I remember the phrase “high school reunion” from my earliest childhood. It meant that my mother (Canton McKinley, ’42) attended committee meetings for a year, got a new dress, and then one Saturday night, left the house with glistering earrings, a shooka-shooka-sounding taffeta slip under her black dress, and my father, who smelled like Aqua Velva as he kissed us good-bye. They would be out very late, and the next morning, in a voice hoarse from shouting above the dance music, Mom would tell us stories about all the people who showed up. If it was my father’s class reunion they had attended, Dad (Canton Timken, ’43) would say proudly, “Your mother flitted around the room talking to everyone! She knew more people than I did! She knows the whole city of Canton!”

It’s true that my mother, who couldn’t pronounce my husband’s French surname for the first 10 years of our marriage, before she died in her 80s had the names, faces, and life histories of all of her 500 classmates permanently engraved on her brain. Add her gargantuan appetite for nostalgia, and you have the Queen of Reunions. In one two year period, my parents attended four family reunions, two high school reunions, and my father’s WWII outfit’s reunion.

Some of those in that “Greatest Generation,” having been through the Great Depression and World War II, tend to want to remember more than some other generations, I think. I don’t have quite the appetite that my parents do for reunions. I never attend the ones at my college, which I hated anyhow. I attend family reunions when I am in town, which wasn’t too often before I moved back. And yet, I have attended all of my high school reunions to date, which are getting more and more like a verse from Peter Nelson’s song, “Summer of Love”:

We are married with children, mortgages too
And we can't believe all the things we used to do.
We can still sing along to that song by the Byrds
Though it's harder each year to remember the words.

Still my work is nothing compared to that of Marsha Brown, perhaps the world’s only self-effacing former football queen, beautiful as always, who manages to get to keep track of and often attend funerals of many classmates and their parents, who manages to stay in touch with several of us, still penning real letters in large, “A+” in penmanship script. Or Dave Motts, class VP and now the Business Manager of the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, whose management skills may be what keeps our reunion machine going. Or Kathy Paris, who is such a cheerful nagger of those who have yet to attend. 


At breakfast with my husband one morning recently, my dream from the previous night came back and hung over me like Joe Btfsplk’s cloud.

"Paul, I dreamed it was the prom, and I didn’t have a date,” I sighed. “Sometimes it seems like all of high school was about not having a date.
He nodded empathetically.

“For you too?” I couldn’t imagine dating as an issue for Paul since he went to an all-boys school. “Really?”

“Oh yes, and….” As his thought trailed away, he looked uncomfortable, shrugged off the thought, and continued in a brighter voice, “I wouldn’t want to think about high school as much as you are going to in order to write that essay on class reunions.”

Actually, attending Paul’s class reunions from a high school that was not only all male but small, private, and in the East, has helped me to see my own most large, public, co-ed Midwest high school in sharper focus, as though attending his gave me stronger glasses to hold up to my aging eyes, delineating the scene more clearly.


The first difference struck me the moment I walked into Paul’s fifteenth reunion and saw more dark, expensive suits and ties than I have seen in a lifetime. (Paul, in his light seersucker jacket and open-necked shirt, was the only one out of uniform.) Perhaps the dress is indicative of these graduates’ careers in the professional managerial class. The men dress this way every day for their jobs as dentists, bankers, and businessmen.

Meanwhile, at my reunion, the clothing among both men and women is most varied, from the people who think they are still dressing for the prom to the very casual types. Some men come in suits, some do not—certainly no one living in Florida does. The women wear pants, dresses, and skirts with hemlines and necklines rising and plunging less along fashion lines than personality lines. I agonize over what to wear, and even as I type this, I wonder if I will be able to stand the backache I’d get from wearing my open-toed lavender pumps, or if I have to put on the Earth Shoe Mary Janes I find myself wearing in self-preservation these days.

There are fewer professionals in my class than in Paul’s; I would guess that most of my classmates who are professionals are teachers. We tended to have “jobs” rather than “careers” early in our lives, especially the women, and many came to our careers very late, some after children were raised. As Wendy Wasserstein once noted, we are of that generation of women who were sent to universities to marry a professional, not become one, so that when we graduated in 1972 and our elders asked us what we were going to do for a living, we suddenly found that the expectations for women, like many other facets of life, had undergone quite a metamorphosis in just four years while we were in college.

As I stood at my 20th reunion in 1988 with my new husband, watching Jean Housos tear up the dance floor as she has been doing since fifth grade (she has such moves, she could be a Swiss clock on steroids), Paul noticed a salient factor of my youth that I’d have missed. “I can’t believe how much Motown they’re playing,” he said.

