We tried to remember everything we had forgotten.
We summoned up smells and sounds that had long been sanitized and snuffed. We conjured up faces and phrases that had faded and fizzled. We attempted to retrieve, re- enact and relive the rituals and routines that had shaped our young selves.
We resurrected, recalled and reminisced.
In the end, we simply rejoiced that our time together, over forty years ago, had truly meant something and had indeed set into motion our transformation from clumsy, but creative children to gloriously imperfect yet productive adults.
Last spring I received a text message from a friend with whom I hadn’t communicated for decades. She asked if I was planning to attend our 40th high school reunion in July. My immediate inclination was to delete the message and pretend that it had never reached my eyes. I had purposefully avoided previous high school reunions thinking such gatherings were for sentimentalists, the super-successful, or school mates that were intent on stirring up sour stories that were best buried and forgotten. For this once shy kid from Omaha, a high school reunion could only mean a long weekend of what-ifs, could-have-beens, and uncomfortable comparisons (Who still looked like his or her senior picture? Who owned a yacht? Who had three children--all Rhodes Scholars?).
Her text message was soon followed by a message from another schoolmate and neighborhood friend who had lost touch with me (or I with him) forty years ago. He had diligently googled and located me. We spent numerous weekends catching up on the lives we had led since leaving for college in 1977. Somewhere along the way, I agreed to fly back to hot, humid Nebraska to make peace with my past and, in some degree, take measure of myself as an adult.
The trip from Seattle to Omaha, though only three hours in duration, uncovered forty years of memories intricately connected like the cornfield quilt landscape spread out below my plane window.
The expanse of childhood memories continued to unfold as I drove to my hotel located on what used to be the hallowed ground of Aksarben—Omaha’s once famous horse track that cleverly shared the state’s name, only spelled backwards. The site was now a series of hotels, gourmet restaurants and University of Omaha annexations. I passed the skyscraper where my dad worked for twenty-five years (19 floors, yet still the eighth tallest building in the city). Nearby was Joslyn Art museum, a beautiful pink marble edifice, whose expansive Great Plains Native American exhibits mesmerized my siblings and I. And there was the Omaha community playhouse where my friend Jonathan flew on piano wire during a production of Peter Pan. I drove past my childhood house on
Cumming Street, upon whose driveway I rode my red tricycle, and where inside I learned to walk, talk and recover from Chicken Pox, Mumps, German measles and extreme introvert-itis.
A junior high school classmate hosted a party at her beautiful lakeside home (to the best of my knowledge there are no real lakes in Omaha, just artificial ones) to kick-off the reunion festivities. About twenty-five of us attended her residence located ten minutes past Boys Town, the city’s once famous home for troubled boys that was memorialized in the Oscar winning movie starring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy (and where my father, more than once, lightheartedly promised to send my brother and me when we chose to misbehave). The wonderful evening was filled with huge smiles, lots of laughter and warm affirmations—“you were so kind to me’” “You really came to my rescue that time when...” “I’ll never forget how you…” We sat late into the night sharing lovely memories of school and each other. Many of us had been classmates since kindergarten, and I was gleefully surprised that we still cherished many of the same stories of classroom capers and recess romps. We marveled at how successful each of us had become, not in a financial sense, but in our career choices and in “doing good “by our parents and teachers.
A highlight of my reunion occurred the following day when, after some clever conniving, my friends and I were allowed entrance into Hillside Elementary School, our place of work until the age of twelve and home of the terrific Tigers. I know that I am now a principal and functioning world citizen in large part because of what happened at Hillside. I loved my elementary school experiences and teachers. I had tingles down my spine as we walked Hillside’s halls. Though broad in their influence, they were physically narrower than I recalled. The coat hooks were lower to the ground, as were the desks and chairs. We excitedly sought out our classrooms and the spirits that inhabited them. Here was Mrs. Powell’s third grade room where my confidence was boosted as I delivered a report on giant squids. There was Mrs. Law’s fourth grade class where my empathy skills were sharpened when Kelly cut her finger during an art project involving linoleum-cutting tools. There was Mrs. Richardson/Dudley/Gabriel/ Gafner/Nestler’s fifth grade room (yep-five teachers in one year!) where we constructed ghost towns out of Popsicle sticks, and I built up my resilience to and acceptance of change thanks to our teacher-of-the-month situation.
We entered the Hillside lunchroom quietly—once a rule, always a rule—and smelled the spectral scent of Spanish rice, corn bread and Friday fish sticks. A few students, there for summer programs, inquired about our presence. We told them we had attended their wonderful school during the mid-1960s. They looked at us with a mixture of suspicion and reverence, silently asking: Who are these time travelers who find our school wonderful and act as though the lunchroom is a sacred shrine? Before we left Hillside, we took a group picture near the playground where we had once played four square, Red Rover, and Kick Ball and engaged in heated discussions about Batman, the Beatles, and Bazooka bubble gum.
Subsequent days found me brunching, lunching and buffeting all over town in the company of lost friends. Picture taking was plentiful, reminiscences were excavated and embellished, overdue thanks and apologies were offered, and laughter was lavish. At the end of the weekend, goodbyes were softened with promises of future get-togethers and improved correspondence.
While flying back to Seattle, I jotted down a few more take-aways from the reunion:
1) No one remembers, cares about or talks about numerical grades when you’re 58. Yes, grades are important, but one’s ability to connect with others in caring and meaningful ways, due in part to skills acquired and practiced at school, is a greater mark of success.
2) Reunions give attendees the opportunity to update and amend incomplete or unfinished stories. Had I not traveled to Omaha and eagerly listened to my friends’ life stories, my classmates would have remained frozen in my memory as awkward eighteen year olds, struggling with all the craziness and conflict that the teen years bring. I am so grateful that so many of their stories turned out to have happier endings than those I unfairly assigned them.
3) Student interactions can have lasting implications. Kindness is never forgotten— nor is callousness. Yet…
4) Time is the great equalizer and healer. Children should never be negatively labeled, whether they are 6, 12 or 18. They are shaped by their homes, environment and peer groups. They grow and change; and most age very well. They become generous, forgiving and interesting adults. As writer Tom Robbins once offered: It is never too late to have a happy childhood.
5) Happiness is not necessarily defined by job status or salary. Many of my peers radiated contentment as they shared work stories that involved helping and healing others, fixing clunky things, and bringing beauty to the world through art and physical labor.
6) You can go home again, at least for a long weekend.
Thanks to my reunion, I enter this school year with renewed purpose and energy to help create the kind of –and kind school that I attended as a child. My caring teachers, role model parents, and quirky, wise, imperfect, funny friends helped shape my life path. I owe them my endless gratitude, though it has taken me forty years to fully realize their influence.
Here’s wishing your child(ren) a year filled with the same joy, compassion and learning that I experienced at their age. May they too be grateful for and marvel at their elementary school years when they reunite decades from now.