we just thought they were.) 

Many of us have, in recent years, suffered the kind of economic reverses our parents’ generation started out with. We, who started out in the prosperous Fifties, with the vast opportunities of the Sixties and Seventies opening before us, are a little taken aback by the country’s recent economic predicament-- undoubtedly the same kind of surprise that the survivors of the 1920s must have felt after the Crash of 1929. 

But despite that, we don’t feel old. At least, we didn’t until a number of us took a tour of the expanded Washington High and discovered that those marble stairs and hallways are not kind to older hips and knees.  Until then, most of us felt like this really had to be our 25th reunion. Someone was just playing games with the calendar. 

My mother’s Washington High School class held their 25th reunion the same year my class graduated. From the viewpoint of a seventeen-year-old, I thought they were pretty ancient.  This year, one of my classmates brought her aunt, who had been in my mom’s class, to the informal gathering that kicked off our reunion weekend. She’s now 75 years out of high school-- and still going strong. I guess we all hope for that.

Most of my closest friends from high school attended the festivities.  Most of them still look good, and feel-- well, okay.  Some are retired and embarking on second careers. 

I’ve only lost one close friend from those days-- my locker partner from junior high, who died last year.  I hadn’t seen her in decades, but losing touch didn’t mean I liked her less.  I am unnerved by her loss-- and will be more unnerved if any of the rest of my dearest friends from those halcyon days leave this mortal coil before I do. The realization that the Parkinson’s that gripped my father in the twenty years after his fiftieth reunion, and the dementia that took my mother, could take any of us, lurks in the corners of our minds, denied at every instance-- but always a possibility. (Then again, we lost a popular classmate to a motorcycle accident the weekend after graduation; you play the hand that’s dealt you).

We like to think we’re healthier than our parents’ generation was. We like to think that what the medical community keeps telling us-- that the longer you live, the longer you’re likely to live-- is really true. We’d like to think that a bad knee or hip here and there-- replaceable nowadays-- are the worst of the disabilities we’ll face.  We’d like to think we’ll go on forever.

That’s the reason teenagers take reckless chances-- they think their immortal. We golden anniversary types aren’t taking so many chances nowadays-- we know better, of course.  But I think, deep down, we share the same belief that the teenagers do: growing old is for other people, the definition of “old” is at least ten years older than we are, and we’re going to go on forever.  At least, we hope so.  

[Originally aired in August 2011]