Geography, Generation and Relationship: The Power of High School Reunions by Shelley Robinson


Taking a Leap:  Recently, I decided to fly to Tennessee, United States from my little home up North of Vancouver, in Powell River, Canada.  An old friend from high school (a fellow alumni from our class of 1983 from Calgary, Alberta) started talking about her home in Humboldt, Tennessee (near Memphis) at one of our recent school reunion gatherings.  She had a lovely way of describing her neck of the American woods in her strong Southern drawl, and I was intrigued to learn about the music, food and wineries that she described.  It got me thinking about how nice it would be to experience the deep South of the United States known for its musical culture, civil unrest, and the hot sub-tropical climate, while reuniting with a person who I had always thought was very interesting.

We really had not hung around each other much in high school.  She was one of the prettiest girls in school, and was part of the “in-crowd”; whereas, I was someone who enjoyed the company of different groups of friends, and was likely deemed a band nerd.  When I told some of my old classmates with whom I still stay in touch, that I was going to see her, they were somewhat surprised because we had not been associated as friends back in school.  However, over the years, we started to connect at our alumni gatherings, and realized that we had more in common than we had originally thought.  I started to learn that “[r]eunions reveal friendship potential that have not emerged in the past.”  (Beta, 2011).  It is for this reason, that I, like Ambrose (2015) believe in the value of high school reunions (“Five Reasons to Attend High School Reunions”,  Facebook has also helped me reconnect with people from childhood, some of whom I know more about now than I did then.  Therefore, after 34 years since our high school graduation, I thought I would take the plunge and go and visit someone who I had only passed by in the school hallways.

Arriving in Nashville:   My husband and I found a place for us to stay in Nashville on Airbnb, and the plans started to take shape.  However, I did wonder, as I flew into Nashville, if maybe my leap of faith to spend an entire week (24/7) with someone who I did not know very well, was one of the best decisions that I had ever made.  The only thing that we really had in common was our high school connection.  What if we did not get along or did not travel well together?  I decided to let go of any worry or expectation and to just embrace the idea.  I felt that there must be some reason for reconnecting with each other at this point in our life journeys, and I just needed to trust what that might be.  I knew nothing about Nashville (she calls it Smashville) and Memphis and I decided to just enjoy learning about this historical state.

Let’s Dance:  What became apparent on this trip together through our discussions and behaviour was that where we came from and when we grew up had an incredible bearing on how we connected at this point in our lives.  Many of our mutual interests, values and philosophies about life were shaped by being raised in the conservative social climate of Calgary, Alberta.  Being born in the 60’s and being raised through to adulthood in the 70’s and 80’s by hard-working baby boomer parents definitely seemed to influenced how we viewed and behaved in our lives.  Each time she would recollect some of her experiences growing up, I could identify.  It had meaning to me because I knew about what she had experienced first-hand.

On our first day together wandering through downtown Nashville, we really came to life when one of the bands on Broadway started belting out some of “our” old rock and roll tunes from the 80’s.  We literally jumped onto the dance floor in the bar that we had only intended to peek into, and started dancing.  We had both been raised to listen to our baby boomer parents’ country, rock and other crooner music like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and others.  As we grew older, we listened and danced to Stevie Wonder, Kool and the Gang, Michael Jackson, ZZ Top, Rolling Stones, Queen, Doug and the Slugs, Wang Chung, Wham, Hall and Oates, Whitney Houston, and so many others.   We agreed that the music from the 80’s was superior to all other music.  We were a generation that was Internet-free, and so our music was very important to us.  We listened to it over and over again on our radios, records and tape decks, and later in music videos on MTV.   We both remembered our high school dances fondly.  “We had dances where we actually danced!” we both agreed.

Home and School Memories:  We spent quite a bit of time reminiscing about how we lived “way back when”.   Our parents were frugal people having been raised in the 40’s and 50’s.  As a result, as children, we worked hard to support ourselves alongside what our parents provided us.  We both had jobs in our teenaged years.  There were no misconception about hand-outs and easy rides.  In fact, we both spent a lot of time on the city bus, riding our bikes to and from school, and doing a lot of chores for our families.   We worked hard and played hard in and out of school, and we remember that we partied (in different circles) and had our fair share of adventures and misadventures (albeit all pretty innocent, by the sounds of it).  Neither of us had particularly high grades because we were working, enjoying a social network, participating in sports and music, and we had family responsibilities.  As well, the pressure to perform in school seemed to be less rigorous in those days than seems to be expected of students now.   We both continued on into post-secondary school without much difficulty.

Generation X:   We marvelled over how a day in the life of someone from the 70’s and 80’s was very different from our lifestyles today.   We both only had one telephone with a long cord in our homes.  If we had a conversation on the phone, everyone was aware of it (and we could listen in to calls).  My father would give me a time-limit for talking with my friends so that I would not tie up the lines.  She and I agreed that people were very socially connected to each other in an era that was predominantly face-to-face or by telephone.  We confirmed each others’ thoughts on this trip that “the world was indeed going to hell in a hand-basket” due to being too plugged-in to technology on our cell phones and computers.   The world of our three-channelled televisions with rabbit ears seemed so much simpler.  The introduction of a micro-wave and dishwasher later in my teen years was a big deal.  The radio was also a big part of our family until we got a larger stereo.  I did most of my education on an old typewriter until I was liberated by an IBM type-writer given to me by my parents.   Each addition of some new technology into our homes was a major life event.

