Where I can speak my mind
I’ve been trying hard to find the people
That I won’t leave behind.
They say I got brains
But they ain’t doing me no good
I wish they could
Each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good going for myself
But what goes wrong.
Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into)
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into)
I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
(I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times – Brian Wilson & Tony Asher: 1966)
I went to my 50th high school reunion earlier this month, and despite all my initial reluctance and apprehensions about going, it wasn’t a disaster! In fact the get-together proved to be a great success on many levels.
Since graduating from St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey, in 1966, I’ve been to most, if not all, of our class reunions. Of those six or 7 celebrations (I’m still not sure of the total number), my favorite was the 20th Reunion in 1986. By that time my classmates and I were 38 or 39 years old and in the full bloom of our personal and professional lives, with settled families, homes, and careers. We were old enough to appreciate our past and our connections with each other, and young enough to still want to drink, dance, and party. To amplify this festive mood our reunion was paired with one or two other high school reunions at the same Century Blvd. hotel. It was a crazy night with old teammates offering me drugs in the restroom, and being introduced to the second wives of various old friends. Reality returned the following morning when, glassy eyed and cotton-mouthed, my wife Kathy and I drove to St. Bernard for a nostalgic tour of the school. There we met up with Jim Riley and Greg Ryan, the two old high school buddies who had remained in touch throughout the years, and many other revelers from the night before. We spent some times walking through shadowy hallways that echoed of old memories, laughter, and heartbreak, and peeking into classrooms where we had once sat, talked, and pretended to learn. Oddly, at one point I found myself separated from my family and friends, standing alone with an old, high school girl friend, Joanne Miller.
Now the term “girl friend” requires some explanation here. Joanne was never my girlfriend in the romantic, high school sense. We were never officially “a couple”, or exclusively dating. She was a friend, who was a girl. Which, I will admit, was unusual in a “co-institutional” school, where boys and girls attended separate classes, and had segregated lunch periods. However, I will confess privately, that I always hoped the friendship would grow and evolve, because Joanne was definitely my first “crush”. I thought she was pretty, clever, and funny, but most of all, she was open and happy. But even though she never (as far as I know) “went steady” with anyone else in high school, she consistently turned me down for the traditional school dances, like homecoming and prom, and always went with someone else. About the only time we spent time together at a social school event was when we encountered each other in Disneyland, during Grad Nite of our graduation. Oddly enough, despite my inability to connect romantically with Joanne in high school, I established a friendly and comfortable relationship with her and all her family – especially her mother and father – for many years after. Although Joanne attended school in Washington State, we kept in touch by mail throughout college, and occasionally dated over the summers, but the relationship remained “friendly”. I reconnected with Joanne and her family after my discharge from the Air Force in 1971, when I began teaching U.S. History at our alma mater, where her younger sister, Dianne, attended as a junior. Soon after, however, she told me that she had met a USC dentistry student, Marty Suckiel, and was planning to marry him. I attended their wedding in 1972 (?) and reciprocated by inviting her and her parents to mine in 1975. We had not been in contact since, until that Sunday morning after the 20th Reunion.
Our private conversation began in a typical fashion between two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in 14 years. We talked about family, children, and careers, but then Joanne changed the tone of the talk. Drawing me aside and speaking in hushed whispers, she revealed that her husband Marty was in the car with the kids, and that he was very, very sick. Apparently doctors had diagnosed Marty with some terminal condition and his health was quickly deteriorating. I was stunned into disbelieving silence with this news. I didn’t know what to say or do as tears slowly fell from Joanne’s face. We were soon interrupted and separated with the arrival of other friends and acquaintances, and I haven’t seen or spoken with her since.
None of the subsequent reunions have matched, or even come close to the energy, excitement, and surprises of the 20th anniversary. Attendance fell off over the decades, and quality control over the venue and accommodations declined steadily. Even though I always took the precaution of going to these affairs accompanied by wingmen – Jim Riley and Greg Ryan, fellow 1966 grads – the reunions always ended with a residue of unfulfilled promise. Both Jim and Greg were so dissatisfied with the 30th Reunion that they were not inclined to attend another. I didn’t share their pessimism, because the 30th gave me the chance of reuniting and talking with another old friend, Kathleen Foley (Sigafoos), who filled me in on her life since college, and also had information about Joanne.
