It wasn’t your typical high school reunion.
Sure, there were plenty of hugs, drinks and — thanks to the drinks — confessions of unrequited 3rd grade crushes. And yes, there were hilarious and tender reminiscences, though it was a bit scary that we could recall with crystal clarity the details of a 1965 basketball game but had no clue where we left our hotel room keys.
But when 50 or so members of the Great Neck South Class of ’67 converged at the Inn at Great Neck last weekend to celebrate our 60th birthday year, something profound also happened. At least I think it did.
Tucked between a Friday dinner, a Saturday night party and a Sunday brunch were two extraordinary meetings planned and facilitated by Helen, a classmate who’s enjoyed a successful career as an educator. With a video camera running, what could have been a parody of a ’60s encounter group turned into a fascinating examination of where we’ve been, where we are and where we might be going.
We began by talking to classmates we’d never gotten to know in school, and those conversations led to a group discussion that revealed exquisite sensitivities and deep insecurities about our high school experiences.
The ultra-competitive environment of those years, it turned out, created not only a plethora of success stories but also more than a few basket cases. Whatever our own gifts and accomplishments, most of us never stopped comparing ourselves to classmates who always seemed superior. The jocks wished they were as smart as the brains, the brains wanted to be popular, and the popular crowd wanted to be smarter and better athletes.
There may have been a few of us who were comfortable in our own skins back then, but, perhaps out of some perverse/reverse peer pressure, no one would admit it!
Miles, our class valedictorian, read a few paragraphs from his commencement speech, “Hope for America?”, a remarkably prescient call to activism that could easily have found its way into President Obama’s Inaugural Address. It reminded us that 1967 was a year of monumental political, economic and cultural ferment, the likes of which we haven’t seen till, well, now.
When the conversation veered and threatened to become a debate about whether texting and twittering are making today’s kids more or less isolated — the answer, of course, is both — Helen deftly guided us back to the central issue. Where are we going in the coming years? Do we want to withdraw from the fray and relax into retirement or take Miles’ advice and try to make a difference? And if the latter, is there some way we can band together to pursue our goals collectively?
Rob, a star wrestler in high school and the principal organizer of the reunion, pointed the way forward with a moving story. Recounting his recent, first-ever rock-climbing experience, he described a moment of truth when, starting up the mountain, he faced the prospect of letting go and reaching for the finger hold above him. Despite knowing that his rope and his partner were there for support if he faltered, Rob froze, unable to make the leap of faith that comprised just a few inches. Shaken, he gave up and returned aground, the only one in the group who didn’t make it.
This “failure” was painful, but it yielded an invaluable insight: The mighty Rob, whom many in our class viewed as a demigod for his looks, charm and athletic ability, simply couldn’t bring himself to ask for help.
Throughout the weekend, our Rashomonic recollections of events great and small — Did we really get a stellar education or were most of our teachers just going through the motions? Did the Critters or the Chiffons perform at our senior prom? — revealed that in a way, each of us went to a different Great Neck South. Yet it was also clear that many in our class — those attending and any number of friends who didn’t make it — share an unshakeable bond that’s only deepened across the decades.
By the end of the weekend, there was broad agreement to take a modest first step towards a legacy project: a website, to serve as a portal for various activities including the establishment of a fund to help classmates in need. (Like Angie, whose recent fall from a horse has left her seriously injured and financially strapped for the resources she needs for physical therapy.) We’ll also use the site for networking, to help each other and our families with everything from job searches to avenues for activism. If that works, other projects — a mentoring program, a book, a study on the long-term effects of Bachelors Arts classes — could follow.
Assessing the enormous challenges of the moment, some of us sense the beginnings of a shift towards a more humane and benevolent society. Others are just plain scared about aging in a society that no longer seems to reward hard work and prudent investment and whose health care system is a joke.
Our nascent legacy project, we hope, will be a small step in fighting the wave of shameless selfishness that got us in this tsunami of a mess, as too many politicians, bankers, corporate execs, unions and ordinary citizens looked out for number one at the expense of the greater good. A principal goal of the endeavor is to encourage classmates and their families to reach out for help when the need arises and be there when others are suffering.
Back to the partying. Saturday night’s bash at Patsy’s mom’s house — she finally let her 60 year-old daughter throw an unsupervised party! — brought classmates from all “crowds” together for talking, drinking, eating birthday cake and dancing to ’60s music. I know everyone says this, but we really did have the best music. In their primes: Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Byrds, Smokey, Marvin, Four Tops, Tempts, Supremes, James Brown and so many more. We were also lucky enough to have Adam and the Edens, a phenomenal Great Neck band whose drummer, Mike, was in the house. When we played an old tape of their cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” I could feel the magic of the past and a dream for the future.