Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Why It May Be Good for You to Go to Your School Reunion

wvfc cecilia Reunion cartoon(1)Illustration by C.A. Martin

If it’s spring, it must be reunion season once again at schools and colleges. Reunions make good business sense for private schools and colleges that want to keep alums loyal and generous, and are important to building community spirit in any school. They also bring up a host of conflicts for many of us.

For those of us who get an invitation to a reunion and think, “Great! I’d love to see everyone,” congratulations! This probably means that you are either not very self-conscious or you are pleased with where you are in life. Both are achievements not to be underestimated. For many of us, though, reunions can spark anxiety and nervousness about how we will be seen by our former classmates.

Women worry disproportionally about how they look, especially how much they weigh. I have often heard a woman declare that she is not going to go to her reunion because she’s not happy with her body. Even those who have a genuine longing to go are often held back by these kinds of concerns and find themselves missing out on an event that they long to attend.

It’s curious, when you think of it, that the opinions of people you rarely see and may never see again after the event should matter so much. I think it is partly a measure of how reunions can transport us instantly back to the emotions of our youth. After all, it is in these fraught years of adolescence that our insecurity and discomfort with ourselves were at their height, and everything in life seemed to be so crucial.  As we age, most of us not only become more comfortable with ourselves but also learn to put these issues in perspective—even if we don’t look the way we did in high school.

If you are hesitant to go to your reunion, this may indicate that you are not happy with something in your life and/or are self-conscious about it. It is important to distinguish between things that you really do want to work on versus things that you are being too self-critical about. This invitation to gather with old friends is an opportunity to take a look at yourself through others’ eyes and question where you are from a new perspective. On the other hand, this can be a wake-up call indicating that you are not living the life you want to live and that something needs attention.

But don’t make the mistake of failing to adjust your perspective to current reality. You may have aged, but then so have your classmates. They will not be seeing you through the same eyes they used in high school (thank god!), and neither will you be evaluating things by the same measures. A wonderful example of this can be found in the novel Larry’s Party,  by Canadian author Carol Shields, who is best known for her wonderful book The Stone Diaries. In her story, Larry attends a high school reunion and is surprised to find that many of the less popular kids—i.e., his cohort—are, as adults, more interesting than the kids who had dominated the social scene in high school. In fact, it has been shown that being a BMOC does not necessarily translate into future success, and it can be a relief and revelation to see how things have turned out. (For a wonderful comedy about the pros and cons, see the film “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion)

Reunions are also a time-honored way to reconnect with people from your past. We have all heard stories of women who have found their lost love at one of these events and wound up marrying him. But all types of friendships are usually worth revisiting, and reunions are a good way of making new connections as well. Going through old memories with your classmates can be especially meaningful to those who have lost parents and other family members. The friends we make as adults often have never met our parents and don’t always understand our background as well as these classmates.

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I recently attended a reunion and was able to share with classmates these kinds of memories. Parents, siblings, old teachers lost to us were remembered. Escapades that went unpunished were fondly recalled, and we mourned losing touch with our favorite “fun” classmate, an instigator of many of these adventures. There were the surprises—one of the least likely among us had published a book—and also the not so surprising revelations—the A student had become a judge. The women looked more like their mothers than I would have thought possible.

Seeing people after 40-plus years also puts in perspective the way life has changed through the years as we have all become more open about different lifestyles. Some of my classmates have children who are openly gay, and one told of her sister’s twin daughters, one of whom is now living as a son. Teachers who would have been in the closet in the old days are now open about their lifestyle, and social justice is in the forefront of the school’s agenda. We’ve come a long way from the days when it was scandalous if your parents were divorced.

In a world where social connections are frayed by constant mobility and upheaval, it’s important to celebrate the constants in our life. It makes us feel more rooted and connected, which is always a good thing. An alum from one of the classes ahead of me said that a group of women from her class have been meeting yearly since their 45th reunion five years ago, and have gone on several wonderful trips together.  These particular women were not all that close in high school, but have rediscovered each other and now formed a deep connection.

Many people do not have fond memories of their school years, and for them it is hard to imagine wanting to reminisce or relive any of it. But as it often is with bad experiences, it can be helpful not only to understand them from an adult point of view, but also to recognize that you are now an adult and things that once had power to hurt you are now meaningless.

Still, reunions are not for everyone. But if you do feel the pull to go, I would recommend it. One of the things we often say to ourselves as we age is, “I wish I had not wasted so much time worrying about what other people think.” Going back to the past with wiser eyes is often a good way to put that attitude into action and see yourself and others in a new way.

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  • Nancy Kalish, PhD April 25, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    Thank you for your article on reunions.

    One thing that should be kept in mind before someone decides to go, is the effect of seeing a former sweetheart.

    Most people have moved on and don’t care; but for men or women who had romances that were good but interrupted by external circumstances, the pull to the past (even with a happy marriage) can be destabilizing. If someone is married and ruminating a lot about that person from the past, it’s best to skip the reunion. The obsession would be unbearable after a face to face encounter. For some people, there is no closure.