Monday, March 15, 2010

What Happens If You Show Up to Confront Your Past, But It's Gone?

I've always known that you must not let all the opportunities pass to show appreciation to your loved ones. I never knew that you must act just as quickly to confront your demons. Turns out that both kinds of opportunities are ephemeral.

I went to my 25th high school reunion. No one I knew from high school was there. I met only adults, forty year old doppelgangers, descendants of the loved ones and demons that I remembered from high school. I went expecting to confront the past, but the past wasn't there. It was too late to confront people from the past. The only past I could confront was within me.

I met a more or less familiar group of strangers swapping news and memories. Some memories I shared, some obliquely intersected my own, many were new to me. Lord help me, I liked all of these people (at least, all the ones with whom I spoke).

A girl who, as far as I remember, never spoke to me in high school, was now a woman who greeted me like a friend and was genuinely warm and happy to see me. I truly liked her, too. A boy I remember as rude, obnoxious, annoying, and awkward was a man, and not at all rude, obnoxious, or annoying (ok, still a little awkward). Another girl who was indifferent to me in high school was a woman who laughed when I told her that no one from high school was actually present. "Good thing," she said, "I didn't like a lot of them. Even myself."

It was, perhaps, the most surreal experience of my life.

We had not held any other reunions; this one, the 25th year, was the first. If we had met every five years, maybe it would have been different. More of the same cliques. More comparisons of progress and more jealousy.

I didn't recognize half of the people, even at close range, until they told me their names. After the first such incidence, I didn't let it bother me any more. Some of them looked radically difference from how I remembered them. Others looked exactly the same, or nearly the same, with some broadening of faces and bodies.

I was surprised at how beautiful the women were. And the men so handsome and sharp. They all seemed to be more or less happy (only half of the class attended, so perhaps some of the ones that did not attend were less beautiful and less happy).

The fact that so many of them came, and the fact that so many of them are still connected to a daily Jewish life, was a pleasant surprise.

Nothing can change the fact that I suffered through my school years, and that I experienced reverberations of this suffering in the years following. I came to the reunion hoping to confront this past as a self-assured adult. But the past had died. With no one left to confront, there was, is, a certain lack of closure. But also now an acknowledgement that I can finally let it go.

When you walk into a bar mitzvah or wedding, there are generally a handful of people with whom you want to catch up. This was like speed dating: you got three minutes to connect and then you had to move on. Still, there were a few people with whom I really wanted to reconnect; a few of these few (or rather, the doppelganger descendants of them) came. And I had the privilege of spending a few precious minutes with them. It was amazing. They were not exactly the people I knew in high school, but they were the closest I was going to get. They were those people and 25 years added on.

What a night. Pictures later.

7 comments:

Jonathan Kaplan said...

Yehuda/Jonathan,

It _was_ surreal. I expected it to be... At least I was prepared for that!

I know you felt that the people who inhabited the room weren't 'the same people' with whom we went to school.

You were disappointed because you had wanted to confront the past as a self assured and upstanding adult. I completely understand how you feel and I don't want to diminish your feelings in any way.

I would, thought, like to suggest a possible alternate way of looking at this:

I know your high school years were very difficult. I was there. And even though I was very much wrapped up in my own life and problems, I knew that your life was not pleasant. Over the years, whenever I thought of school, I would wonder what became of you, and other people who had a rough time socially. I was 'lucky' in those years because my home life was so unhealthy and stressful that school was a place that I loved to go, whether I was popular or not!

I can't tell you what to feel, and I certainly won't pretend to fully understand the depth of your emotions, but know this:

Seeing _you_ last night was good for _me_. The fact that you connected with us all, and came to the event, made a difference in my life because it is a powerful reminder of our resiliency as people.

Another point: Feeling like our classmates were somehow not 'the same' is understandable. When you first made that remark, I agreed, but as I drove home, my view changed a bit.

Ask yourself, am I the same? From your perspective you most probably feel "Yes!". I certainly _think_ I am the same kid who went to school with you - just with 25 more years of life.

...and that, imo, is the point: regardless of the passage of time we are simply the older versions of our high-school selves.

Take that to heart: Instead of seeing the positive interactions with those who you felt ignored or mistreated you back then as puzzling - see them for what (in my opinion) they were: genuine, positive, and upbeat expressions of interest about you from people who were your classmates.

