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10 Year Reunion

If given the chance, attend your high school reunion. I'm surprised to be saying this, but I recommend it highly. It's bizarre, to be sure. But it's less strange than you'd expect, and much more fun and relaxed. For me, it also provoked a lot of thinking about the nature of high school, the people I graduated with, and – oddly enough – the enormity of the universe.

When the idea of the reunion came up, many people I talked to had the same initial reaction: "Jesus – it's been ten years already?" But, if you think about it, of course it has. High school was quite a while ago. I don't have nearly as many specific high school memories as I thought I did. Most of my concepts of high school come from TV shows and movies about people in high school. And those aren't really designed for accuracy, so it's no wonder I was somewhat confused as I looked forward to the reunion. Since graduation, I've occasionally thought about what a reunion might be like, but until you've experienced it, you really can't prepare for it at all. It's familiar and surreal at the same time. It's people you knew so well that you recognize them immediately, but they all look slightly different, and now there are huge gaps in their histories. Possibly the strangest part was meeting the classmates who had married each other. In almost every case, they weren't people who spent much time together in high school, and only really connected afterward. So, two people frozen in my mind as relatively separate entities suddenly appeared as husband and wife. Chilling.

In the days leading up to the reunion, I went through a number of emotions. A classmate had insisted I attend, but I wasn't looking forward to it. I knew it was irrational, but I felt like I'd be judged for giving up in LA and moving home. I wished I had accomplished more, or brought grander stories to tell – I think everyone secretly wishes to return to their high school reunions rich and famous. I feared I'd have no one to talk to, and I figured everyone would be mad at me for not staying in touch (silly; they didn't stay in touch either!). But then I remembered that the stakes are pretty low – I won't see most of these people for another ten years, so why be nervous? I started getting excited about discovering how people's lives had unfolded, seeing if I would reconnect with old friends easily, or forge new bonds with people I hadn't known that well in school. I promised myself that I would go into the experience very open, leaving aside my preconceptions of my classmates, and just see what happened. After flipping through the senior yearbook, I had a few people I hoped to catch up with, but mostly I wanted to see who I ran into and if someone wanted to talk, I'd chat with them and find out who they had become. Of course, on the drive over, I was still panicked. What if they had all stayed in touch and I'd be the only one left out? Maybe people wouldn't remember me. Or worse, maybe they would!

Needless to say, all these anxieties were washed away. It was awkward at first, approaching people and resuming conversations that had gone into suspended animation a decade ago. But we were all experiencing that strangeness together. And before long it passed, and we were just reminiscing, catching up, and enjoying ourselves. I did talk to people I rarely interacted with in school, and I had a great time. I did get to reconnect with people I never should have lost touch with, and that was amazing and exciting and really fulfilling. And I heard lots of stories about things I'd forgotten saying or doing, or ways I'd been meaningful to someone – and shared just as many stories back. I think I partly expected the reunion to be like a do-over. The people I didn't appreciate enough in school or didn't take time to hang out with, I'd get to start a new life with them as my friends. It doesn't really work that way, but it's still nice to see them and share a laugh or two. I found out a lot about my school that I hadn't known at the time.

In hindsight, I was blessed with a comparatively excellent high school experience. I attended a "magnet school" which strove for an accelerated curriculum and students more eager to learn – an environment it sometimes achieved, and sometimes didn't. The school has topped the "Newsweek" list of best American high schools a few years, which is certainly something to be proud of. I am convinced that we had the best teachers, and some of the best students, of the county's public school system. The school also combined junior high and high school to offer grades 7-12 (although swelling class sizes meant mine was the last class to get that opportunity). The consistency of the experience was good and bad – we were together for six years, but we were also the babies of the campus for three years running. All that time together helped us bond with our fellow students, and I definitely benefited from the interaction with seniors as a seventh grader. Maybe these factors contributed to the overall pleasantness of my high school years, or perhaps I'd have had the same general experience elsewhere – I have no idea – but they certainly didn't make it worse.

Our school didn't really have cliques. Everybody knew pretty much everybody, and interacted pleasantly for the most part. There were groups I spent more time with, but I ended up with groups of friends in every classroom, camaraderie forged out of all those hours together. I feel like I was anonymously famous in high school, especially towards the end. Ask someone to list our graduating class and my name probably wouldn't be in the first 25 they'd think of, but I ran the daily TV news broadcast and sat in the control booth at pep rallies and other assemblies, so I knew everybody and I was pretty visible. My high school days were full of such contradictions: I was sociable and popular, but usually absent from extracurricular gatherings; sort of omnipresent, but also oblivious to a lot of the high school drama that was going on. Perhaps this was all just my impression, and it wasn't really like that at all. But it was a unique high school career – something I was forced to think about as I considered my expectations for the reunion, and my reactions to it afterwards.

