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The surprising thing you miss if you skip your high school reunion

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who attend their high school reunions and those who harbor an unbelievable disdain for them, believing they are nothing more than an excuse to look down on former peers, prove their own worth and make a great exhibition of the fact that they can now afford a Hermès bag.

With my 20th high school reunion looming in the near distance, I proudly declare myself a member of Team Reunion. I loved my high school. I loved graduating with 900 students after enduring the hellish, asphyxiating experience that defined my junior high years. Though I now wonder if my memory is rose-colored, it felt to me like some mythical journey through a John Hughes film, where the cheerleaders, football players, band members, blue-haired kids and the hundreds of others who didn’t fit into a neat little descriptive box mingled openly, without judgment. It’s possible we performed a Grease-like choreographed ensemble dance after graduation — I wouldn’t rule that out.

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My high school was the ultimate democracy. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to drink bad beer in a park in the dead of winter. No one shall be turned away.

Looking back, I guess you could say I was that big dork who loved waking up in the morning. I loved most of my classes and teachers. I loved making plans for Friday night on Monday morning and smoking cigarettes, but not really inhaling, by the benches adjacent to my school. Coming from a rather close-minded homogenous suburb of New York City, I was finally able to form friendships with people of different ethnicities and races who weren’t my clone. When I think about attending my reunion and seeing the same many faces that passed me in hallways, laughed with me in the girls’ bathroom and, in many ways, provided my first life lessons in how to get along with and respect those who are different from me, I get excited. Even if it’s the worst night of my life, I’ll get to share a few laughs with Josie, Kim and Kelly and down a free drink. There are worse ways to spend your time.

The problem with my thinking is that it’s constantly being challenged by my much-cooler-than-I-ever-was husband and his group of friends. When we first met in a college Western Lit class, my now-husband sported black nail polish and a T-shirt with his band’s name in glitter. We went on a few dates, I saw his band play, met a few of his “groupies” and, even though I was totally intrigued by him, decided, thanks but no thanks, not for me. Thankfully, we met up years later, fell in love and the rest is history, but I have always been keenly aware of the fact that he was and will always be a cool, “alternative” kid at heart.

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Here are some ways in which this continues to color our life, even two decades after high school: While watching the Oscar awards this year, the only thing that excited him was hearing the Polyphonic Spree’s cover version of Nirvana’s “Lithium” scoring a Best Film contender’s trailer. Will he watch this particular blockbuster hit with me? Not a chance. But he’ll happily stop everything he’s doing and play the entire Polyphonic Spree album for us. And while anything starring Tom Hanks is an immediate turnoff for him, he once made it his mission to walk us through a series of German films, starting with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I think he’s a total snob, but damn, those German films were amazing.

Since we’re the same age, but attended different high schools, a friend recently informed him — via a number of “hahahaha”-filled text messages — that his name was missing from their alumni list. His fellow former green-haired friends, who spent their weekends at CBGB (at age 15), are also, as far as their high school is concerned, phantoms. My husband hasn’t even been invited to his own high school reunion — and he finds this fact hilarious.

“I don’t get it,” he tells me. “I see everyone I want to see from high school. If you really wanted to see each other, wouldn’t you have made plans before a reunion?”

He has a point. But I feel he’s also missing the point. In this day and age, when we divide and conquer and move to Florida and Albany and Paris without thinking twice about who and what we’re leaving behind, there’s no possible way to stay connected with everyone you once loved or with whom you simply shared a few good laughs during an otherwise turbulent few years of life. Just because you don’t speak to them, doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love to speak to them, if given a chance.

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My husband and others I’ve spoken to recently also believe (erroneously, in my opinion) that most people show up at reunions to compare themselves with others and make sure everyone knows just how great they’re doing in life. I find this to be a tragic way to view life and people’s motivations and couldn’t disagree more.

If you feel content about your own life and choices, it makes you feel good to know others are succeeding in life, have healthy and happy families and look and feel better in their thirties than they did at 16. A reunion is a celebration with once-kindred souls. You may never speak again after that night, but it’s your one last chance to travel back in time for a few seconds, snap out of it, focus on the present and share the realization that, hey, we were all once confused, unsettled and unsure of what the hell would happen to us — but look, we survived! We even have kids and jobs and crow’s feet — hurray for life!

Yeah, yeah, sipping white wine in your old school cafeteria is corny and dorky. But even the coolest kid in your high school (cough, husband) was secretly just that. Why not embrace it for a night?

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Judy Blume quotes
Image: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images

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