My 50th High School Reunion, Part II: Memories

 

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Where to start!

 

I went into my reunion weekend with three distinct expectations, as I listed in last week’s post.

They all, to one extent or another, came true.  And, so much more.

 

One theme that kept coming up for me during my reunion weekend was historyShared history.

As an only child, it’s never easy for me to find someone with whom I share a history.  At my 50th reunion, I did.

We all had forgotten the same teachers (some with gusto) and remembered others fondly, we all knew the same streets, and we all had played in New York City — just a bus ride away from our backyard — at fifteen and sixteen and seventeen.

“What class were you in when JFK got shot?” I asked my table at the banquet Saturday night.

We were all of the same age; we were all in the same building. But we had different memories of the historic event.

Some insisted they’d heard the news in an early morning class (impossible).  Some learned of it only in the crowded halls between classes. Some heard the announcement over the intercom. Some remembered that afternoon class being canceled. But as they each spoke, they used words, places, names I recognized.

A few validated my memory of that afternoon:  band practice (and the twirling practice that went with it) NOT being cancelled, but football practice was, immediately. Some remembered gathering around the same radio I remembered; others sat on a curb and cried.

And none of us went home.  We all hung out at the school, for one reason or another.

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Jennette and Beverly and I go back to elementary school.

Another theme was one we hear said of adolescents often:  How they each see themselves as the outsider, the misfit, the “only one.”

 

As I listened to the stories that weekend, my sense of having been wrapped in a tight cocoon, separated from the rest of my peers by forces I didn’t understand, was replaced with the realization that we had all been wrapped, each of us, in our own tight cocoon. 

My sample is small, but it turned out that of the five of us gathered on the massive front porch Saturday morning, four were children of divorce. And none of us had told any of our classmates, each one thinking, “how very odd I must be.”

What of the fifth one, you ask?  His was a different difference, but one he’d also kept quiet.

Vern* had been orphaned soon after our sophomore year. And, rather than sending him into foster care, the local Family Services office determined to keep him in his home until graduation. Unlike us, he did not go home to a divorced, single parent each day; he went home to a case worker. And we never knew.

[*I’m changing the names here because I failed to ask permission to use their real names.]

I was shocked when I learned this. I’d worked with Vern* each afternoon on the school paper during those years, shared many classes with him, yet I had had no idea the life he lived.

How often do we work closely with someone we know only superficially?  Can we ever know another fully?

 

Later at lunch, we all laughed when we discovered that my divorced mother and I had lived in the same apartment building as Ray’s* divorced father.

“Why didn’t you walk me home?” I demanded of him, good naturedly, 50-year old match-making dancing in my head.  “You could’ve been the brother I always wanted.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t walk you home. I would have carried your books,” he answered with a smile.  “But I’m still trying to remember you.”

He was right. Our paths hadn’t crossed as much as I’d thought. Of the two distinct memories I thought I had of him, in reality, he appeared in neither. It had been his brother.

Memory can be so slippery.

In between the many opportunities to eat great food, we shared stories of our lives of 50 years ago. I was struck with a deep sense of loss at the friendships I had missed.  These were people who shared my values, whose lives had once been layered and challenging, just like mine; whose lives now were gloriously full and still challenging, just like mine.  Were these my people? Had I found my tribe?

 

We all had had multiple activities after school that kept us busy.  None of the classmates I talked with knew that I went home to an empty apartment, one that was often in chaos from an untrained dog who enjoyed dragging the kitchen garbage all over. They never knew because I made sure no one ever came home with me.

I recall these things not in evidence of some neglected childhood. Oh no! These are merely markers of a life that was. I came home; I cleaned up after the dog; I put her outside to run loose through the neighborhood (I told you she was untrained!). After dinner, I practiced my piano, with some cajoling from my mother, and I did my homework, without the cajoling. Then I went to bed. It was my normal. 

 

Ned* had a different normal. On that porch, Saturday morning, I learned how he went directly after school to a job at the nearby produce market. When he was done there, he went home for supper. After that, he and his dad left for another job, cleaning offices. Home at 11 o’clock, he then began his homework.

 

Still, all of us on that porch, in fact the majority of our graduates, went on to college. And all of us on the porch that morning went on to graduate school.  We’ve all had, to one extent or another, a successful life, both professionally and personally. We are, I believe, all happy, content, satisfied.

 

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My old friend Dolores and me laughing at yet another funny story, Sunday morning.

 

And we all cherish the great foundation that the public school system in East Orange, New Jersey was able to give us back in 1966 and before.

 

I also went in wanting to learn a bit more about possible elbow-rubbing with the multi-talented Janis Ian. I was not disappointed.

Not only had Janis Fink (aka Janis Ian) been a freshman while we were seniors, one of the five on the porch Saturday afternoon had a younger sister who’d become friendly with her, attending the summer music camp that Janis’ parents ran in upstate New York. And, they’d stayed in touch.

At the same time, I was struck by how many (my husband included) had never heard ofJanis Ian.  So, for those of you in that unenviable position, I present Ms. Janis Ian, singing her first big hit, “Society’s Child”:

 

 

My high school friends believe the song is autobiographical. I encourage you to read the lyrics as the song is playing.

Lyrics for Society's Child

Come to my door, baby, Face is clean and shining black as night. My mother went to answer you know That you looked so fine. Now I could understand your tears and your shame, She called you “boy” instead of your name. When she wouldn’t let you inside, When she turned and said “But honey, he’s not our kind.”

She says I can’t see you any more, baby, Can’t see you anymore.

Walk me down to school, baby, Everybody’s acting deaf and dumb. Until they turn and say, “Why don’t you stick to your own kind.” My teachers all laugh, the smirking stares, Cutting deep down in our affairs. Preachers of equality, Think they believe it, then why won’t they just let us be?

They say I can’t see you anymore baby, Can’t see you anymore.

One of these days I’m gonna stop my listening Gonna raise my head up high. One of these days I’m gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly. But that day will have to wait for a while. Baby I’m only society’s child. When we’re older things may change, But for now this is the way, they must remain.

I say I can’t see you anymore baby, Can’t see you anymore. No, I don’t wanna see you anymore

 

 

Far from a “one hit wonder,” Janis Ian continues to write, record, and tour.  Here she is singing At Seventeen, another song with a tale of the times:

 

 

 

Lyrics for At Seventeen

I learned the truth at seventeen That love was meant for beauty queens And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew The Friday night charades of youth Were spent on one more beautiful At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces Lacking in the social graces Desperately remained at home Inventing lovers on the phone Who called to say, “Come dance with me” And murmured vague obscenities It isn’t all it seems at seventeen.

A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs Whose name I never could pronounce Said, “Pity, please, the ones who serve They only get what they deserve” And the rich relationed hometown queen Marries into what she needs With a guarantee of company And haven for the elderly

Remember those who win the game They lose the love they sought to gain In debentures of quality and dubious integrity Their small town eyes will gape at you In dull surprise when payment due Exceeds accounts received at seventeen.

To those of us who knew the pain Of valentines that never came And those whose names were never called When choosing sides for basketball It was long ago and far away The world was younger than today When dreams were all they gave for free To ugly duckling girls like me

We all play the game and when we dare To cheat ourselves at solitaire Inventing lovers on the phone Repenting other lives unknown They call and say, “Come dance with me” And murmur vague obscenities At ugly girls like me at seventeen.

And, since this was a 50th reunion, I’ll close with this lovely song, “I’m Still Standing Here.” (Click on the link to download the free Mp3 that she is offering.)  It could be titled, “At Sixty-seven.”  And if you want to learn more about Janis Ian, here’s the link to her website.

 

Lyrics for I'm Still Standing Here

See these lines on my face? They’re a map of where I’ve been And the deeper they are traced, the deeper life has settled in How do we survive living out our lives?

