How’ve you been?
An aging high schooler looks back
Me, I write “I didn’t go to my reunion” essays. This weekend, some of my classmates from the Springfield High School Class of 1966 met to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation. Or perhaps to celebrate ourselves for still being around to celebrate it. I’m not sure because I didn’t go. I was not very good at being a teenager, and want to relive those years about as much as I want to relive passing a kidney stone. I remember it as a time of confusion and embarrassment – yes, discovery too, but most of what I discovered was things that left me confused and embarrassed. Nor do I nurture hopes of rekindling old romances; all the girls I wanted were already sensible enough at 17 to realize that I was a catch that was better released. (Had I ever actually unhooked a girl’s bra, she would have found me as unprepared about what do next as George W. Bush after he’d invaded Iraq.)
The prospect that most appalled was of telling my life story over and over. Since I left SHS I’ve spent 40 years as a magazine journalist, in effect doing what I did then, which is sit in my room and write term papers on topics I don’t really care about, only instead of grades I get checks. It’s hard telling yourself that you did your best work at 13, but much harder telling other people, especially people with pensions.
I really identified with the pain professional killer Martin Blank described to his analyst when faced with going back for his 20th. You remember the scene. “They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they’ve all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say? ‘I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How’ve you been?’” But at least the young Blank traveled a bit and met people.
The nostalgia for high school is odd in many ways. We were there under compulsion, after all, overseen by paid agents of the state whose jobs consisted mainly of inculcating habits of obedience to authority. (Learning? By all means, if possible, but order without learning if that was what order demanded.) True, it was a group bonding experience, but then so is being taken hostage.
What people seem to recall is not being in school but being adolescents in school. The schools make almost no concession for this crucial transition into adulthood; indeed high schools make it harder. A dear old friend who graduated from SHS in 1969 recalls that all day during school she was treated like a child, while the dentist who employed her as an assistant entrusted her each evening to close and secure his office with its wealth of drugs and equipment and cash.
People remember high school because it was a unique time in their lives, but that’s mostly because the American high school is a unique institution. In a talk he delivered at his 58th reunion, Will Howarth (SHS ’58) pointed this out. “Schools ranked children by age, not social status, and moved them through a curriculum, year by year, teaching them to share experiences as a single group,” he explained. “In that process the students became ‘a class,’ not defined by wealth but by training and by shared experience.”
The experience I remember sharing was at that time of life adolescents need the experience of the company of adults who are not their parents, adults who can act as role models, mentors and sages, adults they can test themselves against and learn from in order to begin to establish themselves in the adult world. For most of human history, that happened while working beside the grownups in the workshop or spinning at the hearth. Adolescents in our culture are crammed into buildings where the only adults they encounter are teachers acting in loco parentis. Since even substitute parents were the last adults most of us wanted to become, we just put off becoming adults at all.
I must disagree with Will, at least as his remarks apply to the high school cohort of 1966. Being segregated in this way more often meant that kids our age constituted our whole world, so naturally our problems come to seem to be the world’s problems. No wonder so many of us turned out to be aging narcissists, the sort of dreary bores who assume that people will want to read about why they didn’t go to their reunion because, well, Me.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.
Who the heck are you?
Fletcher Farrar, Jr.
Aug. 20-26, 1987
We were greeted at the door of the Mt. Vernon Elks Club by a halfway-familiar looking woman who handed us orange and black nametags with my high school picture on them, two kitschy orange and black plastic beer mugs with the Mt. Vernon Rams emblem on one side and, presumptuously, “I survived my 20-year class reunion” on the other side, and a directory listing our classmates’ current addresses, occupation, marital status and kids’ names. All the reunion organizing committee members wore orange and black t-shirts, and hers said, “Hi! My name is Shirl.” I recognized this as Shirley Taylor, with whom I had attended kindergarten in 1955 and nearly every grade since until graduation in 1967. “Hmmm, Shirl looks better now than she did back then,” I was thinking to myself as she turned around. The back of her committee t-shirt said, “Who the heck are you?”
It was a question I asked myself many times that weekend and since. Who the heck am I after all these years? Despite the touches of gray in my hair (“I have to pay to get mine like that,” cooed one of my old girlfriends.) I might have voted myself least changed since high school. I was editor of the high school newspaper my senior
year, spending my time making assignments, editing copy, cropping photos, writing heads and fretting about why my schoolmates didn’t read it carefully or care more about my carefully chosen words. Just like now. I wrote a column called “What in the World” in which I worried about the draft and the Philippines and promoted Bobby Kennedy. What I’m doing now is different only in that then the columns were easier to write because I had more and clearer opinions.
I found the word “still” used a lot in reference to me. “Are you still in Springfield?” asked someone I’d seen at the 10-year reunion. “Yes, I still publish a weekly newspaper up there.” Few of my classmates are so stable, except for one who was in Menard for our 10-year reunion and is still doing the same thing. We hope he gets to come to our 30th.
