‘So, what have you done with your life?’ It’s the essential question at high school reunions, and opens a Pandora’s Box of insecurities and rivalries. This class test is a class war between the haves and have-nots where material success alone is prized.
Original publication: SL, 1997.
‘Eventually the Jo’burg kugel dripping in gold just slid off her stool onto the floor and lay there giggling to herself. She was totally trashed … On the Friday morning we attended school assembly for the first time in 10 years; then we went for a pub lunch … Then we went to a cocktail party … Then we went to the main do. We were permanently drunk … The whole evening was a high-pitched hum of noise and shrieking whenever one of the women recognised an old mate. It was a drinking weekend from start to finish …We don’t remember much. Sorry.’
Deidre* and Priscilla* are piecing together the highlights of the gala ten-year reunion held at their alma mater in Port Elizabeth, but they aren’t having as much luck as they’d like. Deidre keeps apologising for her lapses in memory, sheepishly ascribing them to over-indulgence, and even photos taken at the event don’t bring much else to mind. She and I stare wordlessly at the pictures of all these strangers. You obviously had to be there.
Deidre had a gas, but even if you were in fact there, it’s still hard to explain to an outsider what a school reunion’s intoxicating sociality is all about. You experienced it, yet somehow it’s closed off in a haze. Old hippies like to say that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there. Many would say the same about school reunions. If you’re researching the social and mental dynamics of these events, get used to alcoholic amnesia, not just your own, but that of your interviewees as well.
‘It’s not advisable to stay off booze at those things,’ Grant Z.* tells me, demonstrating the principle by shouting for another round. ‘You drink to make other people interesting, and that’s never truer than at a fucking Old Boy’s jol. When you rock up there, you’re thinking: (A) Do I still look as good as I did?; (B) Am I going to … like, score … with my long-lost love?’ – Grant arches his eyebrows in roguish self-parody – ‘and (C) Will I be the only oke looking to dop, or will there be millions of others? I mean, will everyone have gone Christian on you?
‘Because normally you find that the straight-A alcoholics from school have toned down, and your scum-of-the-earth moron has gone to fucking Eton in the meantime, so now he’s driving a German spaceship and talking with a hot potato in his mouth. Then, on the other hand, you find the repressed types have gone off the rails. But whatever the scenario, alcohol’s the great leveller. If you were a dof oke, you can chat to an “academic” and discover – hey, at the very least, you both like beer. After 12 of them everyone’s talking shit to each other.’
I’m interviewing Grant because he’s been an impassioned organiser of his school’s various past-pupils’ functions, from sports-day jamborees and class reunions to anniversary dinners. Alcohol’s a social leveller and makes others an illusory source of interest; but is that all? ‘Getting over the fear – that’s important,’ Grant maintains. ‘You’ve gotta do whatever it takes to get you through the reunion, even if it means downing a dozen tequilas.’
Fear? ‘Absolutely. I defy the person who says he can walk into the hall on the night without feeling a moment of fear. For me, the nerves start in front of the mirror in the gents’. I slick back ‘the kuif’ and dance on the spot until I’m psyched up. Those fears cross your mind in nanoseconds: What’ll everyone think of me? Your response is, “Fuck them”, and you’re off into the action.
‘It helps if you’re an organiser because you can bury yourself in that role, plus you’ve already broken the ice with everyone on the phone. So pity the poor dickhead who’s walking through the door for the first time. He hasn’t touched base with anyone yet, and he’ll be fucking nervous. But if you’ve got personal appreciation, you can hammer the world and spin the yarn to every woman you see. It comes down to how you handle that fear, that little barrier inside you.’
For Grant, your grand entrance at a reunion is more than a matter of stepping through a balloon-festooned doorway. Like many who’ve attended reunions, he speaks in images of hurdles and thresholds. Fetching up at a reunion, he says, ‘is a psychological barrier you’ve got to cross’ – it entails moving against an inner resistance of fear and loathing, and before you arrive at that physical and mental doorway, you’ll have to debate whether or not you want to cross it in the first place.
For some, attending reunions is uncool, a defeated admission that they’ve nothing better to do and haven’t got a life. The implication is that their absence will prove a point to their dorky class-mates. Yet these point-proving tactics are essential features of reunions: you’re still participating in the reunion-dynamic, if only from a distance. For others, such gatherings are passé institutions that the school-system uses to perpetuate its outmoded values. Once again, absenteeism proves an ideological point; and once again absentees confirm their vestigial school-anxieties in the very act issuing of a political denunciation, whatever its merits in itself. Another category of nay-sayers, Grant says, are those ‘who feel they haven’t achieved anything, and are embarrassed because they aren’t rocket scientists.’
Last is the almost universal category of people whose years in school gulags were so abhorrent that they’d rather not revisit them. Their decision is based more on aversion than indifference, something to which Paul S*., an attorney, takes a principled objection. ‘Look, if you really don’t give a fuck what’s happened to everyone in your matric-year – fine. But to say you’d prefer root-canal surgery to attending a reunion … Well, it doesn’t show you’ve grown much if you say, I was flushed down the school-toilets, so now I’m going to cower in a corner and the hell with everyone.
