Last weekend was my 30th high school reunion. First of all, WTF. . how has it been thirty years already? So much life has passed by and at times it feels like it was just yesterday that I was jetting through the locker-lined halls of Morristown High School.
I actually had no intention of going. It seemed ludicrous to cross the Atlantic for a few hours of what I thought would be awkward smiles and poor name recognition in a loud bar. Morristown, New Jersey also stirs up a confusing array of feelings in me including memories of my deceased father. I wasn’t sure how I felt about stepping into that town again. But some other priorities lined up and United Airlines was practically giving away flights from Paris so I decided to bite the bullet.
Back in the 80’s, Morristown was a special yet complicated place to live. It had a unique type of diversity where the intersection of race, culture and socio-economics had the potential to broaden our minds in ways we probably didn’t appreciate at the time. There were upper middle class Black families whose mobility was anchored by corporations like AT&T. There were working class white kids whose families had been in the town for generations, running small businesses that grounded and enhanced our every day lives.
Every culture, race, and class was represented in equal measure. Even our religions spanned the spectrum. My Sundays were spent in the pews of Calvary Baptist Church, tucked away on the other side of the “hollow” with the other Black churches. I attended my fair share of bat mitzvahs while in the throes of middle school and often had to bypass afternoon plans as friends devotedly attended CCD at their Catholic churches.
In retrospect, it was pretty extraordinary the way we attempted to co-exist, representing the beautifully diverse walks of life that actually do make America great.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Hidden resentments and myopic views crept into our experiences from time to time. I remember seeing a swastika spray-painted on a car while riding down Hanover Avenue. Caught between charges of “acting white” and being called the n-word while at the receiving end of a fist, I sometimes felt that Morristown was not a kind place at all.
I could always sense, however, that we were trying to make the community work. The stereotypes that the world often tried to sell us were defied by our reality. So, we came together at pee wee football games and through a shared love of smiley face cookies and Suvio’s pizza. We accepted and respected that a Black man could serve as our principal or our most beloved art teacher. We relished in the fact that an all-girl student government could totally kick ass. And they did.
In the hours before the reunion, I had a small existential crisis, asking myself, “Why do we do this? This reunion thing.” Especially now, as Facebook has reacquainted us, providing a window into the passing of our lives and our political differences. What is it that compels us to come back together?
It only took a few minutes after our arrival for me to get my answer. Walking into the dimly lit room which proved problematic for us 40-somethings in reading glasses, the joy with which I heard my name uttered put me at ease. No passage of time could ever make us strangers.
The ebb and flow of our relationships that ensued from the transitions between elementary, middle and high school could not erase the memories or the substance of our knowledge of each other. The hugs were tight, filled with the recognition of who we were and what we shared. The message was “I see you now, just as I saw you then when you were nine and used to play at my house.”
We bore the growing pains of childhood and adolescence together whether it was a parents’ divorce or a first crush. Now, as fully formed adults, we commiserated over the loss of a parent, the end of a marriage or the upheaval of a career. Beneath the blare of the music, there was a safe space to reveal how we may have changed and stayed the same all at once.
One of my favorite moments was with a classmate who had traveled from Alaska to be there. From what I had gathered, he hadn’t been back to Morristown in about twenty-five years. Our last conversation was probably back in middle school. Our paths seldom crossed in high school and I noted that to him, convinced that he probably didn’t even remember who I was. He debunked that notion immediately with a tender acknowledgement of our elementary school days together. There was so much warmth in his smile and his eyes and before we were interrupted, we managed a toast as I welcomed him home.
When Trump was campaigning for office, I was surprised and disappointed by the support of some of my Morristown friends of his candidacy. My news feed would fill with zealous endorsements of a man who made hate and bigotry the cornerstone of his platform. I came down pretty hard on those friends because I knew where they came from and I simply could not comprehend that this is the path they had chosen given our experience together.
I saw one of those friends at the reunion and despite our heated Facebook debate from three years ago, giving him a hug was a natural reflex. And then suddenly, I remembered that in our sixth grade GATS class–this gifted student thing–he was the first boy to ever tell me that I was pretty.
At the innocence of eleven, he saw something in me that was a far cry from the messages sent to and about little Black girls during that time. It called to mind that we were part of the same tribe and that meant something. Ironically, it’s the very reason why I was so frustrated by his leanings towards Trump.
Politics aside, there was so much love in the room that night. An energy that I didn’t expect, but one that validated the fact that we are an enduring tribe of friends, acquaintances and family. We were missing many of our comrades from the class of ’89 and I’m sure others may not share the same sense of nostalgia.
Yet, it’d be hard to argue against the fact that we grew up in a pretty remarkable place at an interesting time in the world. There is no doubt that my own desire to explore the globe and expand my mind has to do with having sat next to such a diverse and enriching group of people every day for all of those years.
I carry the memories with me always and I am eternally grateful to have shared so much with all of you. Thank you for being such a special and inspiring force in the world.
Class of ’89, I see you.