Friday, September 26, 2008
Make new friends but scare the old (with your enthusiasm at seeing them again)
It was understandable that the woman at Whole Foods was a little bit alarmed at my enthusiasm over running into her near the bread bins. Kerry and I had last been classmates 28 years ago; I had not seen her since the party after our junior high graduation, and even then we weren’t particularly close, just peers in an eighth grade of about 60 kids. Sure, we’d shared a lot of experiences – the Spaghetti Supper, the seventh-grade play, holiday concerts and school dances; the Outdoor Education trip. (Some things, you see, never change. And our Spaghetti Supper in 1977 wasn’t even the first one.) But that might not be quite enough to warrant my detaining her for 20 minutes of catch-up conversation.
I really should learn to rein myself in, but I can never quite contain my pleasure over running into childhood acquaintances. I’m just endlessly fascinated to learn how things turned out for them – or at least how they evolved throughout the past three decades.
An encounter in middle age with a familiar face from childhood – it’s an archetypal, perhaps even stereotypical, device in novels and movies, the flip side of the ubiquitous “And then a stranger came to town” plot line. In fictional retellings, such encounters tend to be fraught with drama: the meeting rekindles a feud, or sparks a new romance. But for me, encounters with long-ago acquaintances are a fairly frequent event. One thing I discovered after moving back to my hometown in adulthood was that even though not all that many people I grew up with live here, they do come back to visit a lot. I run into former classmates more often than most people do simply because they come back to see their parents. I’m always on the lookout, just as I was that day at Whole Foods when I saw Kerry.
Indeed, it’s nothing like the fictional versions at all. Rather than resuscitating decades-old hurt feelings or reviving jealousies, it gives me a sense of delight to see people I knew in childhood. Last month I had the chance to talk with a childhood classmate I hadn’t seen since we were 13, and yet our conversation flowed for an hour because I knew so much of his background: the sports he played, the house he lived in when we were in junior high, the number of brothers and sisters he had.
Inevitably, dozens of new details develop in people’s lives after the age of 13, but many biographical facts are already firmly rooted by then. And it’s always interesting to me to see how childhood traits play out in adulthood. Is he still a great athlete? Did she continue studying flute? Is he on good terms with his seventh-grade girlfriend? Does she remember the time she led the class in a game of 20 Questions because our teacher was late getting to school?
More often than not, I’m amazed at their accomplishments, as if on some level I assumed that winning a citizenship award in fifth grade would be the high point of their lives. In middle school, I was in accelerated classes (we still had those then) and Kerry wasn’t – but she now has a Ph.D., and I most certainly do not. It turns out much is not predictable during that first decade-and-a-half of our lives.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the plot revolved around the idea that cliques and rivalries from our early years never really go away. The two protagonists attend their tenth high school reunion only to discover that the popular girls are still catty and the handsome boys still ignore them. But that hasn’t been my experience at all. If anything, it sometimes seems as if adulthood is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who was more popular than whom in eighth grade; when we see each other now, we’re all just glad we made it this far. Although the former classmate I visited with last month was the most sought-after boy in school during our junior high years while I was something of a nerd, it turns out our kids now play in the same spring baseball league, and we had even unknowingly attended the same party several months ago – something that most definitely would never have happened in our teen years.
Although simmering feuds play well in the movies, I’ve discovered it’s really not like that in real life. What endures when you share a past with someone is the time-tested alliance you hold, not any antipathy over adolescent anguish. Maybe as a writer I should be disappointed; it doesn’t make for a very good plot when everybody is always happy to see each other.
But reminiscing over the time we chopped onions for the Spaghetti Supper (when kids were still allowed on chopping detail) can turn a quick trip to Whole Foods into a heartwarming visit – and a chance to feel like a kid once again. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito