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For one evening, we were back in high school again

By DIANE STEINLE
Published May 22, 2005


Here is a word of advice to all those high school seniors who graduated last week: Put your high school yearbook in a safe place and don't lose track of it. You are going to need it again in a few decades.

Why?

To figure out who the heck those strangers are at your high school reunions.

I just returned from the reunion marking the 35th anniversary of my high school graduation. Because I left my hometown soon after high school, I had not seen most of my former classmates in 35 years.

Let me just say I was shocked.

Nearly all of the men had gray hair. And those bellies!

Most of the women did not have gray hair. However, their hair had mysteriously turned different colors since high school. Girls who were brunets in high school are now blond. And those who had been blonds are, well, something else. One girl whose long, shimmering blond tresses had been the envy of the other girls in high school showed up with short black hair that was spiked all over, as if she had stuck her finger into a light socket. Go figure.

And what happened to all the jocks? In high school, they had been the center of attention. It seemed that they were all tall, good-looking and irritatingly cocky, while the rest of us were too short, too slow, too shy, too awkward to enter their aura. Over the past 35 years, they transformed into real people - average in height, with lines around their eyes, spare tires around their middles, genuine smiles on their faces. Did they change, or did we?

A few of the cheerleaders still acted like cheerleaders. Bright-eyed and bubbly, they were thrilled - thrilled! - to be there at the reunion.

One girl who had been the class bombshell, with the audacity to wear shorter skirts and lower necklines than anyone else, was still trying to dress the part. But it just looked tacky on a 52-year-old.

The primary activity at a reunion - no one will admit doing it, but everyone does - is assessing how well you have held up compared with your classmates. It is a morbid sport, but hey, how often do we adults get to be in a crowd of people who are exactly our age? The temptation to compare is great.

All these years I had carried around in my head the images of my classmates as they were in 1970. They were frozen in time in my mind, and for some reason I had not considered that they would look different at the reunion. When I first walked in, I thought I had entered the wrong banquet room. Nearly everyone had changed so much that I could recognize people only after studying their faces closely for some feature that stirred a memory. In some cases, I remembered the name but saw nothing familiar in the face. Many an awkward moment was averted by the reunion organizers, who made sure everyone wore a name tag bearing his or her senior class picture.

My long absence from my hometown put me at a disadvantage when it came to recognizing my former classmates. I found that the majority of the reunion attendees had stayed close to home after graduation, and they had run into each other many times through the years. They had seen each other age gradually, gracefully. They had followed the ups and downs of each other's lives, the births of children and even grandchildren, the business and personal successes and failures. They were not stunned, as I was, by the framed list of deceased classmates that stood on an easel by the door. I had not known any of them were gone.

So many years had passed. Yet I did not leave the reunion feeling old. For one night, I was in high school again. It was almost as if we picked up right where we had left off. One of my old high school buddies noted that she heard few people that evening talking about their lives as they are now. Instead, they chatted about their teachers, the band trips, the football games, dating, cars, clubs, and the pain and pleasure that was high school in 1970 - or in any year.

It was good to reconnect with that piece of my past. Afterward, I dug out my old yearbook and looked up the pictures of people I had seen at the reunion but could not remember. I also found the photos of the classmates who had died and wondered what had taken them while there was still so much living to do. I smiled at the pictures of those who had been close friends then, and will be close again, thanks to a reunion that brought us back together.

Then I put the book away. The images I carry in my mind now are of real people, in real time - fiftysomethings with smile lines and graying hair and reading glasses perched on their noses. And I'm okay with that.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is steinle@sptimes.com