It’s spring, when the thoughts of the young and not-so-young  turn to — school reunions.

In a recent return to my native New York City, my college friend Donna greeted me with, “I’m co-chairing our 50th  Douglass College (of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey) reunion. I laughed when my co-chair said she’d call you.”

Donna knew I don’t attend reunions.  The two class of 1968 suburban northern New Jersey high-school reunions that I attended (in 1981 and 1993) were a bit numbing.  Nothing bad happened.  It was just my realization that I had no interest in “catching up” with classmates  I hadn’t bothered to keep up with. In stark contrast to me were the many reunion attendees who gushed with gusto.

As a clinical psychologist, I thought about Donna’s comment. Was I missing some relational capacity enjoyed by most?  Or had I changed to the point that I wasn’t the same person I was back then?

Whatever the reason for my disinterest, the plain fact is that at the reunions I didn’t care to see photos of classmates’ offspring.  I enjoyed hearing about a childhood friend’s musicology degree, but what to discuss after that? And the cheerleaders were huddled together as if a football game were imminent.  I didn’t get close enough to see if they still wore their silver megaphone necklaces.

Especially noteworthy were the boys who didn’t give me a second look in high school but who now, post-divorce (or whatever), wanted to make dates. Yet even if I weren’t happily married and living in Maine since 1979, no thanks.  Though I was amused when, at our 25th reunion, one commented,  “How come we look middle-aged and you look 19?”  “You ripened early,” I replied. “I took my time.” (Indeed, I was a late bloomer in the physical development department.)


It wasn’t lack of memory that left me unmoved: I recall Keith’s broken foot in elementary school; Rebecca and Ricky’s sixth-grade romance; Jan and Faith’s high-school adventures; Nora’s declaration that I was even skinnier than she, when being tall and skinny, wasn’t fashionable (Twiggy notwithstanding).

Despite countless memories, I just couldn’t muster much enthusiasm.

A recent message from a close friend in high school and college put the problem in stark relief.  She wanted to reconnect, to “see where we each landed,” as she put it.  OK, I thought, let’s give it a go.

She opened with, “I have two children and three grandchildren.  How many children and grandchildren do you have?”  Hmm, not a promising start, I thought.  “No children,” I replied, “by choice.” Sometime later she asked me to “catch her up” on my kids and grandkids. Things went downhill from there.

In contrast to my disinterest in my own school-related past (four college friends aside), I’m always delighted to reunite with my former Bowdoin College students, to see where they landed or are heading.  But that’s a different kind of reunion altogether: They helped me become a better teacher and scholar, and it’s gratifying to learn about the part some say I played in their development.

Recalling all this led me to some insights about school reunions.


Societally, I realized that we’re expected to experience strong emotions upon seeing long-lost friends/classmates.  The assumption behind that expectation is that because we shared our lives then we should feel connected now.

This is one of those “shoulds” that can make people feel crummy — like pressure to cheer up when you can’t. I suspect that some who aren’t inclined to gush at reunions do so nonetheless, succumbing to and thereby perpetuating the social pressure.  Even I faked it a bit.

Psychologically, I was never much of a joiner. I quit Brownies after second grade: Making Thanksgiving turkeys from pine cones and pipe cleaners seemed silly even then.  And let’s just say the Girl Scout song “Make New Friends but Keep the Old” wasn’t written with me in mind.  I joined some clubs in high school only because I felt I “should.”  My passion was dragging my friends to Manhattan, for theater, ballet, and museums, to which my mother and grandmother treated me when I was little.

For five decades I’ve been happy with my intellectual and social worlds, which overlap nontrivially. The seeds of my evolving self remain secure, especially in my detailed memories of the urban early-childhood experiences that helped shape the person I’ve been and will be.

Although I also remember my suburban New Jersey years well, I’m content to let those class reunions live on without my party-pooper presence.  May all who truly delight in them gush with genuine gusto.

Barbara S. Held, PhD, is a Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.

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