Class Act

            You can hide the gray hair. You can cover age spots, and employ a thousand different miracles to take a cosmetic sip from the fountain of youth. But you can’t stop class reunions. 

            Long before AARP starts welcoming you to the land of emeritus, you get the notice from somebody you vaguely remember: It’s time to reacquaint with your high school classmates.

            The notice hits some people like a message from the draft board, or a reminder from the dentist. Avoid them at your peril, because there’s a well-organized gang of folks ready to put a double whammy voodoo hex on those who don’t bother to respond. And they know where you live. 

            I had no choice. I had to go.

            Of the 70 political campaigns I’ve had a hand in managing, I was a candidate only once. In the short-straw lotto, I picked the only ticket that keeps getting punched. It’s a persistent reminder to be careful what you ask for.

            Senior class president is one of those jobs that’s largely ceremonial during its tenure, unless you really want to take a stand against an administration, or change the school colors. During my year as president, I worked on parking lot safety, and secured a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, which some day I hope to read.

            But there’s another duty, a gift that keeps on giving. If the 16-year-old in your family tree has plans to run for class president, it’s time to have a long talk about lifetime commitment.

            Life’s lessons are hard. Beyond the three Rs, the seamy underbelly of youth offers us three universal skills: denial, procrastination and apathy. Our cranial wiring allows us to ignore life’s signals until those signals slap us in the face. Amid the slaps, only one classmate gets elected to the eternal whipping post.

            Every five or ten years, the whipping post puts out a cry for help. Each time it happens, the initial steps to prepare for a class reunion loom like a dreaded chore. Other projects suddenly seem easy. Clean out the garage. Learn to square dance. But almost instantly, in anticipation of the cry for help, an amazing thing happens. People show up to plan the reunion. A committee gels to ask classmates to come back home. 

            The committee works hard – harder than I do – tracking down addresses, taking census, planning details. Every planning session is a class reunion in itself, and the planning stimulates conversations about lost friends, and kindles the effort to find them. Planners get their hopes up. 

            The planners have fun, too, even though they rally around only one common tandem: they were born in the same year, and their parents lived in the same town. Beyond that, the planners include the whole spectrum: rich and poor, partiers and teetotalers, red and blue, black and white, religious, agnostic, gay, straight, trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent…

            The reunion committee performs a yearlong search and rescue mission. Search for classmates. Rescue them from recalcitrance. The results can be rewarding, but the process is painful. The majority of classmates on the contact list don’t budge.

            When we graduated 40 years ago, classmates said goodbye, and began a dispersal around the globe to propagate. They’ve done a good job blending into the fabric of the globe. Too good, in some instances.

            Your high school diploma has no homing device. Heck, the whole concept of matriculation is to climb some new ladder. Parents and principals join to push the graduate out the door with the admonition that “you can’t go home.” Most students are more than ready to disappear.

            Commencement ceremonies and their keynotes skillfully obliterate a student’s patience button. At the end of much pomp and circumstance, graduates sail their caps in the air, and vanish before the mortarboards hit the ground.

            Time marches on, gaining momentum, cruel and uneven.

            The first class reunion is the toughest. Ten years have passed, and the entire class suspects that some classmates burn to return in a flashy display of success. A large subset stays away from the reunion, to avoid the peacocks. Still, among those who come home, attendees are most disappointed by the classmates who don’t show up.

            It’s an evolution. The 20-year reunion is more relaxed. At the 30-year mark, classmates are genuinely interested in seeing each other, and learning about their families. At 40, with classmates pushing 60, everybody’s just glad to be around.

            At least, everybody who bothers to show up.

            Still, most classmates are no shows. Some have no choice. We mourn the loss of our classmates who have died. A few are incarcerated. 

            Those are valid reasons for you to miss your reunion. There are three others: Your job is in China. Your family vacation has been planned for that weekend. You have the important task of making the world safe for democracy. All other reasons are excuses.

            And let’s get something straight: Your reunion committee takes this job seriously. They work long hours trying to piece together a puzzle that includes you. They appreciate hearing from you, even if you offer a flimsy reason for not attending the event. They want your stories, to share with your classmates. And they’re frustrated that at the end of a long planning process, half the class doesn’t respond.

            Your class committee has some modern tools that make notification faster, but no easier. Email and Facebook offer instant communication for those who choose to participate. But a stubborn list of MIAs becomes harder to whittle down. It’s a natural process, though regrettable, for folks to lose contact with acquaintances. Some friends vanish into thin air, or fall off the face of the earth. Some classmates even respond negatively, saying “don’t bother me,” or “why would I want to relive Hell?” 

            Fair enough, appreciate the feedback.

            But another group of classmates hide in plain sight. Some of them still live in town, within spittin distance of their alma mater. Despite a multitude of efforts to get them to commit, they remain absent without good reason. I’m not a zealot, and frankly, if I hadn’t put my name on the ballot 41 years ago, I might’ve missed a class reunion myself. And I’m not naïve; more than half of eligible Americans are dropouts from their civic duty: They’re not even registered to vote. Less than half of registered voters exercise the option. Why would a class reunion have any better turnout?

            My reunion season is over. For a while. Thanks to a dedicated team of planners, we had a great homecoming event last fall. A quarter of the class showed up. The summer weekend was a blast, with golf, and gags, even a scavenger hunt. A third of the class showed up. Several more classmates sent sincere regrets. 

            Others remain a mystery. And the class roster still has significant holes where contact information should be. The committee will take a well-deserved break for a couple of years, until it’s time to dust off a list that’s as out-of-date as that old phone book you haven’t thrown away.

            I have no regrets. In fact, it’s encouraging to see the nucleus of class members who gel around a common effort, even one as scary as reliving the trauma of teen years.

            You don’t owe your classmates any favors. But do yourself a favor. Don’t miss that reunion looming on your calendar. Even if you can’t go, respond to the overtures. It’s as easy as hitting the send button. If you do go, you’ll join the overwhelming number of reunion attendees everywhere who dreaded the occasion, only to look back afterward and say, “I’m glad I went.” 

            And even if you don’t attend, send a message to the poor schmuck who must initiate the planning of these reunions in perpetuity, so the committee can count you among the living, or mark you off the list.

            I’m off to clean out the garage…

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