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Nostalgia Organized

Joseph Epstein, reunion dropout.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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A reunion marking the hundredth anniversary of the founding of my high school—Nicholas Senn, on the northside of Chicago—is to be held this month, and I shall not be attending it. I am one of those people who had a good run in high school. A minor athlete, a member of most of the school’s better clubs, a boy who went out with pretty and pleasant girls, I had mastered the arts of conformity, and in high school they brought me much happiness. So much so that I sometimes think I may have peaked around the age of 17, and it’s been slowly but relentlessly downhill since. 

Darren Gygi

Darren Gygi

I went to my high school class’s fiftieth reunion, which did not do much for me. I did, though, make one notable discovery: that some of the people who as kids were on the periphery of high school social life went on to have interesting lives as painters, drama teachers, entrepreneurs, while the most popular kids in the class tended to take up ordinary jobs, move out to okay Chicago suburbs, and hold unexceptionable views.

Members of the class were invited to send in a paragraph about their lives for our reunion book. Most people responded in an earnest way, expressing gratitude for their good luck in life, or remarking on how much they were enjoying their retirement, or mentioning their eagerness to see old classmates. One woman announced that, after marriage and children now grown up, she has been spending the second half of her life in a lesbian partnership. A more standard entry, though, might report that the classmate and her husband “enjoy golf, bridge, photography, and traveling,” and end, “We have seven lovely grandchildren, and next year we’re planning a trip to Indonesia.” 

My entry read: “I’ve written a few books. For 30 years I taught in the English Department at Northwestern University, and remain on the football team coaching staff there, working exclusively with Jewish wide receivers, which leaves me lots of free time for my writing. I’ve no complaints at present, but am confident something will turn up soon.”

An Italian restaurant on the outskirts of the Loop was the scene of our fiftieth high school class reunion. When I walked into the restaurant, I immediately hit a wall of disorientation. Just who were all these fat bald guys, these white-haired women? Did I actually once have rivalrous feelings toward some of these paunchy men, harbor adolescent fantasies about some of these grandmotherly women? 

Roughly 400 attended the reunion. Dance music from our high school days blared. A few people stood at a microphone to utter cliché-laden remarks. Nobody noted what a fortunate generation we were. Born in the late 1930s, we missed the Depression, and the men among us, though subject to the draft, did not have to go off to any wars, being too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. We lived through decades of unbroken prosperity in the most powerful and culturally interesting nation in the world. We have strong memories of American life before the center ceased to hold, which has given some of us a touch of perspective on the dizzying changes that technology and our radically altered social mores have wrought. 

At such functions one can either table hop or let others hop to one’s own table. I chose the latter. A few old friends, some from grammar-school days, came up to say hello, briefly filling me in on their lives over the past half-century, then wafted off, probably never to be met again in this life. Two women I much liked when they were girls, both named Roberta (shortened, in the fashion of the day, to Bobby), came up to tell me that they enjoyed my books of short stories. I was pleased to see how still recognizably themselves they looked, how little time seemed to lay a glove on them. In the crowded, noisy room, I tried to identify faces, to rediscover the boys and girls in the now often overly ripened faces of people milling about. At evening’s end, I returned home with a melancholy sense of disappointment. 

“The future,” noted Paul Valéry, “isn’t what it used to be.” Neither, one might add, is the past. I enjoy a warm bath of nostalgia as much as the next person. But I prefer my nostalgia spontaneous, not organized and crudely sentimentalized, which is what school reunions tend to do to it. The sociologist Robert Nisbet called nostalgia “the rust of memory,” and so it often is. School reunions, though, tend to sand down and shellac memory, which is even worse. 

I may one day change my mind about all this and decide to attend my hundred-and-fiftieth high school reunion, but between now and then, thank you all the same, no further reunions for me. 

 

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