For the class of 2013 at Rappahannock County High School and Wakefield Country Day School, commencement exercises are, as for all graduates, a time of rejoicing. Fifty years ago, my high school class of 1963 rejoiced, too. Thought-provoking bookends, they are.
For the young students, graduation will be remembered as a rite of passage signaling the end of the beginning. For old geezers like me – a disproportionate chunk of Rappahannock’s population – a 50th high school reunion no doubt marks the beginning of the end.
It happens that I have been helping the organizers of my high school’s reunion – if “organizer” is an accurate description for herder of cats. To place a call or send an email to someone you haven’t seen in a half-century can prompt introspective doubt, if not existential angst.
Why am I doing this? And why isn’t my voicemail being returned? Did he not answer my first email because it went into “spam” – or, maybe more likely, because his teenage memories of me are of a jerk?
All of us were jerks, according to at least one former classmate, who allowed that on his “bucket list” is to finish “my book about how I needed 20 years of therapy, off and on, to recover from the four worst years of my life!”
The high school reunion is a familiar trope in American culture with recognizable narrative arcs, typically rich in irony: the nerd’s triumphant revenge, the fall from grace of the “most likely to succeed,” and the ladies’ man or prom queen who now comes out of the closet. And, yes, as if scripted for reality TV, one of my own school’s most macho classmates is returning as a postoperative transsexual.
For peer pressure has all but disappeared after 50 years of mellowing. Rather, our own individual youthful dreams remain the most unforgivingly judgmental of the old farts we’ve become.
Message to 2013 graduates: High school never ends. It propels you – and shapes your experiences – through the rest of your lives. And those lives – even if you make your 50th reunion – are brief.
Not for nothing that Gaudeamus Igitur (“So Let Us Rejoice”) – the centuries-old song celebrating graduation – is also called De Brevitate Vitae (“On the Shortness of Life”).