‘Nor for that matter,’ he says, pointing to an opposite extreme, ‘does it say much about your life if you need to recapture your “glory days” at school. I didn’t attend my reunion to be magically teletransported to the past but to observe what became of others. I was just curious. I think that’s how one should approach a reunion. Without aversion or over-enthusiasm.’
Paul counsels sober self-possession, but if you’re emotionally sober at a reunion, you’re not really there – you’re not riding its crackling energies, and as Grant says, even the bravest heart succumbs to anxiety and joins the masses drinking their courage at the bar. Having decided to go, standing poised at the reunion-venue’s threshold, you can forget about lying low as an observer: you yourself will be scrutinised, your adult development will be reviewed on one night’s showing, and you’ll be ‘teletransported’ back to unfinished business from the past. You’ve been summoned to a class test.
‘I thought you’d get there and everyone would just stand looking and laughing you because you’ve suffered the crushing humiliation of having grown older,’ says Larah G.*. ‘I didn’t want to go because clearly it’s going to be judgmental, but I wanted to prove that I wasn’t too scared to attend and that I could live through it. If you didn’t go, you’d feel you’d wimped out. I was proud of myself afterwards.
‘You arrive there and people are looking at your car, so you move off – rapidly – and run in to the hall, which looks like a matric dance, and pass a gauntlet of tables to find someone you recognise, but the only crew you recognise are the nerdy ones you weren’t supposed to talk to 10 years ago and you’re definitely not going to start now. So either you ingratiate yourself into someone else’s table or take the ultimate risk and go to an empty one and hope people will sit with you.’
Once seated, you abandon yourself to ‘throwback school-behaviour, pointing and whispering behind menus’, as you survey the human landscape. Male reunionites accustomed to Soviet-style school dress-codes are often amazed to see women class-mates swathed in gift-wrap outfits and make-up, while women double-take at how once-weedy boys have developed standard-issue physiques, or bloated into double-chinned pork-pie salesmen and balding Michelin Men. The okes talk cars; the babes, babies. ‘At school no one’s talking about children. Now’ll you ask women what they’re doing,’ Larah observes, ‘and they’ll ‘shyly’ tell you they’ve got three kids. You think: What the hell was I doing in the 10 years while you were having those three kids?’
Reproductive one-upmanship is but one game played by two of the camps that emerge at reunions: the settled-down versus the undomesticated (or the newlyweds and newly-divorced). The former tend to drink less than the latter, and leave earlier, both to relieve their baby-sitters and because free-wheeling piss-ups are an alien lifestyle to them. Larah’s friend Sarah believes that post-school studies might explain how these two camps arise. ‘Those who hadn’t studied were mostly married, owned homes and drove better cars, whereas those who had were usually living on their own and just starting in their careers. One woman spent the night telling me how successful her husband was because he hadn’t wasted time at university, unlike certain other people there.’
The venue is fast-becoming a tumult of booze-boosted conversation, and after 10-years’ separation, everyone’s asking, ‘What have you been doing?’ It’s the essential reunion question, and opens a Pandora’s Box of insecurities and rivalries. This class test is a class war between the haves and have-nots in which materialistic success alone is prized and understood. You must flash your credentials, and as Lara says, ‘account for your life in sound-bytes.’ There’s no percentage in false modesty or waffling about your poetry. No one gives a fuck. Make your credentials palpably visible: if need be, smash that rented limo through the window for all to see.
‘You’re not going to say, I’ve done fuck-all with my life,’ Gary J.* says. ‘You need to be better than the other person, even if you’ve gotta exaggerate or lie. Reunions are a farce: the thing is to impress, and there are some you need to impress more than others.’ Flouting your grandeur before your arb class-mates is unbeatable fun; alternatively, you can revel at their decline into obscurity.
Gary explains: ‘School is your starting-point in life. When you matriculate anything can happen. You have the idea that these are the people who’ll succeed, and those will fuck up; but I believe the tables turn. At the reunion I was surprised by how well the drop-outs had done, while the academic-achievers had become total rubbishes.’
There’s a delicious pause as I wait for my ex-school colleague to say, ‘I mean, take you, for instance. You’ve fucked up – writing for a “youth magazine”. It sounds like Archie comics.’
Jesus Christ, I’ve killed for less, but I let this ride.
Gary continues: one-upmanship at reunions is means of ‘rectifying the old image people have of you with the latest image. You want to gain the status you never had.’
This goes a long way towards explaining why school reunions inspire dread and excitement, and why the question, ‘What have you done?’ is less a polite enquiry than a gun pointed in your own or someone else’s face. Reunions make you look at the past, but they also make you assess the present through the eyes of the past. Presumably this occurs at other kinds of reunions, too; so what gives school reunions the edge over get-togethers among, say, former work-colleagues or sports-players?
‘At other reunions you talk about things in common,’ says Larah’s husband Jonathan, ‘but at school reunions you’re supposed to have undergone this huge process of growing-up, so you’re almost obliged to present people with your C.V. and your ambitions.’ Never mind what school expected of you; as an adult you labour under tougher expectations. ‘School’s survival of the fittest,’ Jonathan reflects, ‘but so’s life when you’re 28, and often the roles of predator and prey are reversed. Some people have been pomped by life.’
