PREVIOUS LIVES: I am here to report the good news that high-school reunions can be fun.
And it turns out that they're really fun when, as at my recent reunion, two staunchly single-sex high schools join together in one big co-educational shebang.
Let me explain. When I went to Catholic school in the Philadelphia suburbs in the Baby Boom years, boys and girls slogged through eight grades together in parish schools attached to the local church. After graduation, we separated by gender to go on to massive single-sex high schools that served dozens of parishes.
My school, Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School for Girls, housed several thousand girls in a converted orphanage of a grandiose architecture. It sat, and sits still, on an impressive hill with a view. A stone's throw away were the several thousand boys of Monsignor Bonner High School, packed into a nondescript brick building of an unfortunate '60s vintage. The space between the two schools was about 10 feet. But for all the congress between the two institutions it might as well have been 10 miles.
We Prendie girls lost sight of our boy classmates back in eighth grade, on the squeaky side of puberty. And now at the reunion, in the swank quarters of Philadelphia's Airport Ramada, these boys reappeared, shockingly, as men, already balding, gray and paunchy, wives at their sides, pictures of teenage children clutched in their hands.
The game of the evening was to connect these middle-aged men to the little boys in bangs and bow ties we'd known so long ago. In some of the St. Andrew's cases it wasn't too hard. Kevin H., cute blond, early smoker and all-around cool guy in eighth grade, resurfaced as a Florida lounge lizard, complete with a missing tooth and cigarettes. Gregory B., a round, sober-faced little boy who looked middle-aged at 8, turned up as the quintessential lonely guy, a never-married engineer who lives in a drab section of town. Dennis D., of the handsome D. family, is a doctor and researcher, and handsome still.
"Dennis D. looks exactly like he did in eighth grade," I marveled to Maureen S., who went with me all the way from first grade to college graduation.
"Better," Maureen shot back. Maureen, giddied up by the reunion, was acting a little out of her current character. Former hippie student radical, nowadays she's a clinical psychologist, devoted wife and doting mother.
My sister-in-law Marilou R., a TV producer, was kicking up her heels a little, too. "I came here to look for the Bonner boys and there are all these OLD guys," she fumed, before rushing off to make a sally at the well-preserved Thomas P.
Sure, the reunion was a little about flirtation, a lot about finding our inner teenager. But something else was going on, too.
"There seems to be something almost tribal about all this," observed the ever-thoughtful Marisa G., a vice president of human resources at a Fortune 500 company. "People are not as interested in their high school classmates as they are in grade school."
Marisa was right. It was more fun to track down those half-remembered St. Andrew's boys than it was to reminisce about adolescence. But it wasn't just rediscovering that little heterosexual zing that had been leached out of our Prendergast years. We were trolling for the lost world of our childhoods.
It's been years since a lot of us rushed headlong out of that world's sheltering, sometimes smothering, embrace of religion and ethnicity. More than a few of us are far, far away from St. Andrew's and Prendergast now, and not just in miles. Nowadays, we don't run into anybody who squeals our embarrassing high school nickname (mine was Marti, with an i, natch) or who remembers the time in fifth grade we had to write the gospel 50 times as a punishment, or who insists that we remain "daughters true to Christ our King," as the Prendie song did. We're free to create ourselves, and re-create ourselves, almost at will. But in a sense we live among strangers. We pay for our freedom with what we've lost.
Back at the reunion, we were getting a charge, a major, unexpected charge, out of finding the girls and boys who knew us in another life.
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