I wrote this post back in May, after I returned from my 25th high school reunion. It’s a detailed recap of the weekend’s events, and maybe not so much of interest to anyone who wasn’t there, and I never really finished it (perhaps it was too raw, at the time, to write about my drive home, which was contemplative, and not a little bit sad) but…there it is. The NaBloPoMo theme for October is “haunted”, so maybe it’s appropriate to post this now.
I returned Sunday evening from the longest period I’ve ever spent away from my kids. Don’t think they didn’t notice: When I returned, the Babe was sick, and she stayed home from school on Monday. She did manage to deck herself out in the new dress I brought her, and spend much of the day cuddling a toy now known as Sing-y the Bear. Dido went off to school looking like a one-kid advertisement for prep school education in his new Exeter Lacrosse cap and grey and maroon sweatshirt. By Tuesday, Dido was sick, too, and I took both to the pediatrician. Weds., the Babe had recovered enough to go, kicking and screaming (yes, literally) to school, while Dido stayed home for the longest TV marathon of his young life. Today, Dido is still here, remembering to complain about his earache whenever I look too skeptical that a child in pain could climb, slide, run, explore the woods and pretend to shoot so energetically. Ah. Parenthood.
What was it that took me away, at long, overdue, last from my short people? My 25th high school reunion, which I approached with exactly zero sense of irony or trepidation. I liked high school. I like going back there, and I do it every five years, sometimes even more often, if I can come up with an excuse. My attachment to Exeter is broad and deep, and I think, in some ways, this weekend helped me better understand why.
25 years ago, I was a runner. Not a talented one, not fast, but track and cross country were the two sports at Exeter that allowed anyone who showed up and did the work (of training and competing) to earn a varsity letter. I did, in both, enduring the embarrassment of coming in last or nearly so in nearly every 800 yard race I ran. I held similar standing on the cross country courses. Then, as now, I wanted to have some claim, no matter how tenuous, on an athletic life. I wanted to validate a part of me that I knew would never predominate, but which mattered to me nonetheless.
I am once again trying to be a runner, and this weekend, I brought my running shoes, though in the end, I used them only for a long walk through the woods, along the Exeter river and down old trails with some of my dearest friends in the world. I was exhausted at the end of the weekend as though I had run a race, and exhilarated, too, though my exhilaration manifested first as grief.
I am something of a Pollyanna when it comes to Exeter. (My husband, rather cruelly, I think, has said one more than one occasion that my high school years were the high point of my life. I hope that’s not true, because I am happier at 43 than I ever really was as an adolescent or young adult.) But despite the normal and encompassing teenage angst I suffered from 14 to 18, those years were heady, exhilarating, and sometimes fulfilling in a visceral way that can be hard to replicate in the “real”, adult world, and particularly in life’s middle years.
On campus this weekend, I attended an English class (Great Books: As I Lay Dying, Rabbit, Run ,and A Farewell to Arms) taught by Doug Rogers. Mr. Rogers (keep the cardigan jokes to yourself) taught a senior seminar on Faulkner that I took in 1984. It was one of those life-changing literary experiences for me, but also memorable because that was the sad spring my father died (at 48, too young, from a brain tumor) and Mr. Rogers, along with many of his colleagues, extended untold kindnesses to me in that hard time.
I also attended an assembly, led by a classmate who is now a high-ranking executive at a truly enormous global company. The experience was surreal, not only because I found myself watching soda commercials in the Assembly Hall, but for the memories that flooded me sitting in that august (it really is) space: sitting among the senior class my prep (9th grade) year, because there were too many of us for the 9th grade section; sitting in the balcony on dates at Saturday night movies–I still remember seeing Alien there for the first time; now THAT’s a date movie.
We visited the Grill, the on campus snack shop, strolled to the Bookstore, took that long walk along the river, where some of my favorite memories, of skating up the frozen river with John Torontow, of finding secret hidden spots along the cross country trail, came rolling back.
I cooked dinner that night for the returning Langdell-ites (my dorm mates) at Barbara Jenny’s home in Portsmouth. Back at the Exeter Inn that night, I stayed up as late as I could stand to, talking with the huge crowd of classmates at the bar, finding it impossible to have enough time with everyone I wanted to talk to–which was, really, everyone.
