Saturday, November 29, 2008

High School Reunion

Cherry Hill High School East Class of 1988. Everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Wang Chung tonight.

Went to my 20th high school reunion last night for the Cherry Hill High School East Class of 1988.
The feeling of walking into the Crowne Plaza Hotel ballroom and seeing people I haven’t seen in two decades was surreal, like a bad episode of the Twilight Zone where you look into a funhouse mirror and see an older version of yourself and your friends. Yet it wasn’t some oddball illusion. It was really us, 20 years later and a little greyer, more jaded and grounded.
I never really understood the fascination with high school reunions until I attended mine. Talking to people about their life experiences, jobs, families and where they settled down made me reflect upon my own choices and framed things clearer for me.
There we were, one of the last graduating classes of the Reagan era, 20 years later, awkwardly milling about and asking each other what we’ve been up to. Conversations touched on family, occupations and reflections about high school and life.
Common misperceptions about high school reunions are plentiful: the jocks get fat, the ugly girls get beautiful and the hot girls are now homely and have 17 kids. Another misperception about reunions is that only the successful people attend because they’re not embarrassed to brag about their lives. Not true, because the people who attended my reunion weren’t boastful at all; they were curious about other people than focused on touting their resumes and trotting out the trophy wives/husbands.
The night resembled Desperate Housewives meets The O.C. meets Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Many of the women were extremely thin and dolled up, while the men who kept their hair were still a bit gray but distinguished and professional. All in all, we looked fabulous.
I learned my classmates weren’t the Gen X slackers the media branded us in the 1990s. We’ve been extremely busy in our chosen vocations.
I lost touch with my classmates after graduation, so I wanted to catch up. I spoke to an engineer with Lockheed Martin, an electrical designer, court stenographer, owner of a cleaning business, a software engineer, a medical writer, a university golf instructor, a former television weatherman, a nurse, an employee with the Environmental Protection Agency, a sports magazine publisher and a member of the U.S. Army who works at the Pentagon. Add to the list several others who toil and work in private practice, governmental positions and regular nine to five jobs.
The whole experience reminded me of the song The Class of ’57 by The Statler Brothers:

Tommy's selling used cars, Nancy's fixing hair,
Harvey runs a grocery store and Margaret doesn't care.
Jerry drives a truck for Sears and Charlotte's on the make,
And Paul sells life insurance and part time real estate.

Helen is a hostess, Frank works at the mill,
Janet teaches grade school and prob'ly always will.
Bob works for the city and Jack's in lab research,
And Peggy plays organ at the Presbyterian Church.

And the class of '57 had its dreams,
We all thought we'd change the world with our great works and deeds.
Or maybe we just thought the world would change to fit our needs,
The class of '57 had its dreams.

Betty runs a trailer park, Jan sells Tupperware,
Randy's on an insane ward and Mary's on welfare.
Charlie took a job with Ford, Joe took Freddie's wife,
Charlotte took a millionaire and Freddie took his life.

John is big in cattle, Ray is deep in debt,
Where Mavis finally wound up is anybody's bet.
Linda married Sonny, Brenda married me,
And the class of all of us is just a part of history.

And the class of '57 had its dreams,
But living life day to day is never like it seems.
Things get complicated when you get past eighteen,
But the class of '57 had its dreams.
Oh, the class of '57 had its dreams.

So here we are, Gen X: married, divorced, with kids or without, paying mortgages, living our dreams or doing the best we can.
The hired DJ cranked up the nostalgia factor and played pop music from the 1980s. Pop music then was like the songs from the 1950s: meaningless, repetitive but fun ear candy. We heard Duran Duran, the Thompson Twins, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Eurythmics. And just when you thought we’d drown in the sullen youth-driven lyrics of Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark or the synthesized assaults by A Flock Of Seagulls, the DJ played Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that came out in 1991 and signaled the dawn of Generation X’s angst-ridden malaise against everything corporate and stupid. It was then, as Kurt Cobain’s voice blared about the idiocy of pop entertainment and the guitar solo that signaled mosh pit after endless mosh pit blared, did I look around the room and realized how far we as a generation have come.
For the teens of the 1980s were raised under the Cold War and bullshit of Reagan and corporate America. We liked the cotton candy feel-good music as teenagers, but in our twenties, we changed. The Soviet Union fell apart, the United States started swaggering and by the early 1990s, we left home and saw the world for what it really was: an eye-opening horrific jungle where it’s eat or be eaten.
Someone at the reunion said, “Why couldn’t we be this nice to each other when we were in high school?”
I think it’s because once we got out into the real world, away from the confinement of school and parental protection and cliques, life bitch slapped us. We matured with experience and suddenly cliques, popularity or our peers’ opinions were irrelevant. What mattered was raw, primitive survival, and with it happiness and personal satisfaction based upon finding something we wanted to do. Our regimented lives gave way to freedom, and with it opportunities. This led to humility.
It’s been said you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. While I don’t usually subscribe to that fortune cookie wisdom, I think it applies here. What the reunion forced me to do was reflect on the past 20 years and where I’ve been and how I’ve grown. It’s been a wild ride from the awkward teenager who roamed the halls of Cherry Hill High School East and wrote for the student newspaper. Now I’m an award-winning journalist with over 15 years of experience. I dug in, never let go and rode the sucker like a bucking bronco high on speed.
After the reunion, an old high school friend and I went to a nearby bar and had a drink. We talked about absent friends, people we knew who didn’t show up to the reunion and about our lives in general. At the bar we met a few more alumni and talked about life.
The people I connected with turned out okay, which didn’t surprise me. My fellow high school students had the drive and ambition to do anything and I’m proud of my graduating class. Some would dismiss high school reunions as nostalgic reflection and a chance to re-connect with a past reality that no longer exists. Yet there was an energy in that room, a buzzing cacophony of dozens of conversations. Old friendships rekindled and new ones bloomed. The chance for us to put our lives on pause and hit the rewind button for a few hours and remember, perhaps with longing, when we were all in the same boat together.

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