And I would not trade a line Make it smooth and fine or pretend that time stands still I want to rest my soul here where it can grow without fear Another line, another year I’m still standing here

See these marks on my skin? They’re the lyric of my life Every story I begin just means another end’s in sight Only lovers understand Skin just covers who I am

And I would not trade a line Make it smooth and fine or pretend that time stands still I want to rest my soul here where it can grow without fear Another line, another year I’m still standing here

See these bruises, see these scars? Hieroglyphs that tell the tale You can read them in the dark through your finger tips like Braille

And I would not trade a line Make it smooth and fine or pretend that time stands still I plan to rest my soul here where it can grow without fear Another line, another year I’m still standing here I’m still standing here I’m still standing here

 

The East Orange High School Class of 1966 next-to-official 50th Reunion photograph. Do you see me?

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Not the official class picture, this one has us still goofing off, trying the photographer’s patience a bit.

 

Thanks for sharing in my journey back a bit in time. I hope it got you to thinking of some of your old memories. 

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  1. It sounds like a wonderful experience. I’m so glad you got to go and reconnect with your former classmates. I love seeing you smile in those photos. 🙂

    As for Janis Ian, she is a wonderful performer. We’ve seen her in concert a couple of times. She also writes and narrates books.
    She got some grief for “Society’s Child.” I think some southern stations wouldn’t play the song. She was 14, I think, when she wrote it.

    • She was also blacklisted for awhile back then. Turns out it was Bill Cosby spreading rumors. My classmates and I are fairly certain it was a matter of her rejecting his advances. The creep.
      So many stories abound.

  2. That sounds like a great time. I have my 25th this summer and am looking forward to it as well though keeping up with friends is much easier these days it will still be great to hear stories that aren’t shared on social media and re-connect again.
    I don’t know if you ever played Janis Ian for us as kids, doesn’t ring a bell but I recognize the song Seventeen for sure and after looking her up on Wikipedia I’m really surprised her name isn’t more familiar to me.

  3. Your 50-year H.S. reunion obviously exceeded your expectations. And I’m glad you had more than a “brush” with your idol Janis Ian. True, by the time we reach this age, secrets spill out – there is no need for pretense. We can finally be REAL.

    About the class photo: I think you are the one on the top right struck with a luminous halo.

  4. Janet, so glad you had such a great time. Yes, isn’t it a shame that we were all so walled off from each other back then, for whatever reasons. Maybe that’s a stage of human development? I’ve forgotten my Erikson and all that good stuff, but connection may build later for some than others . . . ?

    Since I work better in silence and our radio has been permanently tuned to NPR for decades, I’m totally out of the loop on musicians, but now I’m thinking I may need to find Janis Ian on Spotify. She harks me back to folk singers ~1960. Awesome! Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Sharon. You’ve got me thinking about life stages again. It does seem easier to share our painful stories at this stage than earlier. Or, (I’m also wondering) has our culture evolved, over the past few decades, to be more open? Makes me want to be back in grad school.

      I think you’ll enjoy Janis Ian.

  5. Janet, so glad you had such a great time at your reunion. Sometimes they aren’t fun. I had mine in 2014 and it was fun, although previous ones were dreadful and led to our girlfriend group opting to meet rather than going to the main event. We’ve since made it an annual event. Love Janis Ian’s music. Thanks for the links Funny, at my 50th, a girl who had been a thorn my side all through high school, apologized to me for being so mean. Can you imagine, carrying around regrets for 50 years? Other than that 50 year sis a very special occasion and one to celebrate.

  6. Hi Kathy. Yes indeed, 50th reunions do sometimes get a bad rap, often tied to expectations. Your story of the girl who apologized after 50 years reminded me of a similar story. Back when Classmates.com was big, I too got an apology, this one from a boy from 5th grade. Seems he had thrown dirt in my face and had wanted to apologize for many years. I had no memory of it, but we wound up having a good conversation. Funny what we remember and what we forget.