Charged with anxiety, school reunions differ from others inasmuch as your life’s on review: after all, you were schooled, supposedly for life, and ‘like salmon returning to the spawning pool’ (Paul T.’s image), it’s now time to report back to the only group who (in Stuart G.’s words) ‘can really tell the difference time has made on you.’ Yet not only do reunions make you self-conscious about your present life-circumstances, they revive school fears, and the hang-ups of the present start intersecting with those of the past. You’re in two simultaneous time-zones.
‘The old fears return,’ Grant Z. suggests, ‘because you’re with the same crowd who caused them: the okes who scared you shitless, the chicks who made you so nervous you couldn’t speak. You make a beeline for the people you were comfortable with.’ And so the old cliques, the in- and out-groups, flicker into life, as do their internal hierarchies and roles: the Cool Guy, the Right-Hand Man, their Groupies and Runners. But time’s left its mark, and re-adopting these roles might feel – and appear – as strange as climbing into your mouldering school uniform.
Lara cites an example: ‘The Desirable Girl from school hadn’t changed, but wasn’t remotely attractive anymore. The fact was that her attractiveness was a mystique engendered inside a group.’ School is a society unto itself, inviting (and usually compelling) its citizens to identify with ready-made identities and stereotypes. Paul T. remarks, ‘The school caste-system we all subscribed to run on Darwinian lines, elevating scuzz-buckets to popularity and denigrating others as subhuman.’
Some try to re-assert former roles, or fix others in theirs: they’ll address you by your long-repressed nickname, and handle you accordingly, or come up to you and tell their partners, ‘S/he was my matric-dance date/ the nerd I told you about’, as if you’d spent the decade frozen in a museum display-case. For others at the bottom of the food-chain, Paul notes, ‘the reunion’s enforced socialising is threatening because it gives those who exposed their weaknesses at school an opportunity to do it again.’ They want to shed their old personas, not resurrect them.
‘Your relationships resume exactly where you left them because you only know each other in a school-context,’ Lara claims. ‘At school you have a certain reputation. Leaving was a liberation, like peeling off an unwanted identity and inventing a new one. But at reunions you plunge back into this emotional cesspit you once swam in. People treat you like the old person and you start behaving like her. It’s like you haven’t progressed. My stunt at school was not to be in the middle of these groups and, sure enough, at the reunion I found myself doing the same thing and, after the small-talk, I’d gone and sat by myself.’
Nothing seems to have changed, but change is stirring everywhere. While reunionites appear to be frozen in old roles, they’re working through them to express themselves in ways they were incapable of doing at school. For Lara, reunion one-upmanship is a perpetuation of school rivalries, since ‘being bigger and better is adolescent behaviour.’ In another interpretation, it shows desire for closure. As Gary Myers commented, ‘You want to gain the status you never had. It’s pay-back time.’ You’re attempting to conclude conflicts and compensate for missed opportunities, whether by violating old taboos and fornicating in the school car-park, playing cat-of-the-walk to the Untouchable Babe, befriending a once-neglected wallflower, carousing with in-groups who cast you out, or getting drunk with the bully called Bully. The lion lies down with the lamb.
Lara might agree. ‘If these people were important to me, I would’ve kept contact, yet they’re important enough for me to want to prove points to them. But I think you’re proving points to the 16-year-old who used to be you. You want to show that girl you can now talk to the popular girl or be more impressive than the cleverest boy. It’s about you, not them.’
Finally, the class-war becomes a carnival, a Utopian gathering among familiar strangers whose lives will seldom have occasion to cross paths. ‘You arrive to impress,’ Gary reflects, ‘but eventually you say: Let’s drink, let’s laugh. The whole evening was about freedom. It was a holiday you never wanted to end.’ A long pause. ‘The sad thing is – you wake up and it’s like it never happened. Life goes on.’
Look into a friend’s face and your life flashes past you. I’m loitering in Kelvin Grove, the plush establishment St George’s Grammar School has selected for the reunion dinner culminating their 150th anniversary celebrations. Beneath the chandeliers and balloon-bouquets, the speech-makers line up, suave and droll; in the gents’, tuxed greybeards are reminiscing with hushed laughter, forever the naughty bastards on truant from assembly. The guest-speaker has finished (‘Would the oldest living Georgian please stand. Oh, sorry. You’re standing already’), and in an interlude I interview Andrew T., instrumental in reviving in the Old Boy’s Union from ‘disrepair’.
Everyone brings their part of each other’s past to the table, he explains. Better than any photograph can, this ‘reminds you that as you grow, the person you are depends on the people around you.’ Many class-mates have died, Andrew says, and I’m struck by the truism in the cliché, ‘the school of life’. Leave school, and many reunions lie ahead; one day there’ll be none.
In the dining-hall an ancient dignitary, invisible in the festivities until now, has risen for his closing prayer. ‘Glory be to God,’ he says, ‘and all who have been his messengers.’
* Names have been changed.
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