Over 400 of us graduated from Sterling High School in May 1972. For me personally, it was an eventful year: I was a featured speaker at our graduation, the state speech champion in extemporaneous speaking, and editor of the school paper. My yearbook is filled with inscriptions that includ inside jokes, appreciations, and best wishes. A dozen friends and teachers wrote, “Looking forward to hearing great things about you in the future…” Or something along those lines.
Within 12 years, however, my name appeared on the alumni’s “unknown” list. No one knew where I was, what I was doing, who I was with… or whether I was even still alive. One of my brothers informed me that the alumni association was looking for me and maybe I should call them to update my address. But I didn’t care enough to follow through.
I had attended our 10th reunion and left unimpressed and disappointed. None of the kids I used to run around with showed up. That reunion… and the people who showed up didn’t fit the lifestyle I’d chosen. In high school there was always of sense of who was an “insider” and who was an “outsider.” I was not only an “outsider,” I was the magnet for other outsiders. And this was definitely an “insider” party. I only found a couple people who even cared to talk with me.
And so I landed on the “unknown” list and stayed there for nearly 40 years. It is the same amount of time the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. The alumni association didn’t try very hard to find me, and I didn’t lift a finger to get found.
This disconnect was augmented by two factors: 1) Our family had no roots in Sterling. We were only there because the bishop sent my dad to pastor a church in the area, the year I became a freshman. The whole family moved away just four years after I graduated, leaving no one behind. 2) My best friend all through high school was Jeff Koch, who went to high school in Polo, not Sterling. He and I have continued our friendship all these decades. Although he was a part of my church and scouting worlds, we never went to the same school.
As the years drifted by I always had in the back of my mind that I would re-emerge sometime around the 40th or 50th reunion. That would give everyone (myself included) time to change. I like to see how people change.
Thus, in the past year I started thinking more about attending our 50th. It became increasingly important for me to get in touch with this part of my life. I pulled out the old yearbooks. I found the photos of the girls who mesmerized me (but I was too timid to ask out.) I found guys who sat at my lunch table and guys who suffered together with me through gym class. I noticed all the popular kids. I remembered vignettes: time with kids who sang with me in the school choir and kids who rode my bus. I saw both conservative friends and liberal friends who argued constantly with me in government and history class. I was getting tired of being unknown to all of them… and all of them being unknown to me.
And so, at the end of July, I finally got in touch with someone who told me that our 50th reunion would be August 6. I signed up. The die was cast. And my curiosities began to proliferate.
I was curious about all of them, particularly the dozen or so kids I interacted with the most. Were they dead? Where were they? What did they do with their lives? Were they happy? At our tenth reunion we were all too young to have an interesting story to tell. But now, everyone had one. I was curious to hear the stories, even of those I could barely remember.
I was curious about what everyone looked like. For all the amazing things the brain can do, it cannot take someone we knew 50 years ago and recalibrate what they look like now. It can’t even re-image 10 years of aging. We were all only 17 or 18 the last we saw each other. Now we're all almost 70. Time is ruthless on the human body. What morphing would I encounter?
If some of my curiosities included who they are now, other curiosities drifted backward to who I was then. What was I really like in high school? People seemed to like me, but not always. There is evidence that I was funny, opinionated, polite and gracious to others, a reliable friend to outsiders, quick to help my fellow students understand a subject, a good student… but also arrogant, inflexible, moralistic… a preachy idealist. Would any of that matter anymore to people who knew me then? Does it matter to me?
And I wondered about why I have been so content… perhaps resolute… to stay away from everyone all these years. What didn’t I like about the place… the culture… the ‘society’ that defined everyone and everything back then? What made me tear myself away so permanently? Was where I ended up next so fulfilling that I never wanted to go back? Why did I never feel the need to stay in touch with my old friends... until now?
As I drove the 3 ½ hours to the reunion, I took stock of my feelings. They included discomfort: I don’t like walking into a group ‘cold,’ even though I hide it well. I felt guilt: that I hadn’t nurtured a single relationship from high school in all these 50 years. I felt hurt: no one had bothered to look me up in all this time, even though it’s not that hard with the internet. I felt shame: I don’t look as handsome as I did back then… and I’ve even shrunk two inches in height; will this appall anyone who can remember me? I felt fear: what if I don’t like any of them? I felt duty.
I also felt hope: that I could meet up with a dozen or so classmates who’ve been on my mind. I hoped we might share and stimulate some memories. I hoped I might discover a long-lost part of myself. I hoped I would hear some interesting life-stories.
Oddly, I felt an absence of eagerness or joy on the way up there.
All this was going on in my mind before.
About 125 people showed up at the reunion last night. Next week, part two of this post: my thoughts and feelings after...