Saturday included 2 Harkness discussions led by classmates, one on a life in the arts, featuring museum director Stephanie Stebich, chairman of the board of the Academy of American Poets Nicie Johnson Panetta, and filmmaker Roland Tec. The second discussion was on the concept of non sibi, not for oneself, and how we apply it in our lives post-PEA, was led by Uwe Brandes and Katherine Rouleau, who work in the areas of environmental sustainability and healthcare, respectively. The discussion showed our class’ Harkness manners and muscles off well: it was extremely well-attended, and the discussion thorough and thoughtful. I did wish there had been more time to delve into the minority viewpoint on healthcare reform raised by one classmate. I was quiet, I think, in both discussions, and I remember how I felt at the table all those years ago: not afraid to speak, but occasionally too hesitant to expres my views, at least in some classes. I made a mental note to put forth my opinions more. (If some reading this just blew cappucino out of their noses laughing at the idea that I need to be more opinionated–hey, there’s more than one side to me.) I thought both of these discussions were particularly relevant as a counterpoint to Katie Joklik Baynes’ assembly talk–I wish that students might have seen this side of our class’ life paths, too. I also went to a panel of current students, and then gathered with other classmates on the steps of the Academy building to have our class picture taken. Lunch in Wetherell followed, and then Kris Rosbe and Lee Rose Emery and I decided to take a break from the intense and tiring delicious work of reconnecting for a little retail therapy. (So much for non sibi. We bought clothes for our kids at the outlet mall, but still.)
By Saturday night, it felt as though we’d really reached critical mass. New faces had arrived throughout the day, but a few more arrived just for the dinner. Never one to turn down a socializing, social-easing glass of wine, I found myself not wanting to drink. I was exhausted from all the intense thought and feeling, and not wanting to miss anything. Amy Kittenplan Hubbard brought her Exeter scrapbook, tattered but full of memories and incriminating photographs. I was talked into confessing to a Lower year crush. I wished for more and more and more time as classmates on campus only for the evening took their leave.
Back at the Exeter Inn, discussions continued until at least 2 a.m. (that’s when I called it a night.) We sat in the bar, talking to people we knew well and not so well. I wrapped up my night by delivering a semi-epic monologue about my twisted career path. In my defense, Tom Jones set me off by asking a question about where my life had gone since the last time he and I had seen each other, nearly 20 years earlier, in Brooklyn. I was soundly teased for my long discourse, though that’s not why I chose the end of my speechifying to head to bed.
Sunday morning, Kris Rosbe, who was my roommate for the weekend, and I decided to attend the service at Phillips Church for classmates who have died. A small group of us gathered there to hear the inimitable Bobby Thompson ’72, school chaplain, preach and offer us the opportunity to remember. In attendance were David Chipman (with whom I’m so sorry I didn’t get to speak during the reunion), Elyse Packard, Chris Saxman, Trevor Agard, Mike Vaccaro, Julia Logan with her kids, Martin Brinkley with son Sam, Jim Lando and his wife Leigh, Brett Games and Werner Brandes. (If I’ve left anyone out, apologies.)
The service was a highly emotional experience for me. I am completely a-religious, and have been my entire life, but I always enjoyed being at Phillips Church (the few times I actually went!) and appreciate church in general as an opportunity for reflection and introspection, even though I am not a Christian. We all shared memories of the dead, and Thompson’s words, not to mention his stunning leadership in singing my favorite hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, were beautiful and moving.
Throughout the service, I found myself reflecting on loss, not only of classmates who died much, much too young, but also of youth and of possibility, my own, and others’. I am not a person who spends much time mourning my own long-gone youth. I am decisive, and to be so requires me to dismiss regret much of the time, to suspend passing judgment on my own decision-making. (That’s not to say I don’t perceive right and wrong decisions, but I try to move on, rather than to dwell.) Anything else just produces hours of self-torture. Even so, revisiting the friendships and values of my teenage self could not possibly have passed without making me wonder about where I am in my life, and where I might have been. And here’s the rub: I have a terrific, comfortable, loved life. My family are all healthy; I live in a beautiful place; I perform work that is fulfilling and meaningful (though I might complain that I don’t have enough time for it, that’s the result of my own choices and I probably would make them all again.) Even with a life that is happy and satisfying, there is a measure of grief at what might have been, at just the sheer passage of time, the separation from loved ones, the lack of time available for the kind of intense study and thought and contemplation that characterized much of my time at Exeter. I am lucky to ever have had it, but when confronted with its memory, I melt. The English class I attended was inspiring (all five alums who went together left thinking that to teach English at Exeter would be a VERY good gig) both for the intelligence on display (impressive) and for the moment: the idea that twelve people might gather to discuss one short passage of one great novel for 50 minutes is so far removed from most of our daily lives as to be laughable–or, instead, cry-able.