Kathleen was a high school acquaintance who, it turned out, attended UCLA with me for four years. It was there that our friendship really began, fueled I think by our common love of history. We dated once, but our relationship was really based on academics and intellectual compatibility, with the bonus of a common Catholic high school experience. Unusual for most UCLA students attending such a large university, Kathleen and I found our selves taking many of the same history classes together over the years. Seeing each other often, listening to great history professors, and talking over coffee, made for an evolving and comfortable friendship. In our junior or senior year, I also met the guy she would eventually marry, Jim Sigafoos. He was a tall, friendly and talkative fellow who, nonetheless, always seemed to be hovering and guarding Kathleen, keeping his suspicious eyes on my intentions. Kathleen and I graduated in 1970, but while she continued on in graduate school, eventually getting her secondary teaching credential, I joined the Air Force to avoid the Draft. A few years later it was a very pregnant Mrs. Sigafoos who told me that she was leaving her job as a history teacher at St. Bernard High School to have a baby, and recommended that I apply for the position. That proved to be the first step in my eventual career as a high school teacher, administrator, and eventual middle school principal.
At the 30th Reunion I was able to have a long and private conversation with Kathleen. There she filled me in on everything that had happened to her and Jim since 1972. She was also able to give me an update on Joanne, who did not attend. Although this conversation was the high point of the reunion for me, it wasn’t enough to motivate Jim or Greg in accompanying me to the 40th. Without a wingman, I had to beg my wife Kathy to accompany me to the reunion, and it proved a dismal affair for my wife and I, especially since neither Joanne nor Kathleen attended.
In September, as the date of the 50th Reunion approached, I started feeling more and more ambivalent about it. Oh, I was committed to going, and this time Jim Riley was coming along, but I started experiencing very mixed feelings about it. I found myself predicting a disappointing evening in which none of my expectations would be met and I would walk away feeling emptier than when I began. At the same time, I was flooded with a rising tide of old feelings and images of high school. Entering St. Bernard High School in 1962, at the age of 14, was a cathartic moment in my life – a rite of passage from one stage of life into another – and it left a permanent scar. Even at 69 years of age, I was beginning to feel an irrational fear that I would re-experience the feelings of a lonely, insecure freshman – a child among many, many strangers.
I have hundreds of images of high school, good and bad, but a few scenes always push forward in my mind:
- Sitting in Mr. Potthoff’s freshman homeroom with 35 strangers on my first day of school, and riding my bike home, alone, every day after school.
- Taking a school bus home every day during my sophomore year and meeting and befriending Albert Nocella.
- Debriefing each morning with Albert, Lynn Reeff, and Allan Fields in homeroom of our junior year. Getting my drivers license and joining the soccer team with Albert.
- Meeting my friends Wayne Wilson, Jim Riley, Greg Ryan, and Joanne Miller, at the start of our senior year, writing for the school newspaper, and winning a league championship in soccer.
I’ve always struggled at understanding my ambivalent feelings about high school, but it wasn’t until this latest reunion that I finally sat down to put them on paper and figure them out. When I think about my four years at Bernards, two words and two emotions always come to mind: solitude and searching, and misery and joy. Those words always described the whole experience for me. To survive as a freshman, I suppose I made solitude my temporary companion until a few real friends came along. In the meantime, I spent four years searching for a sense of belonging. It was while thinking of this sense of belonging that I recalled Maslow’s idea of a Hierarchy of Needs.
