In praise of 50th high school reunions

It's been 50 years since first-wave Baby Boomers graduated from high school. Celebrating the milestone with old classmates is profound, deeply bonding, almost tribal.
Crosscut archive image.

The author (far right) having a ball at his 50th.

It's been 50 years since first-wave Baby Boomers graduated from high school. Celebrating the milestone with old classmates is profound, deeply bonding, almost tribal.

At your 20th high-school reunion, you slow-danced with Sandy, a classmate who was always smiling, joking, full of fun. “Isn’t this great?" you recall her saying. “We’re 38 years old but tonight we’re 18 again. We have it both ways.”

But that was 30 years ago. Now it’s your 50th high-school reunion, and you ask Sandy to slow-dance again. She smiles and says: “Isn’t this great? We’re 68 years old but tonight we’re 18 again. We have it ALL ways … and always.”

You both laugh as an old song from the '60s plays. Other classmates join you on the dance floor. It’s the first night of a weekend-long class reunion. You’re having a fabulous time.

This year the first wave of the Baby Boomers, those born in 1946 who graduated from high school in 1964, had 50th class reunions. All over the nation, former seniors — now genuine “seniors” — gathered together to remember “the way we were.” For the next 18 years, Boomers will be reuniting at their 50ths. The last wave, born in '64, graduated in '82, will celebrate in 2032.

If they’re like us, they will squint at each others’ nametags, shriek with recognitions, hug each other warmly and then talk pretty much nonstop. Countless sentences will start with the words: “Remember when we….?” Classmates will drink, eat, dance, laugh, cry and ask how all those years went by so fast.

As the saying goes: Inside every older person is a young person wondering, what the hell happened? Well, here’s what, for starters:

Jobs. Colleges. Romances. Marriages. Children. Grandchildren. Homes. Mortgages. Bills. Infidelities. Lies. Divorces. Wars. Deaths. Cancers. Surgeries. Drugs. Addictions. Recoveries. Triumphs. Failures. Promotions. Demotions. Bankruptcies. Startovers. Makeovers. Epiphanies. Confessions. Apologies. Acceptances. Retirements.

And at last, perhaps: Peace. Joy. Wisdom. Contentment.

At 10th and 20th reunions, many people are striving to impress. At the 30th and 40th, many are struggling to self-assess. At the 50th, it’s just time to profess: “Here’s who I am, for better or worse. Accept me, and I’ll do the same for you.” As one classmate put it: “There are no pretentious people here.” She was right.

You recall D.H. Lawrence’s phrase: “Look! We Have Come Through!” Having come of age in the '60s, that seems especially true. Granted, the Greatest Generation had it far worse, with the Depression and World War II. But we Boomers had our own challenges: the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations, the Vietnam War, Kent State, the Chicago Democratic Convention, Civil Rights struggles, Women’s Liberation, the Sexual Revolution, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Altamont and other tectonic changes, especially post-1964.

At your reunion, a favorite former social-studies teacher says: “Your class was the last class that was fairly straight.” (In the original meaning of that word.) “After that, in the mid-'60s and '70s, with drugs everywhere, things got pretty bad.” And dangerous.

On the first night of your 50th reunion, the organizers play a slide show with photos of your classmates who are deceased: more than 40 of them, in a class of about 300. The room is hushed as the young faces go up on a big screen, then fade away. You hear gasps and tears. “Is he/she gone? We had classes together. We dated. What happened to him/her?”

A video shows news highlights of the year 1964. About the wildest event was the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, when Barry Goldwater was nominated to run for President against LBJ. Or maybe the Beatles’ first tour of the United States, when the Fab Four were mobbed by crowds of screaming girls.

You recall the most outrageous acts of your senior year: Putting a live chicken in the library book-drop slot. Getting someone to buy a case a beer so you and some buddies could get drunk for the first time. Trying to put a cow into the back hallway of the school during graduation week. The principal stopped you at the last minute by holding the door shut. He comes to your 50th reunion, and vividly recalls that incident. You both laugh uproariously. It was a time of such innocence.

Some of us, as Paul Simon sang, are “still crazy after all these years.” But you and your 50th classmates seem mostly crazy about family, kids, grandkids, health, homes, gardens, pets, hobbies, trips, books, faith, love; i.e., the things that truly matter in life.

On the last night of your reunion, a nice buffet dinner is followed by a great band playing hits from the '60s and '70. People dance their heads off. We may be 68, but for a couple of days we’re all 18 again. You look around the room. Memories flood in: “If we had a chance to do it all again, tell me, would we, could we?”

You see one of the smartest kids in your class, once seemingly shy and self-conscious, now relaxed and gregarious. You see a girl you knew in kindergarten, the first girl you ever kissed. You see your first “steady” girlfriend from junior high school, now married with kids and grandkids. You see guys who were the best athletes, some now a bit overweight or talking about their knee and hip replacements. You see the boy and girl voted Most Likely to Succeed — which they did.

You are embraced by classmates you have known for at least 50 years — and some you’ve known for 65 years, since pre-school. You tell story after story, take photo after photo, have hug after hug. When you leave, after midnight, you are aglow with something profound, deeply bonding, almost tribal.

That’s what 50th High School Reunions are all about. Don't miss yours. 


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