Yes, we have all changed. But we are still the same people.

Consider that genuinely expressing compassion/care for you may have been another classmates version of confronting his or her past!

I submit that, even though it may not have felt that way in the moment, you _did_ achieve your goal of confronting your past.

As different as the current version appears, last night was indeed a visit to 1982-85. Just with 25 years of life bolted on to it.

I submit that by simply being there, you accomplished your goal.

Seeing you was part of mine!

Timeshadows said...

Congratulations on moving beyond the hurt.
--A genuine victory you have achieved. :D

Sharon Goldman said...

Jonathan,

I knew going in that was going to be the weirdest part about our night -- that since we have all gone on to live 25 years worth of life, it would be impossible to be the same people who shared the high school experience together. Or didn't -- for example, I know we didn't share a strong personal connection in high school.

So what makes people go to and enjoy a high school reunion? Who knows? Maybe it's putting the past to bed. Maybe it's seeing that the people who you thought were frozen in time have moved far along in life, just as you have. Maybe it's a desire to share a group memory, even if just for one evening. Maybe it's just a sense of sentimentality, of holding on to youth.

Whatever it is, I'm glad I experienced it -- and so glad to have seen you. I think we're all aging gracefully and I was thrilled to witness it.

Sharon G.

ann said...

I would imagine that almost everyone approached last night with some trepidation, but in the end I thought it was really gratifying to connect with everyone, even if only for, as you said, a speed date interaction. Somebody apologized to me last night for something he did to me in 8th grade. I was touched by his apology, even though I had no recollection of the 'incident'. I'm sure I had my share of transgressions that I'm guilty of, whether by omission or comission, and I regret them, and I hope that everyone can be generous with amnesty for the things we did as teenagers. It was an amazing thing to see how everyone had evolved into a 'real' person and in some ways we could pick up where we left off 25 years ago or initiate something entirely new. I have to say I walked in wanting to get it over with, and left with a feeling of wanting more. It was a great experience and really good to see you. I hope it might happen again.

Matthew Frederick said...

Well written, thanks very much for sharing it.

I find that a similar thing happens when adults try to confront their parents on things that happened during childhood: most of the time that 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 year-old person you're confronting simply _isn't_ the 20- or 30-something that did those things.

I've not attended any reunions because my friends were social outcasts like me, and they have no desire to relive those years. As such, I'd barely know any of the people who do show.

Thanks again for sharing your story.

Yehuda said...

Jonathan: It was great to talk with you, too! Makes me wish we had crossed paths more often over the years.

In my case, I can pinpoint a number of incidences in my life where I radically changed; I told one of them to Sharon last night. I had to confront others and their changes to suddenly recall my own changes over time.

Sharon: I feel pained not having been closer to you over the years. You're my kind of person, and getting you on my radar might be the best thing that's come out of this reunion.

Ann: I can't get over how great you looked. It was fantastic to see you, and wish we could have talked more in person.

Matthew: yes, excellent point. Second time I heard this weekend about how parents just have to do the best they can, and kids have to tolerate it.

Hels said...

Yehuda, reunions decades after school ARE indeed very strange creatures.

I couldn't wait for the 40th anniversary of my matriculation year - a very large Jewish day school in Australia. I was part of the organising committee and that probably helped, because it gave some sense of planning and anticipation. However I still didn't sleep for 5 nights before the event - from excitement.

But in the end, all of the students I had seen every single day when they were 17 years old.. were now 57 years old. 12 were dead, a small number were divorced and 2 were clearly suffering from long term drug use.

But most people were as they were 40 years ago, just greyer, wrinklier and a bit paunchier. The clever students had enjoyed bright academic careers; the sporty students were still telling stories of their cricketing or swimming prowess; and everybody thought THEIR grandchildren were brilliant.

10 students had made aliyah and couldn't turn up to the Australian reunion. As I happened to be in Israel a fortnight after the reunion, one of the ex-pat Australians in Petach Tikvah agreed to host a mini-reunion. The 10 Israelis had heaps of fun looking over my photos from the main reunion :)

By the way, 3 teachers turned up. They had been very recent graduates back then, but at the reunion they were in their middle 60s. That was even more bizarre.