LONDON, ONTARIO – The alert Hermaneutics reader will have detected that an occasional tendency to reflect in these posts on my chequered career as a high school student has spiked in a rather alarming way over the last few months. Let me explain what’s behind this “slight disturbance in my mind” as Roy Wood termed it in one of The Move’s finest hits. All of my academic reveries of late are owing to my participation once again with the committee which organizes periodic reunions for London South Collegiate Institute’s 1971 graduating class.
If I hadn’t flunked once and dropped out twice without earning anything resembling a diploma (though I did receive an honorary one several years later from the G.A. Wheable Centre for Adult Education) ’71 would’ve been my year of glory. God bless ‘em, my more diligently studious comperes have been good enough to include me in their two earlier reunions; the fifteenth in 1986 and twenty-fifth in 1996.
Now our committee is preparing for the big five-o celebration this October. In all likelihood this will be the last of our year-specific reunions as our ranks are already significantly depleted by twenty-one of our colleagues who’ve passed on – thirteen men and eight women – representing more than ten per cent of our total roll call. And of course this bash runs the risk of being scuppered altogether if Doug Ford continues to listen to timorous advisors and orders Ontarians back under their beds to take shelter from the tenth or twentieth wave of the Wuhan Batflu pandemic.
A scholastic career so chaotic and truncated might at first glance seem incompatible with the sentimental regard I retain for my old alma mater. But I not only got all the education I wanted from some first-rate teachers in English and history and theatre and film, I got a wife out of that joint. Herself a ’71 grad but no fan of reunions, if the committee didn’t invite me, I could medicate the missus up to her eyeballs and slip in as her escort and buttress. However crappy a student I was, or however big a pain in the vice-principal’s backside, it was at South that I found and first tapped into my calling as a writer. A lifetime’s partner, a lifetime’s work – what more could you hope to get out of a school?
I wasn’t on the committee for the ’86 reunion (we were drowning in babies just then, our third being born just a couple months before) and my work for this October’s fete is really just beginning. But for the twenty-fifth in ’96, I was heavily involved and quite surprised by the ambivalence, indifference and – in a few cases – real animosity that perhaps three quarters of those then forty-four year-old grads felt for the place where they’d passed four or five of their most impressionable years.
There was one haughty chap, a high-achieving student and athlete in his day, who scrawled, “Live in the now. Most of us have grown up,” on the flap of the envelope which contained his invitation and sent it back to the committee. He was the only non-attendee sufficiently intemperate to go out of his way to denigrate the proceedings. And while I didn’t find his charge remotely convincing – attending reunions once every ten or fifteen years is hardly indicative of a crippling nostalgic fixation; one could more easily argue that a refusal to attend constituted an aversion or complex of far richer psychological interest – I did come to believe that his attitude was quite widely shared.
Many of the people who didn’t attend were able to plead geographical distance (and the expense and time necessary to overcome it) as a credible hurdle. But it was sobering to realize that just drawing from that pool of grads who still lived in London and chose not to come, we could easily have doubled our attendance. I was pressed into service phoning around town in the twenty-four hours before the reunion, trying to drag miscreants out of their hidey holes. I might have scored two or three but most of those who hadn’t responded to the mailed invitations sent out six weeks earlier, were determined not to attend regardless of how I cajoled. Their reasons, freely offered, ran the gamut from unconvincing (couldn’t line up a babysitter or someone to spell them off at work) to snobby (“I don’t choose to associate with those people anymore”) to pathetic (“I haven’t amounted to very much and I’d be embarrassed to have to meet my old classmates again.”)
No one wants to force anybody into a social situation that will make them uncomfortable, but as a fulltime occupant of Canada’s poverty class and someone who couldn’t claim to be besotted or fascinated with every last member of the class of ’71, I found such responses frustrating and sad – a total misconstruing of the rare opportunity which such reunions represent. To me that great lump of contemporaries with whom I shared the trials and delights of public school and high school, is a kind of extended family. Like parents, siblings and children (and the rest of that mad assortment of blood relatives who haunt tribal gatherings like weddings, funerals and Christmas dinners) you didn’t get to choose who your fellow students would be. Your classmates were whoever fate felt like dishing up that particular year.
And though we may not appreciate it that much at the time, this gross randomness plays beautifully against the adolescent tendency towards near-fascist social exclusivity; when the wrong kind of cuffs on trousers, a too heavy application of eye makeup or a fondness for the music of the wrong rock band can be construed as moral errors deserving of banishment. The presence in any one classroom of jocks and eggheads, artsy types and entrepreneurs-in-the-bud, serves to remind us that there are at least one million different pathways through the woods.
It was my brother Ted (class of ’66) who first fastened onto a scene in the third chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass as a perfect metaphor for what happens to a crowd of human beings as they pass through high school together and then scatter out into the larger world. In this scene Alice has entered into a forest which causes every kind of creature to lose all sense of their identity and therefore, for the duration of their woodland trek, these fellow travelers are able to strike up the unlikeliest friendships and alliances.
“So they walked on together through the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly around the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arm. ‘I’m a Fawn!’ it cried out in a voice of delight. ‘And dear me! you’re a human child!’ A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.”
If you are able – three or four times over the course of your adult life – to reverse the inevitable forces of social atomization and reassemble that unlikely assortment of human beings with whom you shared such a wealth of character-forming experiences, then I believe there are worthwhile insights to be gained. But in order to enjoy those insights you have to get past the sense that you and your classmates are involved in a lifelong competition to amass wealth or status and that only those who’ve won all the ribbons are qualified to attend. And you certainly won’t gain anything from such a nostalgic exercise if your social calendar is exclusively reserved for people who constitute your kind.
When we first visited our previous dog’s home of origin about a month before that ’96 reunion, the owner brought a cardboard box in from the kitchen and tipped it over, spilling seven groggy puppies onto the floor in front of us. As they slowly started to come to and stagger about on the mat, you could still see other pups’ imprints on some of their bodies – this ear pressed inside out where that puppy had rested his bum; that one’s upper muzzle pushed out of place by that one’s back paw.
I felt the same sort of primal memories awakened at that ’96 reunion; standing around with people that I worked with in a grade one play entitled Pigwiggin the Brave, talking with one of the first girls I ever necked with, recalling ingenious strategies for getting out of classes, toasting drinks with the principal who shut down the paper I edited because we’d lampooned him in a mildly obscene way in one of our articles.
“Live in the now” the phantom scribbler demanded. Well, theatre, necking, avoiding dull work and producing provocative articles were still vital interests for me in ’96 and – with a modification here and there, I grant you – remain so to this day. “Most of us have grown up.” Maybe. Most of the reunionizers I talked with in ’96 told me they didn’t feel forty-four years old, were surprised at how old some of their contemporaries looked, and astonished to consider that we were then older than many of our teachers had been in 1971. But surprise and alarm at signs of time’s passing are universal and constant, I think.
What’s going to be really interesting this October is to check in with those peers and see how that sense of time’s relentless flight has only picked up steam as we move toward our seventies. In the intervening quarter century, will any of our attitudes have softened? Will any of those hard-asses who drew such unyielding lines between their adulthood and their adolescence, now be able to find it in their hearts to forgive the past? Sadly, the phantom scribbler is one of our twenty-one who is no longer capable of answering an invitation to anything.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
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