When I think of my high school years, it’s always with a little embarrassment — or a lot, depending on the memory. I committed a number of heinous acts for which there can be no redemption. I wore my shaggy black hair in the style now associated with Rod Blagojevich. I wore pants pegged so tight they looked like leotards. I was paralyzed by shyness. If I really liked a girl, my only strategy was to ignore her. I smoked unfiltered Camels in the belief it made me manly. I went along with any stupid scheme cooked up by friends, most involving copious amounts of beer. To the few good teachers who tried to rouse me from utter haplessness, I returned nothing at all.
You can’t go home again, but people keep trying. This summer, the class of 1969 at the little high school I attended is having another reunion. If I go, it’ll be my fourth. I say if because it’s the first one I have doubts about attending.
I wouldn’t have missed any of the others. Each was literally the party of the decade. In 1979, it was all about proving we were better than we’d been, grownups at last and on the way up. It was the kind of party where you had the urge to buy stylish new clothes or show up in a rented Cadillac.
Ten years later we were at the height of our powers, such as they were. We had our careers, our families. Some plain, unnoticed girls were now attractive women, some formerly boorish jocks were now brimming with bonhomie. Time again seemed the great healer. We all danced with abandon, as though celebrating the end of the cliques and classes that had defined us before.
Ten years after that, a kind of ruefulness had set in. We still got up to dance, but with a bit less exuberance. Mostly we wandered around trying to remember names, joking about getting older and exchanging remembrances that no longer seemed quite plausible.
They were all fun parties. They were also illuminating in an anthropological sense: A graduating class is a little control group, each personality a prototype for someone you’ll meet after. Every 10 years, you can note the effects of time, the shifting tides of success and loss, the poignant impermanence of lustrous hair. On the long ride back home, there’s some comfort in knowing that the erosion of time does not happen to you alone. That despite all the varying paths, you and your classmates are in it together.
Except that after 40 years, growing old together seems less of a comfort. The passage of a decade no longer seems completely benign. Now we’ve watched our parents get old and we know what awaits. All our youthful potential has been spent or squandered; from here on out the pieces start falling off. You’re not sure you want to participate. You look in the mirror. You imagine the sultry cheerleader who was the object of so much teen lust, now a prim grandma immune to lust of any kind. You look at a poem you wrote then, its meaning now obscure. You look at the invitation to the 40-year reunion and think: The rest of you go on; I’ll catch up later.