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I just attended my 40th high-school reunion in Shaker Heights, Ohio. It was a school that I never graduated from and, in fact, never attended. However, I attended the elementary and junior high school and maintained many relationships over the years. It was a great experience, and I learned quite a bit about life from the weekend.
We went to school in the middle of the 1960s race difficulties, and the community did not solve the race problem by busing students. Instead, it made entire areas of the community open to housing for minorities which were then reflected in the overall population of the school system. This diversity has served our class and the entire community well over the years.
The reunion taught me several things, which I will share with you:
1. Age is the great leveler. By the time you get to be 58 or 59, it is no longer important to you or others your age what you do for a living. Classmates who had basic jobs talked to classmates who were elected officials, doctors and lawyers. People just want to connect to others.
2. Everyone thought they were alone in feeling outside and different. To paraphrase federal Judge Dan Polster, a classmate, most people thought they were on the outside and that they were experiencing that difference alone. Many people did not feel comfortable enough to share that pain with others, but they can now, years later.
3. Community is crucial. As classmates talked and shared their lives, it became apparent that the sense of community and shared values is important to not only a community’s well-being but also an individual’s progress and sense of self. Learning must happen in the context of shared responsibility to a community. Many classmates were disappointed with others who did not attend, as they felt that attending a reunion really adds and impacts to the greater whole of the community.
4. What is happening in the world has great impact. My cousin, Aaron, attended the reunion with his wife, a classmate. He was astounded as to how different this class was even though the class was only two years younger than his. It is the same school but an entirely different dynamic. The shooting of four Kent State students in 1970 as well as Woodstock changed individual lives as well as the entire group.
5. Teachers make a huge difference. As classmates spoke on panels and to some of the former teachers who attended this reunion, it was clear that even little phrases made great impact. These included how to get through math (think of each equation as money not numbers) to how a Ph.D. researcher became interested in science from his 7th–grade teacher.
6. High standards influence outcome. The school system I attended set high standards for its students. Many students did not come from bookish families, and currently the school system has a significant number of students on some form of public assistance. Forty years later, the school has approximately the same college attendance rate, which is extremely high.
7. Beginnings influence how community and individuals form. Anyone who has worked in a corporation knows that often the initial corporate culture can influence the life of the company. Shaker Heights began as a community of the Shaker sect, which was a bit strange but had a highly moral code. The history of the community is taught in the early grades of the school system, making students aware of the foundations of the community.
8. Everyone can change, grow and be different. That observation was most impressive to many of us attending the reunion. One classmate was a nerd type who kept to himself and wound up hosting a part of the weekend; another was a bit uppity in the past and was one of the warmest and kindest people at the weekend events. Life experience changes people, and often for the better.
9. Going home is important. One person told me that this allowed them to be in the past, present and future. Some classmates hadn’t been back to their hometown in 30 years, and they said how much both their memories and their sense of self needed the visit. It helped them to understand the context of their lives.
10. People observe and remember things about you that you would never guess.
It was quite amazing how many times someone would do a “I remember when you …” and the person being referred to had no idea that something they said or did was remembered. Those observations 40 to 50 years later can give you information about yourself that you would never guess.
11. Relationships formed in childhood are often the most simple and real. The people you grow up with see you as that person they played with. They don’t see the adult person. They know you before you were the working adult you are, and they just enjoyed you for the fun and conversation. They didn’t want much from you except to play jump-rope or baseball. Those relationships are treasures that, if nurtured, can be a safe haven for life.
12. People like to have fun at any age. My class isn’t over the hill yet, but we are looking down from the other side of the mountain. Letting go and having a good time is important to people, and it is important that we don’t get so loaded down with responsibilities that we forget to smile and laugh.
I hope I never forget what I learned from my classmates and after all these years they still have much to teach me. It was definitely worth the effort.