By Ken Trainor
Going into my grade school reunion Saturday night, I entertained a tiny terror. It was 45 years, after all, since I'd seen many of these people. What if, one after another, their faces said, "Were you in our class?" while their voices (overcompensating) said, "It's so good to see you!"
One fears most of all having made no impression whatsoever.
But the moment I set foot inside the door of Ascension's Pine Room, a guy in a suit pointed at me and bellowed, "You! I was just talking about you!"
I figured this was either a dream beginning to a reunion — or a nightmare. Frankly, I was hoping for something in between.
And that's what I got — a nice, low-key affair, seeing people I had wondered about for a long time and meeting some I never really knew. One of my most enjoyable conversations was with a woman I had absolutely no memory of. I hoped my face didn't say, "Were you in our class?"
The best thing about reunions at my age is that it's no longer about you. It's about us. Our class started kindergarten in 1957, just as Sputnik was launched. As we made the long trek through nine years of parochial school, we witnessed the election of the first Roman Catholic president, the early space flights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the invasion of the Beatles, and the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council. When we graduated in June of 1966, all hell was breaking loose elsewhere. This country and the Catholic Church would never be the same.
But generally we were much more interested in being liked and liking. Our self-esteem was fragile and we were so very vulnerable to unkind words and actions. Our teachers, mostly Ursuline nuns though not all, had to rule their classes of 50-plus students with a very firm hand or perish. And kids, as we all know, are not always kind.
Ours was a rule-heavy, highly structured sub-culture that doesn't exist anymore. But that didn't stop the flood of memories as we toured classrooms and the gym where Mission Day, the most awesome day of the school year, was held each midwinter and where kids roller-skated on Saturday afternoons.
Now we were back, having lived through the majority of our respective odysseys. At 59, many looked remarkably fit. But life takes its toll. No one gets through unscathed. At least five classmates have died and one, reportedly, is suffering early Alzheimer's.
Most of those who attended were recognizable, once you stole a glance at the name tag. Their presence and personalities quickly obliterated whatever superficial impressions I might have hoarded. Whoever I thought they were then, they were now warm, open, accepting adults, many of whom had already seen their own kids through grade school (somewhere else).
The kid with bottle-cap glasses had undergone lasik surgery. The kid who ran home to watch Tarzan movies after school was now a member of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Society. The guy who bellowed at me as I walked in is now a political operative who works for the Obama campaign (so does his wife, who bravely attended). The kid who doodled in class was encouraged by a teacher to take classes and now makes a good living as an artist. One classmate, who got married five years after leaving Ascension, came all the way from Boise, Idaho. Two came from California, another from Florida.
We played a game of "Ascension Jeopardy" and passed the microphone around to give everyone a thumbnail update. Most mentioned their kids before their occupations. Several have already retired.
A diminutive woman said she never felt short at Ascension "and I never felt cooler than when I was in eighth grade." She spoke from the heart and put into words what a lot of us were feeling.
What I was feeling is that it's fundamentally good to revisit the past like this, to see what good people kids turn into. Our memories of grade school are inevitably mixed. We endure a few traumas but we survive.
Hovering in the background of our conversations were the teachers and parents who created this hothouse culture in which we were carefully cultivated.
Person by person, I pieced together not my story, but our story — this unique group who shared nine long years of school at a critical formative stage of our lives. So much was happening that I knew nothing about at the time. It was nice to hear a little of what I missed — or forgot.
The Catholic culture has, as its highest ideal, communion, and that is what reunions, at their best, achieve. It's possible that I will never see most of these classmates again. A lot of people didn't show up, and they may not need to, and that's fine. I hope there will be other get-togethers, but you never know. Life, I'm told, is about learning to let go.
When I let go of our reunion early Sunday morning, awash in the wonder of our shared life span, I felt lucky — to grow up in the '60s, in Ascension School, in Oak Park.
I felt thankful, too, but there was something else.
I felt whole.
Answer Book 2018
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