The Reunion Ritual

Last night I attended my wife’s 25 year high school reunion.

The turnout was poor and we left early (for another big “dress up” party that happened to be scheduled for the same night), but not yet having the chance to attend any of my high school reunions thus far, I was intensely curious to go and see what this ritual is all about.

My total exposure to the high school reunion until the 2 hours I spent last night has been entirely fictional:  from TV shows like 90210 and movies like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.  So, I can only go by my very limited ethnographic experience an observation of consumer culture in determining the significance of this tradition.

From what I can gather of the data available to me, the high school reunion get-together is mostly about checking back in with your closest-in age cohort in regular life-stage intervals to verify your life-course direction and compare notes…and the older you get, the less it becomes about competition and the more it becomes about reliving memories.

There seem to be several acceptable year-marks for getting the gang back together:
The 5 Year reunion:  at this stage most everyone has reached an “out of the next” life stage:  likely having just finished / in the process of finishing college.  For some, having dropped out of college to work or never having gone that route at all and probably have been working at an entry-level job / maybe starting to think about settling down.  At this life-stage, most of one’s high school peers are not married yet so the reunion is a “hook-up” fest and a time to settle-scores / compare notes on career paths and what the heck to do next.  It’s not a difficult one to get people to as many are still visiting their parents fairly frequently or have not yet left town for greener pastures.

The 10 year reunion:  presumably, most people from one’s high school class will have found a niche somewhere and are in serious relationships or starting to make serious money or both.  This is the “look what I can do” reunion where former classmates are likely to come wearing expensive clothes, driving expensive cars and talking about their next promotion.  Many will be showing off baby pictures.  And the underdogs who got the short-end of the stick in high school for being nerds or oddballs are likely running the show and secretly enjoying watching the quarterback’s hairline recede.  The “townies” (those who stayed in the same town as they went to high school) are usually the ones who make up the majority of the audience for this reunion, as everyone else is too busy building careers and likely preferring to spend their hard-earned but limited vacation-budget money on trips to somewhere fun, rather that strolls down memory lane via the Ramada Inn ballroom.

The 20 year high school reunion:  this is the one where you go to see if you recognize anybody.  This is the reunion everybody goes to / that has the best turn out because people have lived entire lives since they left high school and are intensely curious to see how they measure up.  It’s a time for catching up and reminiscing…and for really scoping out who “made it”.  It’s usually when all of the gays and lesbians come out of the woodwork and you find out who peaked in high school versus who really came into their own and went out in the world to make something of themselves.   At this stage everyone who is local will show up along with the out-of-towners who find an excuse to make a a family vacation out of it.  It’s usually around this time (in our modern-day and age) that your Facebook friend list starts expanding with folks from High School who want to get familiar with what they’ve missed before they walk in the door

The 25 year high school reunion:  this one exists solely for the reunion companies to make money.  Nobody really cares any more and the novelty has worn off.  Everybody is living their lives in a more pragmatic manner and doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks, except the ones who have gotten plastic surgery and Botox and hair replacement therapy  since the last reunion and want to show off how young they look…now.  (with the exception of my wife, of course, who will forever look younger no matter what because she is a genetic freak of nature).   It’s nice to catch up with the old friends who you have decided you really wouldn’t mind getting to know again.  Most people, however, likely won’t show up because they had something better to do that night than compare notes with people who are by now a distant memory.  So, it’s back to Facebook to find the important ones and leave the rest behind.

High school is a formative time in our lives.  It is a period of physical growth and emotional / hormonal chaos.  We are figuring out how to fit in / if we want to fit in / what happens next.   We spend high school desperately trying to find ourselves and constantly comparing ourselves to our peers.  The high school reunions appear to be check-in rituals whereby we gauge our success in finding ourselves once we enter the “real world”.  And I suppose you can’t know what you have found until you see how different it is from what you have left behind.

It’s also classic sociology:  we can’t know who “we” are as an “us” unless we know how to identify the “others”.  The reunion is a regular social check in on how we define ourselves compared to the rest.   The ritual puts realities of social change and personal growth in an observable setting for a few hours every 5 or 10 or 20 years and lets us rebuild our baseline for comparison so we can all feel confident that we know how to define “me”.  And the older you get, i think the more you become “okay” with me, and the less you need to measure up against others that were once part of the definitive teenage “we”.

So, really it’s fun to laugh at your high school hair and be grateful that you escaped your teenage years and went on to survive with better perspective and (hopefully) better fashion sense – with people who you “hang out” with because you want to, and not because you are forced to sit next to them in math class.

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