This is a reprint of a blog post from 2013, which in turn was based on something I said at my 30th high school reunion that summer. In helping to plan a 40th reunion, I’ve had a few classmates mention it. I’m reposting it here so I can share a link to a current blog, not a long-defunct one. It is abridged and otherwise slightly edited.
Come As You Are
One of the things people need to know about an event is what they’re expected to wear. What we recommended for our 30-year high school reunion was “nice casual.” What I wished we could say was, “Come as you are.” That would have been unhelpful, but here’s why I wished it.
Something happens when we think about going to a reunion or even join Facebook. We wonder how those people who knew us in high school or wherever will judge us after all these years. I myself wasn’t much to look at in high school, but now I look in the mirror and see that most of my hair is missing, and I’ve gained more than a hundred pounds.
I have my own insecurities, and you have yours, and only the most superficial of them involve our looks. The others concern what we’ve done or not done, where we’ve failed or at least not succeeded yet, the important things in life that haven’t gone as well as we hoped or haven’t happened at all. Some people contemplate all this and stay home. Others accept the pain of remembering as an essential companion of the joy of remembering. Neither group needs or deserves our judgment.
We’ve all grown up a little in 30 years. If there’s one thing we’ve learned better than we knew it in high school, I hope it’s this: I hope we’ve learned to value ourselves and others for who we are – not for who we aren’t, or the things we don’t have, or the messes we or others have made in our lives. We can airbrush the photos we put on Facebook, and we might even be able to airbrush our lives for one evening, just long enough to bluff our way through a reunion. But I hope we’ve learned not to want to do that.
I hope we’ve learned that real is best. Real is beautiful to those who have eyes to see. And the person we’re all hoping to see at the reunion, after all these years, is the real you — who you are, as you are. Who cares whether you arrive in a paid-off late-model Lexus or my 11-year-old Honda or a borrowed 40-year-old Chevy, or even one of those pieces of farm equipment some classmates drove to school sometimes? (Self-indulgent note: ten years later, I drive a different, ten-year-old Honda.) Who cares about wrinkles or missing hair or those extra pounds? Thirty years later, can we not all see that the valuable and genuinely beautiful part of you is the real you? Everything else is just distraction or, at best, decoration.
The Insecure All-American
As my classmates and I were concluding our senior year of high school, I got lucky and won a couple of national awards that led to interesting opportunities. One of those opportunities was to spend several summer days in San Diego at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Achievement, of which I had never heard before. About 300 graduates from around the country were there. We had each excelled at something – academics, athletics, art, theater, music, or leadership. A lot of famous and very successful people were also invited. We spent those days hobnobbing with high government officials, Hollywood stars, Nobel Prize-winning doctors and scientists and authors, and other exceedingly accomplished people.
They sent a bus for us at the San Diego airport. I happened to sit next to a high school all-American football player from Louisiana, a running back as I recall. We talked for half an hour on the way to our hotel. Think about this. In high school, the quickest, best road to popularity, at least for a guy, was to be a star athlete. This young man was not just a star athlete; he was a star among stars.
He was also kind and gracious. As we talked, he told me something surprising. He said he almost decided not to come to San Diego, because he didn’t think he would fit in with all the accomplished fellow graduates who would be there. He was just a football player. What was he doing among all those fine students and leaders and such?
I had never imagined that a star athlete would have insecurities like that. Maybe that’s when I realized that we all had them, no matter how hard we worked to hide them. I know I had them. Sometimes I look back on my teenage years and see one long sequence of words and actions – some of them quite unfortunate, and virtually all of them self-centered – which were intended to contradict, disprove, or conceal my insecurities. And we all know without being told, I think, that the person from whom I most wanted to hide them was myself. (But also the girls.)
One our speakers that week was Erma Bombeck. You may not remember her, but your mother does. She was a popular writer and humorist. She made ordinary life, especially housework, funny. She wrote about a dozen books, with titles like The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; and When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home. Her public career was about being ordinary. In her speech she said, “Please don’t be afraid of ordinary, because it’s never lonely there.”
She spoke for a while, and we laughed and laughed. Finally, she got serious, and the whole point of my story is to tell you what she said at the end.
I hope all of you find your dreams, but I don’t want you to be surprised if success takes another form . . . I’m not talking about United States Senators; I’m not talking about Olympic runners or Nobel Prize winners. I’m talking about the humanity that is here in this room, and don’t you ever underrate it.
Just think about this. Some of you . . . are going to be heroes or heroines to somebody. Many of you . . . will give birth to something, and that’s pretty terrific. Some of you will conquer an illness or a handicap in your lifetime, and that’s no small thing.
And some of you, if you’re not already, are going to be the best friend that another person ever had, and that’s pretty special.
And I think most of you, by just your being here, are going to effect changes in the world, just by your being.
Take it. That’s good enough.
For me that was the most memorable moment of the entire event.
Early Builders of My Little World
You don’t need me to tell you that high school is full of drama and trauma and all the other effects of young people trying to figure out who they’ll be and what price they’re willing to pay for what they think they want. In our school years we managed to hurt each other often enough without even knowing it, or at least without meaning to. Sometimes, yes, we actually meant to hurt someone, or at least didn’t care if we did. I think we generally failed to realize how much pain we would cause, or for how long.
As I have watched my own children in their school years, in the company of their good friends and classmates, I have learned to see something in my school years for which I am now very grateful. Generally, my classmates were kind and patient, and even friendly with me, when I certainly gave cause enough for them to be otherwise, if they had wanted to. In fact, despite all the drama, we were, as a class, mostly kind and patient and friendly with each other, at least in my memory and experience.
Maybe none of us from the Snake River High School Class of 1983 will change the whole world. Few people do. But my classmates did more than change my little world. They helped to build it, as they built their own, and I have come to appreciate that they did well. Whatever my world is now, 30 years later – and any good effect I may ever have on anyone else’s personal world – is partially a product of their presence, character, and effort.
What I’m trying to say is this. In case you think, in spite of Erma Bombeck, that you will never really be someone’s hero or heroine or friend, I’m here to tell you gratefully: You already have been. You already are.
“Take that. That’s good enough.”
Image credit: Generated by DALL·E 2 with prompt “watercolor of two middle-aged women hugging at a class reunion”
From the Author
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