The word “nostalgia” has fallen on bad times. (It is no wonder, what with bell-bottoms drifting in and out and back into style.) I read an editor’s guidelines that warned, “no nostalgia—at best, a sugary and temporary sweet.” That definition troubled me, as do some other derogatory treatments of the word that I have seen. While I do see a danger in deifying the past, I also see the dangers of ignoring or trashing the past, of recalling only the bad of back home, especially when so many of us no longer live where we began. And I think there are definite advantages in taking the time to go back to our roots and correcting our course for error.
Looking up the word “nostalgia” in my dictionary, I found among its definitions and roots a most tough, useful concept—even several reasons for attending class reunions.
“Nostalgia” has two modern definitions, the first being “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, and situations of the past.” The word “bittersweet,” the key for me, conveys all the ambivalence I feel about my high school experience. While there are people, situations, and things from those times that make me furious to recall, there are other things, people, and situations I do long for. (There aren’t many things, but one friend’s two-tone green 1950’s Chevy, which I did not appreciate nearly enough at the time, is one I’d love to ride in again—and there is no other car I have ever felt that way about, including the one I am driving now.)
The second definition of “nostalgia” is “the condition of being homesick,” a condition I have written on before. I believe that homesickness is a disease contracted by those from a home worth missing. One cure for the disease is a good hard cry; another is a trip home. But when home is not a place, but a scattered group of people, it is not so easy as getting an airline ticket to see your sister.
As my own deceased sister Daun (Perry High, ’70) once put it, “You can’t afford to get on a plane and see all these people. You can’t get on the phone and track them all down. But you can get a lot of them in one place every five years and re-connect.” This was before Facebook, but I would say that even Facebook is not the same as being there.
For some classmates, the journey may take five hundred miles, but even for those who stayed at home, it can seem that long. My classmates who still live in our hometown tell me they seldom see each other any more than they see those on the other side of the state or country. Perry Township is not Lake Woebegone but Another Suburb, and suburbia, as Mr. Perez, our Spanish teacher reminded us often, was never about community.
Tom Hayden, of Chicago Seven fame, recalled that sense of high school reunions in the closing chapter of his autobiography, Reunion, where he described his own Midwest high school’s twenty-fifth year class reunion just outside of Detroit: “It all came down to this: no one checked hairlines or income levels or divorces or partisan labels as much as they asked about family and health and happiness….For me it felt like a return, not of everyone’s favorite son, but not a prodigal one either, just a native son. I hadn’t expected it, and I left several hours later exhilarated and satisfied.”
Many of my classmates put off attending the reunion till several pass, but once they came, reported having the sense that Hayden describes of having arrived safely home. In 1983, living in Cleveland, I bumped into a guy who was the only kid who was in at least one class with me every year grades one through twelve. Like me, he was considered “brainy” and unlike me, he was pretty quiet. With difficulty, I finally convinced him to attend the fifteenth reunion, and all through the evening he kept saying, “This is great! This isn’t at all like I thought it would be.”
“Cripes, Colin, what did you think it would be like?” I asked.
“Like high school!” he shouted above the band.
The surprise and the relief for us late-bloomers is that we get to come home as who we are, and if we are fatter or handsomer or balder or grayer, or the ultimate radical in the room of Republicans, a lot of us are more at ease with whomever we are now than the gawky 16-year old we were.
Or in the words of my younger sister Beth (Perry High ’72), “I left that reunion really glad I am me—not better than anyone else, but not like anyone else either. Different. I am myself, and that’s good.”
I must admit that one of my main reasons for attending reunions is to see someone “returning safely home” for the first time. I particularly recall a friend I had known through most of grade school and sat next to in Spanish III our junior year-- until she got pregnant and was whisked off, never seen again. She showed up at the tenth reunion with stories of her marriage to the father with whom she was stationed in Central America. There she perfected her Spanish way beyond what we ever did in Spanish IV—Mr. Perez’s excellent teaching notwithstanding. She continues to return to the reunions with her deep tan from years of living in Florida, taking on and beating everyone in pool on our get-togethers Friday night before the main event.
Another sweet classmate we’ll call Biff, was in the middle of our senior year production of West Side Story rehearsals when he and the principal had a serious run-in, and Biff was pressured to join the army or face prosecution for defacing a mailbox, which, he was reminded, is a federal offense. He turned up at the fifteenth reunion, not dead in Vietnam, safely home. And that principal, one of the worst administrators I have ever known in my years in schools and colleges, was long gone but still called up and vilified on the Facebook page, “Growing Up in Perry Heights.”
I am hoping the lure of the 45th year will draw several classmates safely home who have not yet attended, even as our 50th birthday party did. When we were in middle school, our then future Class President, Chuck, realized that we would all turn 50 in the year 2000 and promised himself that we would have a big birthday party. And so the summer of 2000, about a hundred of us gathered on the patio of a Mexican restaurant and long about midnight sang “Happy Birthday to Uh-us” and blew out our fifty candles. How can you not love people who keep promises for us all to themselves like that?
My mother heard before her fiftieth reunion that her childhood (not merely high school) friend, Muggy Yewgy, would attend the reunion that year for the first time. Mom was so excited she circled the packed ballroom for an hour asking, “Have you seen Muggy Yewgy? Have you seen Muggy Yewgy?” until she finally found Muggy and they fell into an embrace.
This is how nostalgia works at its best: we long for the one sheep still not in the fold, call it back by its yearling name.
I haven’t yet mentioned that in looking up the word “nostalgia,” I keep coming up on a related Proto-Indo-European root (which is one very very very old root, indeed), “nes,” that means “homecoming,” which, my dictionary says, is related to the Old Norse, “food for the journey.” I really like that definition, though it is a bit of a stretch.
School days, long past, have ever-lasting effects. Those who attended the same grade school together have a twelve-year history, and then most of the rest of us, herded into one junior high and then one high school, spent at least six years together: six years, 36 weeks a year, five days a week, seven hours a day—not to count the extracurricular events and the hours of interminable bus rides. I haven’t spent that much uninterrupted time in one place with the same people since I left there in 1968.
And so I count on my former classmates to keep me honest about who I was and who I am. I may think I have changed, but they keep reminding me that I have just become more myself. (“You were always reading!” they say. “You were always writing!”) Like Hayden, I see my classmates as welcoming everyone, and I love that about them.
A high school reunion’s recognition, acceptance and celebration of self can make it a nourishing event: not just a meal, but communion. Maybe it's not exactly "the communion of saints," but you can commune with the saints in church. Meanwhile, the high school reunion can provide us with refreshment from our travels past and food for the journey to come, on to our 45th, to our 50th reunion, still looking for the Muggy Yewgys who have not yet overcome the distance, who have yet to make it home.