Thursday, August 22, 2013
Come As You Are: Reflections on Reunion
The personal context of my quoting Erma Bombeck last weekend at my high school reunion. Bubble bath is mentioned. Unmentioned but mysteriously relevant are: North Dakota's questionable existence, the theme song to Gilligan's Island, Burt Reynolds, the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music, wall telephones in bathrooms, and asking for autographs in embarrassing places.
Last weekend I attended my 30-year reunion at Snake River High School in Thomas, Idaho (near Blackfoot). It was our first reunion in 20 years and the first I have ever attended. I emceed half of the event, and in that role I offered about three minutes of prepared remarks. I know they were prepared, because I made these preparations: I pulled a 30-year-old cassette tape off the shelf, transcribed a short piece of a speech so I could quote it accurately, and put a little thought into how to introduce it and how to make my point very briefly after it.
Some of my classmates asked for the quotation, which I posted at our group on Facebook. A few wanted more of the story. Here, then, is the what I suppose I might call the personal context of the quotation, including some thoughts that occurred as I contemplated attending the reunion and as I, with several others, worked to notify classmates and teachers of the event and spoke to many of them. I'm posting it here because here is where there is, and because I flatter myself that some others might enjoy these musings.
I didn't expect this "context" to grow to to its present length, but it did. If it's not enough to pull you out of your insomnia, there's always the royal, biblical remedy: Read the Books of Chronicles. (See Esther 6:1.)
Come As You Are
One of the things people need to know about an event is what they're expected to wear. What we recommended for our 30-year high school reunion was “nice casual.” What I wished we could say was, “Come as you are.”
There were good reasons not to say that. First, it's not a very helpful answer. Second, I'm aware that there are people who like to soak in their bubble bath while they do daring electronic things just above the water, such as taking phone calls, reading e-mail, and loitering on Facebook. We certainly didn't want to take the risk that someone like that might get the word at the wrong time and take “Come as you are” too literally. Not that free entertainment is always a bad thing . . .
Here's why I wanted to say, “Come as you are.”
Something happens when we think about going to a reunion, or even when we join Facebook, for that matter. We wonder how those people who knew us in high school or wherever will judge us after all these years. I myself wasn't much to look at in high school, but now I look in the mirror and see that most of my hair is missing, and I've gained more than a hundred pounds. (By the way, if you ever go to graduate school, it's a bad idea to get in the habit of eating to stay awake to study for a few more hours.) Well, I have my own insecurities, and you have yours, and only the most superficial of them involve our looks. The others concern what we've done or not done, where we've failed or at least not succeeded yet, the important things in life that haven't gone as well as we hoped or haven't happened at all. Some people contemplate all this and stay home. Others accept the pain of remembering as an essential companion of the joy of remembering.
We've all grown up a little in 30 years. If there's one thing we've learned better than we knew it in high school, I hope it's this: I hope we've learned to value ourselves and others for who we are – not for who we aren't, or the things we don't have, or the messes we or others have made in our lives. We can airbrush the photos we put on Facebook, and we might even be able to airbrush our lives for one evening, just long enough to bluff our way through a reunion. But I hope we've learned not to want to do that.
I hope we've learned that real is best. Real is beautiful. And the person we're all hoping to see at the reunion, after all these years, is you -- who you are, as you are. Who cares whether you arrive in a paid-off late-model Lexus or my 11-year-old Honda or a borrowed 40-year-old Chevy – or even one of those pieces of farm equipment one classmate used to drive to school sometimes? Who cares about a few wrinkles or some missing hair or those extra pounds? Thirty years later, can we not all see that the valuable and genuinely beautiful part of you is the real you? Everything else is just distraction, or, at best, decoration.
The Insecure All-American
As my classmates and I were concluding our senior year of high school, I got lucky and won a couple of national awards that led to interesting opportunities. One of those opportunities was to spend several summer days in San Diego at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Achievement, of which I had never heard before. About 300 graduates from around the country were there. We had each excelled at something – academics, athletics, art, theater, music, or leadership. A lot of famous and very successful people were also invited. We spent those days hobnobbing with high government officials, Hollywood stars, Nobel Prize-winning doctors and scientists and authors, and other exceedingly accomplished people.
