I am planning on attending my 50th (!) high school reunion soon, and I thought I might post this short essay I wrote about my 40th. It was published in an ill-fated online magazine which has since disappeared into the digital ether, but hey, I got paid! Some time after I graduated the name of my alma mater, Stamford Catholic School, was changed to Trinity High School.
In 1969 two hundred and sixty-one students graduated from my high school. We had spent the previous eighteen years learning our parts, and rehearsing to become ourselves. On that day in June we knew it was time to begin Act One of our lives. Some of us believed we knew the roles we were destined to play, but most, myself included, had only the vaguest idea of what the coming years would bring.
The end of the sixties was a time of changes, many of them unnerving. Our country was sick with racial strife and political chaos and assassination. We were fighting a war that nobody could explain. Many of my generation responded with a call to idealism. For others, drugs and rock and roll and rebellion promised, if not a solution, at least relief. The class of 1969 could imagine someday having jobs that mattered and families we loved and homes to call our own, but not how we might go about getting them. For myself, I knew this much and no more: that I loved my high school sweetheart and that I was going to the University of Notre Dame as a math major. Beyond that, my own first act seemed to have no script. Improv would have to do.
In 1989 I attended my twentieth reunion, my first since graduating. As my class entered the hall, we were handed buttons with our names and tiny yearbook pictures on them. I peered at young Jim, thinking that he would have been at once delighted and devastated by his older self. I had graduated from Notre Dame but not with a math degree. I wasn’t earning a steady paycheck but I did have a promising career as a science fiction writer. I did marry my high school sweetheart but we had divorced just a year before. I had no doubt that the high point of those twenty years had been the birth of my amazing daughter.
I understood that parenthood and career must be the central themes of Act Two. And the outline of this act, while blurry at the furthest edge, seemed much clearer than before. I was a thirty-eight-year-old stay-at-home-dad; I was now wrong for so many roles. Like some of my classmates, I had learned an important truth: parenthood is a blessing but also a heavy responsibility. You can’t be winging it when your kid depends that you’ll be there when the bus drops her off after school. Most of my classmates were also pretty much set in their roles. We were contractors, lawyers, nurses, cooks, librarians and teachers. We even had a movie producer, although he didn’t show. We were launched in well-defined careers; it wasn’t likely that any of us would switch jobs to become astronauts or models or rock stars. Lots of us were married, but I was surprised at just how many were still, or newly, on our own. At least we singles might expect to enact the delicious complications of romantic comedy in our second acts -- or the wrenching tragedy of love lost.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to my fortieth reunion last month; I hadn’t been back since my twentieth. A friend and I kept emailing each other up until two days before the date: I’ll go if you go …Well, I’ll go if you’ll go. My hesitancy wasn’t because I was embarrassed or ashamed of my second act. On the contrary, my dual roles as dad and writer had gone pretty well, I thought, and my second wife and I had just celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. But what held me back was the question that haunts all reunion-goers: Who would be there? A decade into the twenty-first century, lots of the class of 1969 had dropped out of our cast. They lived too far away or had long since left high school behind. And all too many had passed away and would never see their third act. Maybe I didn’t belong either.
I’m glad that I did go. True, most of my best friends were missing. In fact, of the two-hundred and sixty-one who graduated, only about forty attended. But it was for the most part a joyous evening. We tried not to boast too much about our accomplished children and precocious grandchildren. We saluted those who had celebrated anniversaries of three decades and more. I was delighted to find that that my class of confused and anxious eighteen-year-olds had grown to be assured masters of the workplace. Nurses had become senior staff, lawyers respected members of the bar, cooks now owned their own restaurants. Of course, we had to acknowledge the difficulties of our second acts: the parents who needed parenting, the kids who had never flourished, the hardships of a sour economy, the bewildering pace of change. But the mood at our reunion remained a heady mix of nostalgia and optimism.
An ocean of ink has been spilled in the attempt to analyze the baby boom generation, yet I’m not sure we understand much about ourselves. But it seems to me that these reunions present a unique opportunity for members of any generation to gather and compare notes. What have we done? What have we failed to do? And for the class of 1969, what remains for us to do in Act Three? For the third will be the final one for the majority of us. According to the Centers For Disease Control, as an average white male of my age, I can expect to live another 19.7 years -- which means that I probably shouldn’t be making plans for my sixtieth reunion.
As I start my own third act, I already know how it will end, as do we all. But given that, I don’t feel as constrained in my role as I did at the start of Act Two. Although I am still a dad, I have done with raising kids. Although I will always write, I no longer need to prove to anyone that I am a writer. And in retirement, my wife and I are renegotiating our partnership.
So what is left for us? I believe that it’s time to look to the future, even though we may live to see but a fraction of it. The class of 1969 ventured out into the world with high ideals. If we have not always lived up to them, there is still time – a score of years, more or less -- to redouble our efforts. The world we have made is filled with wonders and anguish, but we are not yet done making it. Our third act can be action-packed, but only if we act. I am convinced that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the best of us will continue to strut and fret our hour upon the stage, right up until we make that last exit.