High school reunions: worth every penny

I'm not exactly sure why I didn't want to go to my 20th high school reunion. I just didn't, from the moment that first invitation came over email. I had several flimsy excuses, which I'm guessing are pretty typical for everyone who has to decide whether they're going to go to their reunion or not. In any case, my reasons for not wanting to go went something like this:

It cost too much. It was going to be a two-night affair over a Friday and Saturday night, a $50 per person expenditure, and I was initially under the impression that it was $50 per person a night, which would have cost $200 for my wife and I to go. It's a sum of money, but nothing outlandish, and as I later learned, I had read the invitation a little too carelessly; it was $50 per person for both nights.

I wasn't overly overjoyed with what I was seeing in the mirror. Back in high school I was kind of a scrawny kid, but I've bulked up over the years, probably adding 60 pounds to my frame, which is easily 30 pounds too much. The idea of going to a reunion when you look better than ever -- that's appealing. Going to a reunion, looking like you've been spending your life auditioning for Oreo cookie ads, not so much.

Too many angst-ridden memories. Looking back on it, my high school days were pretty pleasant. I wasn't the most popular kid in the class, but I wasn't on the bottom rung of the social status ladder. Still, there were days when I felt extremely socially inept, just as I'm now fairly sure that many of my classmates did. I guess when the invitation came, I figured that my life was going along well enough that I didn't need to be reminded of four years where I was constantly trying to impress certain girls I worshiped from afar. It was a time when I often spent my weekend nights positive that all of the other kids in school were doing something cool like going out to the movies, dances or parties, instead of doing what I seemed to do way too often: hanging at home with my parents, watching Webster and Mr. Belvedere on Friday nights, and on Saturday nights, the last couple seasons of The Facts of Life.

Did I really want to subject my spouse to a night or two of wandering around a room filled with my high school memories? Besides, this might mean she would want me to go to her high school reunion.

And on my excuses went.

So I didn't go. That is, I didn't go to the Friday night event. The next morning, a blast from the past called, a high school friend who I've somewhat stayed in touch with over the years, and he prodded me to come, and I wound up doing just that, going solo, which felt even weird, but my wife was by now all too happy at the idea of not attending, and it was too late to go search for a babysitter. Besides, of all of my excuses, not wanting to subject my wife to what seemed certain to be a boring night for her, that one really did seem to hold the most currency.

Anyway, I went, and now all I can think of is how relieved I am that I attended, and I have a feeling that the apprehension played out in my head has played out in people's heads ever since people began holding high school reunions. In America, best as my limited research through newspaper archives brings up, we've been doing it since at least the 1860s, but I suspect longer.

So I'm just going to put out a few observations that I made and things I heard, in the hopes it helps anyone else out there who may be on the fence in deciding whether to go to their reunion.

veryone else is probably as conflicted about being there as you are. During the span of several hours, I met entrepreneurs whose companies had failed, people between jobs, classmates who were still looking for Mr. and Miss Right and some who thought that they had met them but were now divorced. There were others who had gained weight, lost hair or arrived with premature gray hair... but unlike high school, I don't think anyone was judging anyone for what they did or didn't look like.

Maybe more than ever, you really are with your peers. At my high school in the 1980s, we had something of a caste system, which seems to have been the case everywhere back then, and I'm sure now. It's certainly why John Hughes had such a hit with his 1986 high school comedy classic, The Breakfast Club. Depending on how you handled yourself and the choices you made in high school, you really could feel like you were part of royalty or a serf working the land in the Middle Ages.

But one classmate summed it up nicely when we were talking about his divorce and the pain of seeing his kids some odd days a week instead of every day: "When you're at your 10 year high school reunion, you're all still trying to prove something, if you went to college, you've only been out of school for about five years or less if you went to graduate school, and it's still a little uncomfortable. By your 20th reunion, you've probably all had some seriously humbling life event. It kind of brings everyone down to the same level."

It is a great time to judge where you are with your life. If you're on the fringes of success or failure -- you've made your first million or you've recently been paroled -- you probably do have a pretty good sense that your life is either working out very well or hardly at all. But for the rest of us, we're somewhere in the middle, and it can be a fun and rewarding experience to get a sense of how far you've come in you life. When I left my high school reunion, I drove away knowing that there are some areas in my life where I'd like to catch up with my peers, and that in other areas, I can feel very pleased. Not that I didn't really know that already, but if you're the sort of person who makes goals often and thinks a lot about where you've been and where you're headed, you're really crazy not to attend your high school reunion.

You should do it for the reason reunions exist: It really was wonderful to see old friends who I once saw and thought about every day, people I studied with, ate lunch and commiserated with in the hallways, at football games, in band camp and Friday nights, (at least when I wasn't watching Webster and wishing I was going out with that girl in my English class). These were people who, for better or worse, helped build my values, world-view and shape my future, and certainly I did the same for some of them.

Driving back home that night, it was almost crushingly painful to think that many of these familiar and yet no longer familiar faces, I might not see for another 10 years. In any case, I'm positive that I'll be going to my 30th high school reunion without a moment's hesitation, whether it's another fifty bucks or several thousand dollars, which it surely cost for my classmates who flew in from far-flung corners of the state and even one, who is now living in Europe. But whatever the cost, I think you pay far more for not attending your high school reunion. It was easily the best $50 I've spent in a long, long time.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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