Maslow was a behavioral psychologist who believed that human development and maturity progressed along a continuum of Needs. If we satisfied our basic human needs of food, water, or even breathing, then we can mature and begin addressing the more social and interpersonal needs of love, belonging, and self-esteem. According to this theory, when these stages of development are achieved, then people will, ultimately, become self-actualized (which sounded a little like Nirvana, since I’ve never met a “self-actualized” person). Anyway, if I applied this hierarchy of development to myself, then the roller coaster ride of high school emotions actually made sense. Looking back, I can see my odyssey from a happy and secure 7th/8th grader, living in a loving and supportive home and family, to a struggling high school freshman, cluelessly searching for the ephemeral needs of Friendship, Belonging, and Self-Esteem. I found friends and comradeship in my sophomore year, and a sense of belonging on a soccer team in my junior year. I suppose Self-esteem was achieved in my senior year with a League Championship and becoming an editor on the school newspaper. I never thought of applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to high school before, but they must have been in the back of our minds when, many years later, Kathy and I advised our own children about adapting to high school. You see, we stressed the importance of joining of a team, club, or organization as being equally vital to academic success, and I’m confident that their high school experiences proved positive ones because they both did so as freshmen. Anyway, I hope that they will look forward to their own class reunions without the reluctance or ambivalence I’ve sometimes felt. As to my own reunion on October 8th, I thought it was immensely successful.
On the afternoon of our Reunion, Jim Riley and I checked into the Belamar Hotel in El Segundo before walking down to the bar for Happy Hour. There we happened upon Lynn Reeff, Allan Fields, and Mike Skitt, high school classmates who we hadn’t seen in decades. The encounter was a great prelude to the official Reception, because it gave us so much uninterrupted time to reminisce, laugh, and bring ourselves up to date on news of the past years. The most shocking item was learning that a classmate, Mike McElroy, had died a year ago. A minute before Lynn shared this fact McElroy had been alive and present in my mind and memories. Mike had taken the time to read and respond to a blog essay I wrote about three years ago, in which he was mentioned. Mike’s response to my essay recapped the events of his own life since high school and he expressed hopes of a reunion. Now, suddenly, McElroy was gone – ripped away by the cold knowledge of Lynn’s news. It was an unsettling moment, and it foreshadowed, I thought, how most graduates of the Class of ’66 will react to news of a classmate’s death. Deceased friends will be forever young and alive in our minds and memories until the actual moment we learn otherwise, despite the time lag. Anyway, after an hour or so of this undisturbed time of reminiscences and laughter, our band of 5 old guys walked across Sepulveda Blvd. and joined the Reunion Reception at the Tin Roof Bistro.
I’m not sure what person or group was responsible for organizing this Reunion (although I suspect Bob Leamy, another UCLA grad, was in charge), but they did a masterful job. The main evening event was not over-planned or overly complicated, and it provided ample room for personal discretion and improvisation. There was enough room at the mixer in the Tin Roof Bistro to meet, talk and interact, with plenty of hearty appetizers being served, if one was hungry, and a no-host bar with beer and wine (although most people preferred water). More important, I thought, the schedule allowed an opportunity for a quiet escape, if an individual or couple wanted to leave early. Dinner was left to individual discretion. Depending on how events progressed, one could join a group at a reserved table, go elsewhere, or simply call it an evening. The only flaw in the free flowing, reception concept was that it gave insufficient time for lengthy or in depth conversation. The sad fact about being in a room of happy men and women you once knew in high school, is that there are simply too many people you wanted to see, talk with, and question, but never enough time to spend with someone, before someone else joins or interrupts. There were simply too many people and not enough time. Luckily, I was able to compensate for this weakness, by encountering Jim and Kathleen Sigafoos at the reception and inviting them to a separate, quiet dinner after.
Dinner conversation with Jim and Kathleen was the perfect bookend to an evening that began with a raucous Happy Hour session with 5 friends, continued with a whirlwind reception, pin balling from classmate to classmate, and ending at a quiet, outdoor table. For the first time that evening I was able to listen, question, and have in depth conversations about parents, children, careers, retirement, and plans. It was refreshing and satisfying, and it gave me the idea that if I wanted similar moments with other high school friends, I would have to take the time and make the effort to call, email, or arrange to meet them like I was doing with Kathleen and Jim. I’ve learned that reunions are imperfect devices for meaningful communication, but they can function as a connecting mechanism for future encounters. So, before ending the evening Kathleen and I promised to meet again when we could talk further. She even hinted of the possibility of inviting Joanne Miller and her husband to a dinner party for all of us. Now that would be a reunion!