Certainly if my high school dances rocked to the Beatles, the Who, the Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits, the Byrds, and the Stones, they also rolled to the Supremes, the Temptations, Aretha, and Hendrix, even though my class was 100% white and the school was 99% white. (The school system was quietly integrated in 1963 by four families, none with children my age.) To dance at my class reunions is to realize how close we were to Detroit, just three hours away, and Cleveland, home of the Moondog Coronation Ball.

Of course, the biggest difference in our schools, and so in our reunions, dawned on me as we walked into his, and I realized that every woman in the room was a “mate,” that the only way to gain entrance to the event was to be a male or attached to one. I had never in my life been anywhere before where the sole criteria for a woman’s presence was her being attached to a man. (Roles for women have indeed expanded.) Out of 70 men in the class, only one man once in two reunions attended without a wife. And he came with a waitress from his restaurant.

People come to my high school reunion paired as well as unpaired (either single, divorced, widowed, or in the process of divorcing that jerk across the room.) In that sense, and in many other ways, our reunions remind me more of sock hops than proms. In another way too: more people on the prowl. At my 15th reunion I watched the most handsome, unmarried pair stalk each other for all the world as they did their junior and senior years without ever going out. And if we do not come to stalk, we do look for the persons we might have chosen and didn’t, the secret crushes and former steadies.

My breakfast melodramatics notwithstanding, high school was not all a matter of not dating for me, and in retrospect, I am grateful that I spent the first eighteen years of my life working and playing in the company of boys. I was unready for dating then and learned to know men first as friends and colleagues, perhaps the most useful lesson I learned in school.

Then there is size. “One cannot have too large a party,” Jane Austen once noted, and certainly the Perry High School class of 1968, with 356 graduates (most don’t come, but still…) constitutes a large if not too-large party, a shockingly loud one after attending Paul’s small quiet one. This, too, is fitting since noise is the salient sensory impression in my high school memories. (Proust had madeleines; I have decibals.) From the high-ceiling cafeteria jammed with hundreds of students to the weekly hour and a half pep rallies held in a city that considers itself the cradle of football, Perry High was a constant din. Built beside a railroad track where the trains ran regularly between Chicago and New York, the school air filled many times a day with trains rushing by so loudly that we could not shout over them. My memories of classes and football halftime shows by the marching band are punctuated with stop-action scenes of teachers waiting with their lips posed to finish sentences, horn players with embouchures hovering over their mouthpieces to repeat a chorus once the train had passed.

So I like the rowdiness of our reunions. For long stretches of the evening, I just stare, brain-numbed, letting the sound of a too-loud band or DJ rush over me while everyone tries to shout above the music. That part reminds me more of high school than anything.


I had a poem published this week titled "St. Agnes Eve Arrives in Steubenville, Ohio." I want to think out loud about it here, not so much explaining the poem, which doesn't merit explanation, as to talk about what's been troubling me about football this week--and all my life.
I have been re-reading James Wright’s poem, “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” [available here], a poem I have always loved because as an Ohioan from one of the most football cities in this very football state—my hometown of Canton being the home of the Professional Football Hall of Fame—the poem really captures for me how high school football players become the be-all and end-all, the heroes, for many people in a sad town that has nothing else going for it. “Suicidally beautiful,” Wright describes their playing in his last stanza. The boys “…grow suicidally beautiful” [emphasis mine]. They weren’t born suicidally beautiful, they become  that way once on the field, the poem suggests but suggests too, I think, that the boys are being raised to this way of being.
Recently, in light of what has been called “The Steubenville Rape Trials” coming up in March,* I have been thinking a lot about who is missing from the poem. The fathers are there in the second stanza, and “their women,”--presumably the mothers, though they aren’t awarded their parental title-- are there in the second stanza where they “cluck like starved pullets.” However, I only now notice, there are no daughters. They are MIA, which is curious because there are a LOT of daughters at our Ohio football game. Heck, at all football games, even at the Super bowl..  

A high school friend, Jenny Ebert, posted on Facebook during the Super bowl this past Sunday: “Why can't women stay dressed @ the Superbowl? It always has to be about sex. Where is entertainment with amazing dancing & singing, and uplifting encouraging messages. Enough pelvic thrusts and bouncing boobs!!!”
I wrote back: “They can't stay dressed at the Superbowl because they can't stay dressed at football games and perform. Don't you remember the PHS head majorette in 15 degree temps performing in a teeny sequined swimsuit??”
Jenny’s post triggered a memory from my junior year in high school. The head majorette was scheduled for a half-time solo in her new, exciting costume. She was tiny, probably a size five, maybe three, and the costume was a sleeveless, high-rise, silvery one-piece, skimpier than anything I can find in google images. That outfit would have made the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders look overdressed. I recall too that it was so very bitter cold that penultimate game of the season, that Friday night in November, the ground one quarter-mud, three-quarters-ice, as she walked out with so much skin exposed and performed her full baton routine, then ran back, where her mother wrapped her in a big blanket, and she was half-carried to the bus till she could stop shivering like a broken toy.

