Tuesday, May 18, 2010

High School Recall

In 2004 I attended my high school graduating class's 25-year reunion. I come from a quintessential middle-class, homogeneous, Wonderbread enclave in Montreal, where not much has changed over the years. I graduated from Chambly County High in 1979 when I was seventeen, and moved to Toronto after university in 1985, returning occasionally for visits.

When I’d first received notice about the reunion I was ambivalent. What was so great about those years anyway? We were just a bunch of teenagers awkwardly weaving our way through our youth struggling to fit in, hanging out, pushing the boundaries, and dealing with insecurities and volatile hormones. My years were filled with sports, parties, and lots of babysitting.

I wish I could say I was greatly inspired by a particular teacher or that I discovered my true calling through some life-altering teenage experience, but nothing about high school left much of an impact on me. The good news is that I passed through my teen years unscathed, an accomplishment in the eyes of some parents.

Despite my apathy about the reunion, I began to feel a sense of nostalgia. With a relatively small graduating class (about ninety-five students) the names and faces are hard to forget. What had become of them? Had they left Quebec like me to pursue a career in a more hospitable environment? Or did they choose to make the beautiful city of Montreal their life-long home?

After completing my degree at McGill, I couldn’t wait to escape the political tension and the separatist angst. With a boyfriend in Toronto and a good job offer in hand, I didn’t think twice. As is often the case, hindsight creates history, and from time-to-time I’d think back on the old days, missing Montreal and wondering how my classmates had fared.

Still, I was reluctant to attend the reunion. The reviews of others who’d attended their high school reunions tended toward the negative:

“The big shots are still full of themselves and the jerks are still jerks.”

“No big surprises except for the men. They’ve really gone downhill with middle age. The women aren’t so bad.”

“Beware of the drastically transformed. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”

After trading emails with a few old friends, I decided to go, regardless of the bad press. Why not? I’d consider it an adventure into the past.

The experience overrode my negative expectations. The men were handsome in their suits and ties and the women were radiant. Beyond appearances, I found the group to be affable, charming and fun. Conversation was mature and intelligent and I connected with people I’d barely spoken to during those years. I chatted with the guy I’d had an undisclosed crush on in grade eight, and laughed at myself for having avoided him that entire year.

Were these the same people with whom I shared five years of classrooms, lunchrooms and infamous dances in the gym? As I sipped my wine in that very same gym, my mind wandered to the days when "Stairway to Heaven," the last slow dance of the night, often clinched the deal between newly formed couples.

About 50% of the class had stayed in Quebec, a much higher proportion than I’d expected. The rest were scattered across the continent, many having settled in Ontario, but few in Toronto. A few had married their high school sweethearts and were still together, despite the negative odds (Quebec has the highest divorce rate in the country).

There were no brain surgeons, nuclear physicists or CEOs of large corporations. But there were accountants, engineers, salespeople, small business owners, teachers, and stay-at-home mothers and fathers. No criminals or derelicts, as far as I could tell. I listened to stories of family challenges, unpleasant divorces, and circuitous life journeys. I was impressed by those who showed up despite lousy life circumstances. One man, whom I’d remembered as a gregarious type, explained that his gaunt appearance was the result of his current “divorce diet.”

I’d expected some divorces, second marriages and blended families; and I’d expected a few wrinkles and grey hair, and a wayward character or two; but the high percentage of people suffering from serious health issues shocked me.

Yet there they were, cheerful, courageous, and uncomplaining. The camaraderie, the positive energy and the caring amongst the crowd were truly inspiring. A man in his last stages of colon cancer was friendly, conversational, upbeat and outgoing—the antithesis of his frail and sallow appearance. I hope he felt the compassion and admiration of his peers. Sadly, he passed away soon after.

Who would have thought that by age forty so many from our class of ‘79 would be dealing with such challenges as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis? As members of the sandwich generation, caring for young children in addition to aging parents, who can afford to get sick? One of the take away lessons for me that weekend was never to take good health for granted, or let a day pass without appreciating the gift of wellbeing.

My classmates and I were all born around the same year, grew up in the same community, and were educated under the same roof, all with dreams of copious amounts of joy and adventure gracing our futures. For some those hopes were dashed too soon. Illness, death, divorce, unemployment, disabilities and depression played havoc with their dreams. But the spirit fights hard and life plods on; we do the best we can, hope for the best, and wish the best for others.

This coming weekend I’ll be back for another reunion, encompassing all graduating years since the school’s founding sixty years ago. I’m bracing myself for some sad news, but I also look forward to hearing some happy news replete with new beginnings and second chances. I don’t know if I’ll return with any revelations, but I look forward to another snapshot into the past and a renewed glimpse of the present.


  1. Have a wonderful time, Carla. I'll look forward to hearing how this reunion went.

  2. I haven't been to a high school reunion, but last fall I attended my 20th anniversary of business school graduation. It was a wonderful experience and I was amazed at how some people had changed completely, while others hadn't aged a day. It was really amazing reconnecting with the people with whom I had shared such an intense time of my life. Have a great time and let us know how it goes!