August 6, 2013
I recently reviewed the new Blu-ray of Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), about a woman (Kathleen Turner) who goes to her 25-year high school reunion. As it happened, that very same weekend was my 30-year high school reunion, as one of Livonia Winston Churchill High School’s Class of 1983.
Needless to say, I didn’t make it. The 13,000-mile round-trip from and back to Kyoto was a bit far. However, happily, I was able to experience big chunks of it vicariously via photos and even some video posted on the reunion committee’s Facebook page and elsewhere. As it turned out, virtually none of the people I would have been most interested in reconnecting with were there, though it certainly would have been a fascinating experience regardless.
There seems to be two types who attend such things. The first group, and by far the dominant one in terms of numbers, seem to be those who had a great high school experience, who are full of warm nostalgia for that time in their lives, and who want to relive it for a few hours. The other type, if movies and TV shows are to be believed, are those bullied and teased when they were in high school because they were math geeks or unattractive (often, but not always, grossly overweight) and who exact a revenge of sorts showing up as a Bill Gates-type multi-millionaire (which is what happens to one character in Peggy Sue Got Married) or transformed into beautiful/super-hot swans. I doubt this is common, but I’d wager every reunion has at least one of those.
I don’t fall into either category. I was certainly on the introverted, nerdy side, but I wasn’t picked on by my classmates. However, I wasn’t particularly close to anyone in my class, my best friends being a year or two ahead of me with one or two in the class following mine, and a few more from other high schools. But it is true that, for me, my high school years were not a particularly happy time in my life, and maybe partly for that reason now, 30 years later, that part of my life seems much, much more distant, like a thousand years ago, than I suspect they do for those that were there.
Indeed, looking at the many photos of people once teenagers now suddenly middle-aged, over-and-over again I remembered names but only vaguely recognized some of the faces, and many not at all – just as probably very few there would have remembered mine. One interesting pattern I did notice was that the vast majority of those who attended the reunion still live within a few miles of where they grew up while perhaps the majority of those who did not now live far, far away .
That would seem only logical but I think there may be more to it than that. Like me, most of my old high school friends tended to move away. And not just to another part of Michigan or Northern Ohio but to New York or Los Angeles or Seattle or San Francisco or, as in my case (and more common than you’d think), to the other end of the planet.
I’m not being judgmental. I’m happy for those who made it to the reunion and enjoyed themselves, and I’m happy for those finding happy lives staying in their hometown. I wouldn’t blame them at all for thinking moving to and living in Japan a bizarre and unthinkable proposition. And yet, I’d love to know what motivates those who choose to remain where they are.
The reunion still fresh in my mind, I Google-mapped the streets of Livonia, Michigan, taking a virtual tour of the city that had been my home for most of my first 20 years. From its founding in 1950, Livonia was a pretty colorless grid of mostly early-’60s ranch houses spread like butter over sprawling square mile blocks. There was, typically, a gas station, grocery store, and maybe a flower shop, ice cream parlor and maybe a beauty salon at every major intersection. It was utilitarian but little else and for the teenaged me excruciatingly boring back then. Prague it was not.
But Google-mapping, at that frustratingly slow leap-frog speed (Google really needs a “virtual 40 mph” option) I “drove” all around my hometown. And hardly recognized it. To my eyes, what little character it once had was wiped clean since I last saw it. For instance, as a kid I used to ride past a dilapidated gray building at the corner of Newburgh and 7 Mile Road, by then serving as the clubhouse for a private golf course. The building fascinated me and, later, I discovered that it once had been a popular hang-out of the Purple Gang, the Detroit Mob. (Chicago had Al Capone, we had The Purple Gang.) Googling that intersection now, it’s all gone. Everywhere, what 40 years ago seemed like featureless small, local businesses dotting the landscape have since been replaced by featureless national chains like Starbucks and Wal-Mart.
I suppose most of us, on and off, imagine what a 25- or 30- or 50-year high school reunion might be like. I was sorry to miss mine but now I’m also glad I wasn’t there. Seeing pictures on Facebook satiated some curiosity, and then Googling the StreetView reminded me that even those very distant memories of 30 and 40 years ago have almost zero connection to the way things exist there now. If those still living there are happy, more power to ‘em. But I’m glad I am where I am and what I am (I yam what I yam?). Somewhere, there’s s line connecting the me of 1983 to the me of 2013, but it’s one I now can barely recognize.