Right after the reunion, it was an interesting time for me to finally see Brick and finish up the second season of Veronica Mars on DVD (having lost four episodes in a TiVo crash). Both of these dissect high school politics in vivid detail; while they present a fictionalized hyper-reality, they still provided a perspective through which I could consider my own high school memories. How power arose and shifted, and how it was used. How social groups developed, and how they affected one another. Like I said, I was blind to most of this at the time because I was partly in my own world and partly moving from one group to the next too quickly to notice the finer nuances. But, when you look back on it, that political landscape is at least partly expressed in every high school class.

I think the biggest surprise was how the reunion made me think about life. For a few days after the reunion, I was kind of in a state of shock. Every time I looked at anything, I just had this strange feeling of being connected to the entire universe in some small yet integral way. Like the butterfly effect, if you go back in time and change one thing, the outcome can be vastly different, but it's still a tiny influence at the time. How would these people be different if I hadn't been there in high school – and vice versa? I was driving on the expressway three days later, and I couldn't stop thinking, everyone in each of these cars went to high school with someone. By now, they've gone back to being anonymous drivers (and, most often, obstacles), but for a while they each represented another node in the enormous interconnected fabric of humanity. Because when you're faced with a hundred or so people whose lives you shared for the better part of six years, and you see everything that they've done, how they've changed, and who they've become – suddenly it's impressed upon you just how vast space and time are. This group of people was more or less taken for granted: I knew where they'd be every weekday for months at a time. And then, we all set off on wildly divergent paths from that one origin point – and look how many places we've gone, how many things we've accomplished, how much we've learned and forgotten, how many people we've affected. And this is just one class – imagine all the people whose origin points I don't know! You start to understand just how inconceivably big the world is.

I think part of my reaction is an extension of my move from LA at the start of this year. I'm not really a "drastic change" kind of guy, and I'm still reeling a bit. There's a picture on my fridge of Joe and his baby, and they live all the way across the country. Of course, while I lived in LA, I had "people" back here in Florida, but everyone has friends back home. Now, I live here and I have LA people and Boston people and Portland people, and it's a weird feeling. For the longest time, everyone I knew lived within walking distance of my house. In high school, we commuted from all over town, so the sphere grew just a bit. A little more in college; still, most of my friends were either in LA or here in Florida. But, slowly, entropy has taken hold, and now we've grown up and apart and suddenly there are people everywhere whom I'm connected to. And coming face to face with another few dozen of them all in one night – pretty shocking. I don't feel like I've changed very much, so when I realize how much time has passed it often surprises me.

Every so often, I'd be walking along a sidewalk in Los Angeles, and I'd think, "I wonder what Mom and Dad are doing right now." I could visualize a movie shot – like something out of Powers of Ten – rising up from my sidewalk, way up to a wide shot of the whole continent from space, and then moving back down to their house and whatever they were up to. I don't know what made me think of it, but there was something about the simultaneity across so much space of two events that are completely meaningless and unrelated (walking and, say, eating a sandwich), but they're tied together because that's my mom. And they're just kind of proceeding, our lives and everyone else's. All at the same time, stuff is just going on everywhere and everywhere in between. It's mind-boggling.

At the reunion, the experience was similar, except instead of these events occurring simultaneously in the present, I was looking back at ten years of these people's pasts all at once. This classmate started a software company; that one went to medical school. But they also went through a million little moments like walking the sidewalk, and made thousands of tiny decisions (and plenty of big ones, too), which all added up to this person in front of me who looks and acts like someone I knew ten years ago, but is also a completely new person. There's a passage in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where one of the main characters, Joe Kavalier, is hanging out with a woman friend that he met recently, examining the belongings on display in her bedroom.

The two dozen commonplace childhood photographs – snowsuit, pony, tennis racket, looming fender of a Dodge – were an inexhaustible source of wonder for him, at her having existed before he met her, and of sadness for his possessing nothing of the ten million minutes of that black-and-white scallop-edged existence save these few proofs.

That's exactly what it felt like. With just a few scraps of evidence, I was looking at their entire lives. I had more than Joe Kavalier did, since I knew a lot about their ten-years-ago selves, but the glimpse into their pasts felt no less fragmented.

Fortunately, most of this was not running through my mind during the reunion. I was kind of in awe of everything, but I was too busy having conversations and remembering names and faces to have time to ponder all these complexities. I had a great time, and it was oddly comforting because despite the time apart, we all know each other rather well, so we get along pretty easily. The best part of the reunion was the people – enjoying their company and remembering how lucky we were to spend our adolescence together. The subsequent existential mindfuck was just sort of a side benefit.

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