Reunion revolution

I’ve faced a lot of important decisions in my life.Should I abandon Canada and move south to a more socialist country? Should I give all my money to that investment genius named Bernie I’ve heard such good things about? Should I complete the column I contractually agreed to write for this magazine, or resign after 650 words?

But none has caused as much inner turmoil and stress as whether or not to attend my high school reunion.

I wrestled with it for weeks, even months, perhaps subconsciously for years. I weighed the pros-the opportunity to reconnect with long-lost classmates, return to my roots, and show appreciation to my school. I considered the cons-bad food, awkward conversation, and a preadmission screening with mortality.

I was definitely torn, so I did some aggressive media research. The moving and absolutely true story of Romy and Michele‘s High School Reunion showed how such events can be breeding grounds for deception, and episode 22 from season three of CSI: Miami proved they can be murder. But since I’m not a conniving girl or a high-school football hero due for a brutal comeuppance, I decided to go anyway.

So I went.

It’s not important to know how long it’s been since graduation, as that’s the kind of personal information I wouldn’t even share with my best Facebook friends. All I’ll say is that this was either my 5th, 10th, 20th or 30th, and all of us had last been together the year Mr. Ed died.

It was a seven-hour drive back to my high school, so I had ample time to dread and obsess. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but believed the experience would be not unlike attending the 10-year homecoming at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in 2019. I’d be reunited with my tormenters, and together we’d relive shared experiences I didn’t enjoy that much the first time. Hopefully, this could happen without the orange jumpsuits.

I had a bit of trouble even finding the school again after decades away, and when I finally pulled into the parking lot, was shocked by what I saw. The crumbling façade. The sagging infrastructure. The way the elements had eroded what was once a beautiful exterior. And that was just a girl I used to know who happened to be standing outside. The buildings were in even worse condition.

After wandering the old hallways seeking a functional Xanax dispenser, I finally worked up the courage to go to the school cafeteria, where my class had allegedly gathered. Pausing in the doorway, I observed a group of what appeared to be aging, lumpy strangers in an agitated state of nervous chatter. I wondered if my classmates had been secretly replaced at the last moment by badly cast extras, because they pretended not to know who I was. Sure, I have no hair, wear glasses, and sport an entirely redesigned body style these days. But still…they should have known.

For the next couple minutes, I felt incognito, irrelevant, invisible-kind of like how it must feel to be a senior in America. A couple people looked up when I glided past, then turned away without a flicker of recognition. Finally, a particularly perceptive classmate detected some vague vestige of my former self and tentatively said, “Gary?” A buzz of recognition swept the room, building to a hum of palpable pity. I smiled bravely, dove into the crowd and began the reunion dance with one familiar stranger after another-shaking hands, telling lies, vowing to not let another years go by.

This went on all afternoon. Mostly, we stood around and just talked about the past. When that was done, we sat down and remembered the past. Much later, we had some snacks and beverages and talked about what had happened in the past. After dispensing a few hugs of varying degrees of sincerity, I headed home, taking small comfort in knowing that like the Comet Kohoutek, I probably wouldn’t return again for at least 100,000 years.

And that was that.

A couple weeks later, I had the opportunity to attend a different kind of reunion. A long-term care company I know was approaching a 20th anniversary milestone, and was throwing a party for itself and a few hundred good friends and associates. Since it seems like just surviving that long in this business deserves significant recognition, I decided to go.

Having weathered two decades of financial and regulatory tumult in the profession, there was plenty for this organization to celebrate. Consistent innovation and care quality. High ethical standards without a whiff of scandal. Loyal, long-time staff. Steady growth based on sound business strategies, rather than bubble-based greed or ego. Sure, there had been a few back-from-the-brink moments and strategic missteps along the way. But generally speaking, the trajectory was upward and highly praiseworthy.

Naturally, there were videos and speeches that told the company story and reveled in its history and achievements. But the tone for the evening was set by the founder and CEO, who cautioned about the dangers of too much celebration. “One way to know a company is in trouble is when all they want to talk about is how good they were in the past,” he said, quoting an anonymous author. “When memories exceed dreams, you know you’re in trouble.”

Then we applauded, the lights came back on, and just like my high school reunion, everyone stood around in small groups for the next couple hours clutching their beverages and talking. But this time the topic was-gasp!-the future, about new initiatives, new partnerships, new opportunities for growth and success. They raised a glass to the past, but kept marching forward.

I left that gathering with an entirely different feeling than my high-school ordeal. In other words, happy and glad I went.

It’s a revolutionary concept-one that ought to be mandated nationwide for all nostalgia-based gatherings. To imagine what can be, rather than reliving what was. To esteem bold new ventures over long-irrelevant achievements. To value the time left, rather than wasting it talking about how much is gone forever and how much better things used to be.

If it catches on, maybe I’ll even agree to attend my next class reunion. But only if the most frequently overheard question is guaranteed to be, “Remember when…we used to talk about the past?”

It was my 30th, by the way.

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington.

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Long-Term Living 2009 August;58(8):45-46

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