Surviving the Class Reunion: Where Past and Present Collide

I take a deep breath. Pushing open the door, I’m hit by a sea of faces and a hubbub of noise. Everything is a blur, and I can’t recognize anyone at first. But then I spot my good friend Marilyn. And, yes, I think that’s John — the one who nearly blew up the school with homemade fireworks. As Marilyn and I embrace, and talk eagerly, other faces begin to look familiar. Memory awakens, and names and details bubble up to the surface.

This is by far the most challenging reunion I’ve attended — I left this school when I was eight, and haven’t met anyone since except Marilyn. But as we all begin to mix, there’s plenty of laughter as one reminiscence leads to another. Some things we all agree on — Swedish drill in the playground, painted flashcards for French, and sliding down the banisters on the main staircase, risking the wrath of the headmistress if caught.

But there are gaps and clashes in our narratives too — one person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. We collectively recover memory: yes, the art teacher really was called Miss Painter, and we did all dance around the school gymnasium to a radio program called Music and Movement. But I keep the memory to myself of how a well-groomed woman once wet herself in the middle of the classroom.

Recovering memories is one of the key elements of a reunion, and arouses many emotions – joy, shame, amusement, alarm. The prospect of a reunion can be scary, and as the day approaches, there’s usually a lurch of fear in that rising tide of excitement. You just can’t tell in advance what it will be like. Memory is a trickster; we all edit experience, and may find that our picture of the past is defective or distorted. The mosaic of memories I had cherished from this early stage of my life had to be re-jigged at this meeting, to accommodate the fragments that other people offered. But even if a reunion stirs you up in strange ways, it can still bring rewards. You may renew friendships, make discoveries, share memories and glean new contacts and inspirations to enhance your current life.

So if that invitation arrives from school, college or your former workplace, don’t pass up the chance if you can help it. Summon your courage, your memories and your good will — then go out there and enjoy!

  • Fear and excitement create very similar effects, both physically and emotionally. Don’t mistake stage fright for genuine reluctance to participate.
  • Choose a good time to arrive, according to your preferred style of interaction. Think swimming pool — toe in the water, or jump in? Be early if you’d like to get your bearings first. Come later if you prefer to dive straight into a mix of faces and chatter.
  • Don’t worry if you can’t remember everyone. Sometimes memories take time to surface, and you probably didn’t know each person well anyway.
  • Take photos. It might seem a distraction at the time, but you will value having those pictures later.
  • Circulate. Don’t miss the opportunity to meet a wider variety of your old colleagues or class-mates. And politely move on from anyone who wants to hog your attention for too long.
  • Keep an open mind about people — a person with whom you had little in common in earlier years may now be a kindred spirit.
  • If you are meeting in the original place of your connection (school, college, workplace, etc.) take the opportunity to explore the physical space. It can act as a memory prompt.
  • Ask for a contact list to be circulated after the event. There may be people who you couldn’t locate at the reunion and would like to exchange a word with afterwards.
  • Regression is the norm! Be happy to go back in time, just for this one enchanted day.
  • Be confident in who you are, and what you’ve achieved. Don’t compare yourself with others. If someone is boasting, keep in mind that they might be doing this to prop up their insecurity. Just go into neutral, listen, and then move on.
  • Think up some specific incidents or details to share from your past before you come, so that you’ll always have an ice-breaker.
  • Be willing to open up to other people’s memories, which may not always tally with yours. We all edit memory, so rather than block out anything that doesn’t accord with your picture of events, listen and then ponder what they’ve said at a later time. Even the painful bits.
  • As soon as you can afterwards, jot down or voice record some notes about who you met and what you discovered together. Even if you are exhausted, gather your treasure before it slips out of sight.
  • Have a good time! And bring a little happiness to others too. You are all the stars of your day.

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