Clearly what the sons are given to do at the games is heroic. What the daughters are given to do is…entertain the troops. How half-naked in November accomplishes this is one the adults should come clean about. In addition to the majorettes, we had the cheerleaders, which were never ever boys at our school, always girls. Short skirts. And certainly bouncing boobs. 

And then there are the Queens for homecoming and their attendants. My sister was one of them, every year. Sophomore, then Junior Attendant, then Queen. And I had long forgotten, and now recently recalled again, her telling me about one weekend her senior year when.she was dating a star player on the football team. They had been in his parents’ basement watching TV when he came on to her. She said no. He forced himself. She fought. She screamed. And then she heard his parents’ car in the driveway. She screamed louder and more. And he stopped, told her to stop, stop. He’d stop if she’s just be quiet. She did, he did, and she went up the stairs and came home.

The next morning, she told my mother what happened, and my mother, as my sister retold me, said, “Well, you know those football players are trained to take what they want.” Let me be clear. My sister was not raped. And she did not call it rape. But in that moment with my mother, who otherwise always took her side, she saw that there would be no support for her if she were raped, especially not if she got pregnant. Then you were supposed to keep your mouth shut and marry the guy and have the baby. The following fall, my sister left for college and spent much of her time as a speech major researching a speech on rape that she gave often and won with in college competitions. She never had the opportunity to give the speech in our hometown, which she never returned to for longer than a week-long visit. The football player went on to become a coach in our school system.

Ah, the coaches. The Steubenville coach went right ahead with the season. According to the New York Times, he asked players if they felt they did anything wrong, and they said no, so he did nothing to them, even though they drank, witnessed the girl being molested, and posted photos of it on the internet. Finally in October when two team members testified in legal hearings that they had done these things, the coach suspended them. (The season was 80% over.) And then there are the coaches of the teams that went ahead and played Steubenville.The lovely fans of Massillon, the team in my backyard here, had a sign at the play-offs that said, "Rape Steubenville." Classy, huh? Note to coaches: Forfeit if you have to in order to take a stand saying, we are not going to have anything to do with guys who would treat another human this way, But then we wouldn’t have a Superbowl some years if we held to those standards.
The female, a 16-year old honors student from a small Catholic high school across the river in West Virginia, may or may not have been raped, technically, but clearly she was abominably treated. The judge said the treatment of her by others at the party "did not rise to the level of criminal conduct" (I think he meant "sink to the level of criminal conduct"). Hmmm, they watched and snapped photos of her being hauled, passed out, naked, drunk, to three different parties, where she threw up and had fingers stuck up her crotch– all of which we know from the testimony of many classmates and the evidence of many photos on phones and posted online. If this is not rape in the legal sense, surely it is in the metaphoric, emotional, and very human sense. And the high school girls who stood and watched?-- I don't ever want to meet one of them. No one has said a word about them. Who are they??
As I have been thinking and writing about this all, I happened to check out the calender the weekend of the whole legal entanglement about how this very young girl was to be referred to in court. Her lawyers wanted her referred to as “the rape victim,” but the defense, wanting to remain innocent until proven guilty of raping, wanted her referred to as “the accused.” I was galvanized by the date the papers were filed and announced. Smack between the dates: January 20th, St. Agnes day. Previously, all I knew about the day was that Keats had a poem about it because St. Agnes was the saint of virgins. Wondering what that was about, I looked up her legend. Seems Agnes, who lived during the Dark Ages (ahem), was desired as bride by the Prefect’s son, whom she turned down. So, as the legend goes, the Prefect had her sentenced to death. Only you couldn’t kill a virgin then. So  the Prefect dragged her to a brothel before he killed her. Dragged her through the mud, so to speak. Oh, and in addition to virgins, she is also the saint of rape victims, I come to find out. I couldn't even write about that without feeling I had a sledge hammer.

So I wrote the parody that was published this week—not to mock Wright’s poem. A parody can be an imitation, or a response. I wanted to respond to my own question about Wright's poem: what is happening to the daughters as the sons grow suicidally beautiful? You can read it at New Verse News.

(*For the best re-cap of what is being called "The Steubenville Rapes," see the long New York Times summary here.)