At the reunion, finding communion

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

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.


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Kathleen Schulze Spohn from Woodridge,IL  

Posted: October 18th, 2011 11:35 PM

Thanks for the heartfelt article that captured such a special time. I agree;I consider growing up in South Oak Park and Ascension as one of my life's true blessings. I had nearby friends,we would rollerskate@the Gym or on the slate sidewalks,we'd go up to Lake St(I first tasted pizza at Woolworth's)or down to the Ritz,or over to Molly's,Huey's,Brinkerhoff's, McCann's.. While I never felt cool, and my classmate right across the street did ask me what hundred I grew up on,I sure had a "blast!"

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 14th, 2011 12:41 AM

Great article, made me nostalgic for my last reunion at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn NY and anxious for the next one. Thanks.

Jim Hadac from Brookfield, IL  

Posted: October 13th, 2011 11:16 PM

Ken, I enjoyed reading your report on the reunion. I hadn't made the earlier reunion and didn't quite know what to expect. One reason I went was because my wife Yoko, who is from Japan, wanted to know more about my childhood, an American childhood... What I didn't realize is how friendly and interesting my former classmates were-and I wish I could have gotten to know some of them better when I was at Ascension.. It would have been good to have been able to keep in touch over the years...

mike collins from wildwood  

Posted: October 13th, 2011 9:06 AM

ken...i guess i cant call u kenny anymore....great article...sorry we missed the reunion, but homecoming and dance for our 18 year old...u forgot about the 69 cubs breaking all our hearts...and all the years of cubs games we watched playing pool in several basements...also all the great sports fun...bball, buck buck,skitching et al...and wiffle ball in the alley...hope to see u and others next time......

Lou Frillman from Minneapolis and Seattle  

Posted: October 13th, 2011 7:11 AM

Several years ago, Carol Frillman and I buried one of our Ascension first grade teachers, Mother Imelda Frieda. At that service,we looked out and saw a sea of women who had given their lives in service; to the Church, to the community, but mostly, to us. Ken's recollections, of our school, our teachers, and ourselves, are terrific and on point. They say you can't go home again. Don't believe it. We just did.

Cathy Trankina Flodin from Woodridge  

Posted: October 12th, 2011 9:12 PM

It sounds like it was a really nice time. So sorry I had to miss it. Maybe next time.

Jg Morales  

Posted: October 12th, 2011 7:03 PM

Very lovely piece. I enjoyed the read.

Catherine McMahon  

Posted: October 12th, 2011 5:38 PM

Nice article...nice sentiment...sorry I missed the event!

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