They sent a bus for us at the San Diego airport. I happened to sit next to a high school all-American football player from Louisiana, a running back, as I recall. We talked for half an hour on the way to our hotel. Think about this. In high school, the quickest, best road to popularity, at least for a guy, was to be a star athlete. This young man was not just a star athlete; he was a star among stars.
He was also kind and gracious. As we talked, he told me something surprising. He said he almost decided not to come to San Diego, because he didn't think he would fit in with all the accomplished fellow graduates who would be there. He was just a football player, you see. What was he doing among all those fine students and leaders and such?
I had never imagined that a star athlete would have insecurities like that. Maybe that's when I realized that we all had them, no matter how hard we worked to hide them. I know I had them. Sometimes I look back on my teenage years and see one long sequence of words and actions – some of them quite unfortunate, and virtually all of them self-centered – which were intended to contradict, disprove, or conceal my insecurities. And we all know without being told, I think, that the person from whom I most wanted to hide them was myself. (And the girls, of course.)
Famous People Happen in Threes
One of those mornings at the Hotel del Coronado, I hit the breakfast buffet, then sat down at a table with a couple of other graduates I had gotten to know. There were also three of those famous people at the table. My two peers were almost finished with their breakfast when I sat down. They left after a few minutes, leaving me alone with the famous people.
You might recognize their names. One was General Charles Yeager, the famous test pilot. Among other things, he broke the sound barrier in the X-1. One was Robert Massie, a prominent historian and a highly-regarded author. The third was Erma Bombeck. She was the one who made me feel comfortable at that table.
You may not remember Erma Bombeck, but your mother does. She was a very popular writer and humorist. She made ordinary life, especially housework, funny. She wrote about a dozen books, with titles like The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; and When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home. Her public career was about being ordinary. Later that day, I heard her say, “Please don't be afraid of ordinary, because it's never lonely there.”
We graduates spent the evenings there dancing to live bands, enjoying that spectacular beach, and doing other fun things, but during the day we sat in a big conference room and listened to the famous people speak to us, one after another. They would speak for five or ten minutes each, then answer our questions. Some of it was as boring as it sounds, but a lot of it was fun and interesting. On the same day I met her at breakfast, Erma Bombeck was one of our speakers.
Before her were two doctors, who told us about their pioneering work in in vitro fertilization, which was a new thing back then. After her was Robert Mulliken, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, but that description doesn't quite do him justice. He was a towering figure in science. He was quite old in 1983, and he lost his train of thought a few of times as he spoke, but he was humble and charming, and we loved him.
Among these redwoods – between the famous doctors and one of the great scientists of the 20th century – came Erma Bombeck. She spoke for a while, and we laughed and laughed. Finally, she got serious, and the whole point of my story is to tell you a little bit of what she said that day. Here it is:
For me that was the most memorable moment of the entire event.
To Early Builders of My Little World
If you don't mind too much, I will be very personal for a moment.
You don't need me to tell you that high school is full of drama and trauma and all the other effects of young people trying to figure out who they'll be and what price they're willing to pay for what they think they want. In our school years we managed to hurt each other often enough without even knowing it, or at least without meaning to. Sometimes, yes, we actually meant to hurt someone, or at least didn't care if we did. I think we generally failed to realize how much pain we would cause, or for how long.
As I have watched my own children in their school years, in the company of their good friends and classmates, I have learned to see something in my own school years for which I am now very grateful. Generally, my classmates were kind and patient, and even friendly with me, when I certainly gave cause enough for them to be otherwise, if they had wanted to. In fact, despite all the drama, we were, as a class, mostly kind and patient and friendly with each other – at least in my memory and experience.
Maybe none of us from the Snake River High School Class of 1983 will change the whole world. Few people do. But my classmates did more than change my little world. They helped to build it, as they built their own, and I have come to appreciate that they did well. Whatever my world is now, 30 years later – to say nothing of any good effect I might ever have on anyone else's personal world – is partially a product of their presence, character, and effort.
What I'm trying to say is this. Gentle reader, in case you think, in spite of Erma Bombeck, that you will never really be someone's hero or heroine or friend, I'm here to tell you gratefully: You already have been. You already are.
"Take that. That's good enough."
Copyright 2013 by David Rodeback.