It was an age where we did not lock our doors.  The milk man brought us our 2%, and the mail was delivered safely to our doors.  We drove in cars that sometimes lacked seat belts, and air bags were non-existant.  I hung our laundry out to dry on the clothes line, and my idea of a good date out with a young man was to go and play tennis, or to go bowling.   She told stories of sneaking into outdoor swimming pools, and confided about some of the parties that sounded like a lot of fun.   The people that we remembered came back to life vividly in our collective memory as if they were with us just yesterday.

Do You Remember…?:  As we explored all of the sites of Nashville (Broadway, Cheekwood, and the Grand Old Opry area), and then Memphis (Beale Street, Graceland, National Museum of Civil Rights and the Peabody Hotel),  we shared our past narratives together quite naturally.  People who did not grow up in the same decades, in the same cities with the same people might not be able to do so as easily.   Our conversations often started with: “Whatever happened to so and so?”  or “Remember that place downtown?”  We would slip into memories of a city that had started out for us as a place with 300,000 people and has now grown to over a million.  We concluded that Calgary was a great place to grow up, but we both needed to spread our wings and had ended up in different places, with different people, following different life paths.

Having had similar life starting points launched us into different directions with an unbroken umbilical fondness for our childhood urban prairie home with the big blue skies and clear Rocky Mountains to the west.  It was a white-collar oil and gas town in the middle of a farming and ranching prairie community known for its Calgary Stampede.  How we began our lives formed much of how we now looked at life and operated within it.  As grown-up mothers of adult children; daughters of aging parents with typical elderly challenges; and wives of wonderful husbands, we had a lot to talk about.  Our common alma mater frame of reference was just a starting point for an emerging friendship.  We learned that as grown, responsible women, we were more than capable of navigating a week together in the beautiful State of Tennessee.  I learned a lot from the experience.  She drove me around in her red convertible Volkswagen to explore some of the pastoral countryside of large maple, poplar and magnolia trees hiding the elusive armadillo.  An adventure is typically an experience when we are not exactly sure how it is going to go, and therefore, it may involve some risk.  In this case, all roads ended in some very happy Thelma and Louis memories (minus the affairs and driving over the cliff at the end).

Our High School History:  1980-1983:   What do we have to talk about looking back at 1980 to 1983?  Pierre Trudeau was our Prime Minister and Ralph Klein was the Mayor of Calgary.  Both were controversial leaders in their time.  John Lennon was murdered.  Personal computers (PC’s) were introduced by IBM.  It was the launch of the first Space Shuttle.  There was the attempted assassination of US President Ronald Reagan.  U2 released their first album Boy.  The Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina.  The album Back in Black was released by AC/DC.  Prince Charles married Princess Diana and many of us stayed up late to watch the royal wedding.  Mount Saint Helen’s erupted and ash blew everywhere.  Aids was identified as a plague.  Everyone was playing with the Rubik’s cube (although I never figured it out).

However, it is more likely that we would try to remember our teachers and some of our favourite haunts in the city.  On this trip, it was most interesting to discuss the little details that we had experienced growing up in Calgary, like skipping class to go over to the Dairy Queen, or staying late to watch the rugby games and talking about boys.  Near the end of our trip, we looked ahead with some anticipation to a potential 35th reunion as another opportunity to see everybody and each other again.

Why Attend?  So many times, I hear that people do not want to attend high school reunions by saying: “I didn’t really know all of the graduates.  Why would I attend and see a bunch of people who I never hung around with before?” Or, “I didn’t have very many positive experiences in high school.  Why would I go back?”  I would argue, now that I have had this new experience making a new friendship with a former school mate, that there can be (not always) something truly magical about reconnecting with people who shared the same geography and generational starting point in high school.  I have learned, like Ambrose (2015) that we are humbler as we near the 40th reunion.  Life has touched us all in unique and profound ways and we have more empathy for our classmates.  We have stretched beyond the relegation of past high school personas and become unique personalities.

In reconnecting, we have the opportunity to reach out to people and look back at where we came from and consider our common history.   Our stories are interesting and worth sharing with people who really understand what we have experienced.  “Ya, I remember him.  He was that crazy teacher that kept falling asleep in class.”  Or,  “Ya, I remember that place up on the hill.  I had my first beer there.”  Going “home” sometimes has a powerful potential to re-visit our pasts and to look at them through more mature lenses.  We can see ourselves all over again in the company of the people who have walked, to some extent, a mile in each others’ high school moccasins.

“We grew up on the same street,
You and me.
We went to the same schools,
Rode the same bus,
Had the same friends,
And even shared spaghetti
With each other’s families.
And though our roots belong to
The same tree,
Our branches have grown
In different directions.
Our tree,
Now resembles a thousand
Other trees
In a sea of a trillion
Other trees
With parallel destinies
And similar dreams…”

Suzy Kassem (2010)











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