The 55th anniversary reunion of my high school class did not begin well for me.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about class reunions. At our 10th, several of us demonstrated our grown-up status by drinking one another under the table. Reports of my behavior at the 10th kept me away from our 20th, by all accounts a more subdued affair. Our 30th was downright quiet, made livelier by a couple of grandchildren, the consequences of a teenage marriage that had endured against all expectations. I talked with a woman I’d had a crush on in eighth grade and whom I recognized only by her name tag; she’d gained a great deal of weight and had several related health problems, and though she was cheerful and optimistic during our talk, I later heard that she died a few weeks after the reunion.
I skipped the 40th. I learned through our faithful class correspondent that my good friend and fellow sci-fi geek had died of complications of depression, i.e. suicide. By this time, enough of our classmates had passed on that we thought it wise to hold reunions every five years. At our 45th, a classmate who had become a casino singer sang of lost lovers and lost children, his body showing the effects of alcohol and cigarettes and late hours, he who in high school had been built like a lumberjack, our bad boy with a heart of gold. A sad-faced woman who had struggled to make a career for herself out of the area’s meager resources now spoke to me, to everyone, through her husband: tell Michael about this, she would say; tell Michael about that.
In the course of every reunion visit, even the 10th, I saw signs of further decline in the town I had grown up in, empty storefronts and vacant lots and sagging, unpainted houses. The women’s and men’s clothing stores, the appliance store, the hardware stores, the small businesses that had made the town a midcentury shopping destination, could not compete with the larger stores in the Wal-Mart town 20 miles to the south, and one by one they closed. School consolidations took first the junior high school and then the grade school — the high school remains in town for the time being. There are fewer than half of the students in the district than there were the year of my graduation.
It was with this sense of decline that I greeted my classmates as they arrived for the lunchtime gathering of our 55th anniversary reunion. Though I knew they would be changed, my memories of their grade school and high school faces were so clear in my mind that these weathered, wrinkled, sagging versions, these canes and walkers and wheelchairs, couldn’t have shocked me more if they’d been a total surprise.
Our class’s star athlete, the guy who dated the prettiest girls, now was overweight and ponderous, talking at length about his prostate surgery and incontinence. I didn’t recognize the woman who had been the most attractive girl in our class, disliked by many of the other girls because of the attention she received from boys, until she mentioned her late husband, the glamorous guy who’d won her hand, dead of Alzheimer’s disease these five years.
Our class clown, the life of previous reunions, had been made a paraplegic by a workplace accident. His wife had recently died, and he had come back, perhaps out of loneliness, from a faraway and handicapped-friendly environment to his small hometown where he would have a hard time just getting through the day.
One by one, these weathered, wrinkled, ravaged faces morphed into some semblance of the young faces I remembered. And I saw in several of those faces the same kind of bewilderment and surprise as they talked to this white-bearded guy who looks, to those who can’t see beyond the beard, 10 years older than he is. Can this really be the boyish, oddly-talented guy who wrote the senior skit that brought down the house?
And so it went through a melancholy lunch, with talk of cancer and heart disease, dead or dying spouses, classmates gone or going, the sad state of the modern world.
The turnaround in my spirits came in the course of our afternoon tour of the high school. The new consolidated high school was housed in the same brown brick building that had been our weekday world 55 years ago. Beneath its new floors and fixtures and additions, the place was familiar still, and full of ghosts: I saw once again the classrooms where I had been bored and interested and occasionally excited, the hallways where I had horsed around with my friends, the library where I had exchanged sci-fi paperbacks with my late fellow geek, the science classroom where my late father had given us a solid foundation in general science and biology.
Our tour guide was the high school principal. He told us about the athletic program that had made the consolidated school a power in the conference once again. He talked enthusiastically about the advanced placement classes that offered college credit, the highly-qualified faculty, the award-winning math program, the school’s liaison agreements with area technical and community colleges, the many distance learning offerings.
He showed us the computer lab, the library, the science labs, the art rooms where students were working on a camera obscura project; the band and choral rehearsal rooms (Iowa’s public school music programs are among the best in the country); the new auditorium with a stage equipped beyond the wildest dreams of our dear departed drama coach. I had a strong sense of continuity and of progress: I had gotten a good education here, and clearly the education being given today was better than the one I received.
Though there were signs of decline in my old hometown, there was also much evidence of renewal.
A girls’ volleyball tournament was being held in the gymnasium, and the halls were full of teenage girls waiting to play, texting or talking or stretching or quietly resting. In my day, Iowa high school girls could play six-man basketball, a slow-paced game thought to be not too strenuous for the female constitution. Otherwise, girls sat on the sidelines, cheering the boys on. It was good to see that this had changed, that the girls in the gym were competing strenuously and with no apparent damage, and that a large crowd of parents and classmates was cheering them on.
As we walked among these young women, they smiled politely or looked through us or away from us. As you are, I thought, so once were we, and in these very halls; and as we are, so one day you too will be, if you’re lucky; so use well the time. Yet, in the midst of these dark thoughts, I was cheered by all this young and limber and lively energy.
Then I saw a teenage boy standing in the concourse outside the gym. Boyfriend or brother or friend, he was waiting, not watching the games, his face composed, intelligent, patient, a little bored. His gaze was faraway, directed at nothing present before him, maybe at the future that stretched so far ahead of him, 55 years and more if he’s lucky. A beautiful kid, his face smooth and clear as a page on which something promising had begun to be written.
Why this boy’s face should have been the pivot on which my mood turned so completely I couldn’t at the moment have said; I was only aware that I was suddenly happy and hopeful as I had not been since I came back to my hometown. Later, waiting on the country club patio for my classmates to arrive for our dinner meeting, I found words for what I felt.
As I had done at his age, this boy looked into his future and saw what would probably happen to him: graduation and college and career and marriage and children. He may have foreseen these things, but he wouldn’t really know them until he’d lived them: the love and the grief, the gain and the loss, the triumph and the tragedy of our lives. And everything that happened to him would leave its mark on that unmarked face; and for those who had eyes to see, it would be more beautiful than ever.
My classmates arrived during Happy Hour. We talked and talked about our children, our grand- and great-grandchildren, our operations, our late or ailing spouses, our mostly former working lives, and our much enjoyed retirement. Our class correspondent and I had an earnest but friendly conversation from opposite sides of the political fence, and we both learned from the exchange. Our disabled class clown and I agreed that he had made the right choice in coming back home, where he belonged.
Several of us agreed that our friend Carl had left this life too soon but that he had done it the right way, in the middle of his life, from one moment to the next. No lingering in a nursing home for him. May we all make as good an end, we said — but not yet.
We had a wonderful time. Our wrinkled, weathered, sagging faces, our canes and wheelchairs and platform walkers, all were now signs of unsung victories and overcome defeats, badges of honor. And here we all were, having traveled from wherever our lives have taken us, near and far; still moving on to the next thing, ready and even eager to see what will happen next.
May the beautiful kid in the concourse wear as good a face and see with as clear a sight when he stands in our place, if he’s lucky, 55 years from now.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.