My high school reunion: a stroll through my past while appreciating the present
50. It’s a number one simply cannot ignore. For marriages, it’s a landmark digit. When you turn 50 you feel as if you are entering older age. So when it comes to class reunions, you can’t be nonchalant about it. You have either completely obliterated high school memories for the sake of self-preservation, or your curiosity leads you to the purchase of airline tickets. I opted for the latter.
I lived in the Midwest from age 9 to nearly age 21. Muncie, Indiana was a place we used to call “back East” when I was a kid, enduring those cross-country drives with my family to see my immigrant grandparents. Back then it was a matter of going to where one had a sponsor, and Muncie happened to be where a few Greeks had put down roots after filtering down from Ellis Island. I had been back there a few times since leaving in 1973, but this trip felt very different. As early as a year before, I began seeing posts about our 50th reunion on a Facebook page dedicated to making it a reality. Soon I began recognizing the names of people, clearing out a few mental cobwebs that had formed.
Apart from working on the high school newspaper and yearbook, I had flown nearly completely under the radar for my three years at Muncie Central High School, avoiding getting social whenever possible. Having to explain my very strict parents to my classmates meant either demonstrating my angst or defending them. I had no desire to do either. So whenever school was not in session I would disappear. If there were parties I never knew about them. If there were gatherings at the local pizza places, I was oblivious. And prom dresses were what other girls agonized over. My existence would be redeemed by my college days, when the local university (Ball State) offered opportunities to live and study abroad. Had it not been for those years of freedom, travel and independence, I would be a very different person.
A fun Facebook repartee with a few ex-classmates sparked my interest in all things high school. In both instances the people I was reconnecting with had become writers or editors, a sign that I had something in common with at least of few of them. The weekend of the reunion arrived and my very social husband George and I drove into Muncie from Indianapolis. I dropped him off at the reunion golf tournament on the edge of town, where the organizer took him under his wing and another classmate hauled an extra set of clubs for him to use. Then I pointed the rental car toward downtown, where we would be staying at a lovely new Marriott. After unpacking a few things, it was time for a few private moments.
Wandering out on foot, I found buildings that once contained businesses I had known well, including those of my father, grandfather and uncles. Entire city blocks full of businesses were gone, replaced by insurance offices, coffee shops, and law firms. My grandfather’s dry cleaner had become an Edward Jones. My father’s piano store was now a restaurant. The large downtown hotel was now senior apartments, but the old insignia remained on the lobby entry floor and the covered drive-through remained intact, reminding me of more elegant times. The city had gone through what many towns had endured after the loss of industry followed by the loss of residents. Regardless, I smiled at the sight of the few familiar businesses that remained. And I peered through the door and stared up a set of steps that once led to my grandparents’ flat over their commercial building. It was a solitary stroll, but a meaningful one as memories of my formative years came flooding back.
That evening offered the first reunion activity where I saw former classmates. Indiana accents were palpable — some more pronounced than others. I thought it would be easy to recognize the faces I used to see in my classes or in the hallways of my huge high school, but I was wrong. Name tags showed our yearbook photos. If I looked hard I could I match up a set of eyes, a smile, or the tenor of a voice to the person standing in front of me. A few were simply older looking versions of the faces I knew, bringing a bit of relief that I hadn’t lost as many brain cells as I’d thought. Still, everyone was friendly and seemed happy to be there. The next night was even better. The reunion organizers had worked hard and scored big time.
Surprisingly enough, a few people remembered me — even some with whom I may have barely had conversations in high school. I swear I spoke to a number of individuals more at the reunion than during my entire high school tenure with them. Most gut-wrenching, however, was the reading of the names of those no longer with us. It would have been hard to fathom as 17 and 18 year olds that some of us would have departed the earth before age 70. As I heard their names, my heart skipped a beat. Also missing were those students who made our school truly diverse. I, more than others, could relate to what they may have suffered being “different” in a town where the KKK had once been an undercurrent and remnants remained well into the late ‘60s. There are a number of stories that will no doubt remain untold but never forgotten.
The biggest bonus of the trip was the acquisition of a new/old friend. Not part of any of the high school cliques but a fashion trendsetter just the same, Alyson had aged beautifully and had a quick response for every question I asked. During the run-up to the reunion we chatted with one another online, creating a frenzy of memories, finding common ground and wondering how we could not have been buds all those years ago. Without even saying it out loud, we both sensed this was the beginning of something wonderful — meet-ups on the left coast or in Chicago, where I am sure we will canvass the most elegant department stores and act as if we could buy just about anything. Smoke and mirrors redefined.
At the end of the evening two of the cheerleaders got up in front of the gathering and led the Muncie Central fight song. Surprisingly enough, the lyrics came tumbling out of me, as if they had been lying dormant all those years. Indiana basketball was a happy disease when I lived there. There was little else to do during the slushy-cold winters apart from attending games where the entire town would turn out to cheer our team on. The Muncie Central Bearcats had won an unmatchable six state championships during a time when all teams were created equal, and even I was caught up in it. The movie Hoosiers was an excellent depiction of life in small town Indiana.
So what was the upshot of traveling thousands of miles from California for this reunion? For me it was a reminder of the great education I got from a team of excellent Midwestern teachers, the discovery that the people I shared those years with were pretty great folks, and the acquisition of a new and sassy friend.
It was also the realization of just how far I had come since carving my name into an old wooden desk some 50 years ago.