While I have stayed active as an alumnus as part of the school’s official program, our class in particular, and (in terms of personal connections) to some of my classmates, this anniversary of our graduation has opened a new perspective, leading me to realize, in a personal and profound way, the path of my life, the nature of memory, and the meaning of history. There are those who dismiss reunions and their accompanying memories as either nostalgia, a place for mental indolence and rampant historical revisionism, or a celebration of contingency, exalting the chance meeting of people for a few years out of an extended lifetime which carries no more than its proportional weight (<10%). All are certainly risks, but they seem worth taking for the benefit of reflection (and not a few beers and laughs).
All sorts of influences burst into the consciousness of the era—political, aesthetic, technological, and herbal—on top of the usual strains of the hormonally-defined world of adolescence. It all seems impossibly distant now, but it’s equally impossible to know how our experience of this fifty-year distance squares with that of our grandparents’ generation or that of our grandchildren. I suspect that the pace of change has accelerated across the 20C; so, while we have seen more change than our forbearers, we are more used to change and acceleration which makes it, in a way, less disorienting; and the same is likely true for millennials compared to us.
Some members of our class recently had a Zoom call with some current graduating Seniors from the school. It was great to reconnect with their energy and sense of opportunity. It also struck me how many of the great cultural changes that were so urgent in our era are embedded and ordinary now. We “matured” in an era when “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” were not only our bywords, but were fairly new cultural descriptors. The cultural power of us “Boomers” has carried much of that forward. We saw (and often helped make) cracks in the social rigidities of gender, race, and religion that have, in the ordinary slow pace of historical development, brought us to the choices and confusions of the 21C.
One benefit of accumulated experience (a nine-syllable euphemism for “age”) is that we lived it and know it. Of course, we should always be wary of conflating memory with history. One of the interesting aspects of talking with people with whom I shared a lot of experiences back “in the day,” will be to see what of my memories are corroborated by others and what events and interactions I have stored so far back in my internal filing cabinet (another incipient anachronism) that their rediscovery will be revelatory (and disorienting in their own way). Perhaps I will get to see what aspects of the persona I have constructed over this half-century are truly rooted in those years or since or what was just a mask. Perhaps I will see what aspects of the “Steve” I created at 16 were real or useful or costly. Perhaps it’s finally time to put down some of the baggage I decided was so crucial to pick up back then. If I am fortunate, perhaps some of my group will—with candor and kindness—tell me how I appeared to them.
Anniversaries are always an opportunity to look back; to press “pause” on the day-to-day stories of our lives and try to comprehend the big chunks of change in ourselves and our world. (Back then, we “pressed ‘pause’” on the coolest tech of the day: an 8-track cartridge, rather than just asking Alexa to do it.) We get to try to see what of all the things we were excited about (then, and since)—cars, sports, creativity, relationships, moon landings, the War, college choices—really mattered when assessed over the course of a lifetime (so far). We redraw a line from there to here. It lets us see the turns not taken; the flukes, the choices, the plans and the surprises: it’s a life.
For all the advantages I had (socio-economic and genetic), did I actually make better choices? How did I use this launch pad to benefit my life and maybe even to craft it? Was my learning curve towards what I currently conceive of as “wisdom” any steeper? Were the regrets over which I anguished worth the stress?
The other end of this particular rainbow is today. Of our class of ~180 (boys and girls (in separate schools when we started)), we have lost 11 (that we know of). Their memory will hang over us, but likely less for what I remember of them than as an insistent reminder that our 60th reunion will see a lot more of us gone. Can I relish our time with this shadow on the one hand and an appreciation that a 90%+ survival rate in our late 60s would seem remarkable to our grandparents’ era? And, given the decade or two (on average) remaining to me, what will I do with this combination of memories and inspiration?
As we updated the contact information for our group, I was initially startled to see a lot more addresses in Florida, North Carolina, and southern California than I remembered when I was keeping active tabs on our class. Then it struck me: “geez, we’re ‘retiring’ now.” After all, we have already spent most of our lives. Fifty years on: careers increasingly completed, families raised and dispersed, so much to digest, so little to grasp onto.
As a Historian, I know that it takes some attention to separate the signal from the noise; to construct a narrative and choose what is significant and what is the interval. There is one story that emphasizes the past fifty years and consigns the earlier time and the time remaining to the sidelines. At the same time, from another perspective, I can see the fifty years since “back then” (even if briefly interrupted by prior reunions with some of the group) as a gap for which hormonally-imprinted youth and the immediacy of age seem all the more real.
The musical we produced our Senior year was “West Side Story,” the current revival of which provides one of many inevitable historical ironies of any pair of dates. We had an extraordinarily talented group of singers, dancers, and producers. It gave us part of our lives’ soundtrack, along with Motown, the Moody Blues, Zeppelin, and Don McLean’s “American Pie” (top of the charts for 1972!).
The show concludes with a reprise of “Somewhere,” insisting that, for Tony and Maria, “there’s a time and place for us.” For our group, which I like to think was extraordinary (even if only because it was ours), we had an overlapping life in a particular and rare “time and place” for which I am immensely grateful. This group…this time…this place… helped launch me on a particular trajectory (skewed with gifts and baggage). This regathering, fifty years on, will help me take stock of that trajectory and help me plan the rest.