Not all about me is the same. Classmate Leonard, who claims to be appearing in TV commercials in Houston in between movie appearances, was telling a classmate who had married a classmate, “Your wife hasn’t changed a bit.” Then he turned to me, “Yours has.” I wasn’t the only one who’d brought somebody different to this reunion than to the one 10 years ago. Upon hearing that a classmate had stayed away because of embarrassment about her recent divorce, Randy, who had been on the reunion planning committee, noted that there were as many divorces among planning committee members as there were committee members — and some of them had never been divorced. Of the 130 classmates who’d sent in information for the reunion directory, 13 listed their marital status as “divorced,” but that didn’t count those like me who’d been there and back. Not that we talked about these things, except for one old friend who told me he’d like a divorce but couldn’t afford it right now.
No, our failures didn’t seem to come up much at all, and to hear us talk our class is pretty successful. A guy from the Class of ’66 who sat at our table as the spouse of his year-younger wife boasted that a state representative and a county board member had been among those attending his reunion last year, while there was not a politician among our classmates. Like I said, we’re successful. Looks can be deceiving, for many of those who didn’t have happy stories to tell probably didn’t come. There might even be a politician among them. Or maybe they didn’t come because they guessed who would and figured if they didn’t like us in high school they wouldn’t like us now. I don’t know why people don’t go to their high school reunions. A friend who didn’t go to either his 10th or 20th said he’s waiting for his 30th or 50th when, he hopes, people will stop bragging about their kids and jobs and start being thankful they’re alive.
Only one of the 13 blacks in our class of 329 showed up; he is working as a foreman in the local tire factory and has some of my white classmates working for him. He told me he still lives in the house in Southtown where he grew up, which he’s rebuilt into a “mansion in the ghetto” protected by a fence and Dobermans. The flyleaf of our yearbook has a fancy full-color group shot of the entire student body posed to look informal on the campus, some of the girls even lounging on the grass, which nobody ever did. When I got it out, the first thing I noticed was that the blacks are all standing in a group by themselves off to one side. The second thing I notice is that I am not in the picture.
I am probably over at the Vernois News office. Working for the newspaper always gave me license to cut classes and do as I pleased, which is why I liked it and still do. It taught me a lot, like not letting your reporters get too close to the story they’re working on. Our sports editor was a member of the basketball team and was so sure of victory once that he wrote a game story in advance so that it could make the paper which went to press right after game time. “Rams win regional tourney,” read the headline as it came off the press. We lost of course, and the entire issue had to be reprinted after a remake of the sports page. We remade a page another time I recall, when a popular recent graduate was killed in Vietnam, only the second Vietnam fatality in our community. Early in the morning before school I rushed the story to the town daily’s composing room, where our paper was typeset on old hot-metal Linotype machines. I had written a headline, “Tribute to an American soldier,” but Charlie, the crusty typographer who loved to catch me in mistakes said, “Wait a minute. This guy was a Marine. You can’t call a Marine a soldier.” Of course not. At the Elks Club party somebody had put out this edition and other 20-year-old copies of the Vernois News for us to peruse while sipping beer from our orange-and-black plastic mugs. I noticed how often pictures of my closest friends showed up in the paper. I just hung around with a bunch of newsmakers I guess.
They were playing records of oldies and when “The Stroll” came on my friends got up to form two lines facing each other to stroll. I remained seated. “Doesn’t this just remind you of the Sub?” asked a classmate. Ah the Sub, the dance hangout in the basement of a downtown building. Indeed it did remind me of sitting in a booth there watching my friends dance. Oh I tried then as now but it was often my unlucky partner who would suggest we sit and talk instead. One of my earliest memories of the Sub is from when I was a freshman and my father had me raising some steers on a rented pasture near our home in town. We were bringing in a load of straw from the country and as we drove through downtown Mt. Vernon a bale fell off the pickup right in front of the Sub! Never since have I been so embarrassed as when my father made me get out of the truck to retrieve it in full view of the upperclassmen hanging around outside the Sub. Thank God for journalism as a refuge for people who can’t dance. It was at the Sub where I interviewed U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas, then trying to act young in his campaign against the boy wonder Chuck Percy. I asked Douglas if he’d end the war. He said as soon as we can achieve peace with honor, or some such baloney.
Digging through my old pictures and scrapbooks I came across a letter I had written but never mailed in the fall of 1966, “11:30 p.m. Sunday,” to a friend who’d gone off to college. It told of a day I’d spent with the girl of my dreams, who’d only recently become available when her old boyfriend had gone off to college. Doubling with another couple, we’d gone on a picnic. “It was perfect. We skied and rode in the jeep, swam and ate and played cards, laughing every minute.” I had taken the other couple home and then her. “We got her stuff out of the trunk and I carried the leftover watermelon in. I took it into the kitchen and the telephone rang. She took it into the other room and talked a minute and hung up. She ran to me, ‘He called, he called! Oh Bud, he called!’ and hugged me and cried for joy.” Well, high school was like that for me, getting close but not quite getting there. Twenty years later I’m closer to where I want to be. It’s why I keep doing the same thing, trying to get it right.
I’m glad high school wasn’t the best time of my life like it was for some in my class. One of them realized only lately how much those years meant to him and searched the country for a company from which he could buy the class ring he’d neglected to buy 20 years ago. Frustrated in his search, he finally commissioned a jeweler to make a new mold from scratch, so now any one of us could buy the new edition, in gold, for $187.50. Hearing this announcement, a friend muttered to me he’d sell his original ring for the $25 he paid for it. I passed up both offers.