Full disclosure: I have never attended a school reunion. Nor am I likely, even during lockdown, to make that group journey down memory lane.
The trip is bound to raise some squirm-inducing questions: Would my own sallow features be lost on my Zoom screen in a sea of tiny squares? Would I come away from my encounter upbeat, or, more probably, puzzled and deflated, a perpetual riddle to myself?
What had my classmates been up to? And, more to the point, how would they remember me? Was I the tubby kid snacking between classes in a bathroom stall? The awkward outcast, hiding behind a thick curtain of bangs?
Twenty or 40 years down the line, would I leave a dim impression — or worse, no impression at all? And did it even matter?
Those brave or brash enough to invite the past in through their screens are finding out, as class reunions unfold virtually on platforms like Zoom and Google Meet. Lingering confinement and unstable times have prompted gatherings beyond even the formal ones, some of which took place in recent weeks while others are planned for the summer months.
Sally K. Fischer has hopped several times on Zoom calls with a half dozen former classmates from Calhoun, a private school in Manhattan that was all-girls when she attended in the 1970s. An arts and entertainment publicist in New York, Ms. Fischer found those virtual visits soothing and refreshing, if sometimes a little unnerving.
“If I had a ‘Peggy Sue’ moment, what would I change; who would I find interesting?” she found herself wondering, referring to the character played by Kathleen Turner in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 fantasy, The overlooked science nerd, the brooding young poet? The movie brought home to her, Ms. Fischer said, “that reunions are part of putting the patchwork together of your life. In a way that’s what we’re all doing in this time of Covid.”
A few discoveries rattled her. She learned that she was “the tough one who did what she wanted and sometimes disregarded other peoples’ feelings while she was doing it.”
Some of her classmates, part of a tight, willfully insular circle, experienced a similar moment of reckoning. “At school I was so grateful to be part of a group, family that accepted me,” said Carolyn Brooks, who lives on a farm in Stamford, Vt. Tending chickens, she confided, has left time for regrets.
“I’d been mean to some of the other girls,” Ms. Brooks, a former high school counselor and most recently the vice dean of fellow affairs at the American Film Institute, said. “It was pretty ugly. I remember mocking girls to their faces. It brings me such shame to even say it, but at 65 years old I still remember it.”
This was why she went on to advise students professionally. “I wanted to champion the kids who were left out, who turned to drugs and alcohol,” she said.
The prospect of a remote group meeting proved unsettling to Geoffrey Upton, who recently attended the 25th reunion of his class at Hunter College High School in New York and who happens to be Ms. Fischer’s stepson.
“I might have been more comfortable at an in-person reunion,” said Mr. Upton, 43, an assistant professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “In real life you know how to navigate those situations; you can always go to a corner of the room to find the people who know. Online, with a lot of people you didn’t know well, felt less familiar,” he said. “In a way you feel more exposed.”
Some niggling issues surfaced. “I’m conscious of who is going to be calling in from which amazing living room in the Hamptons,” said Mr. Upton, who lives with roommates in Long Island City. For his close-up, he felt compelled to rearrange the books behind him, replacing a self-help selection, he joked, with some scholarly tomes.
On the other hand, the ability to turn off one’s camera or even strike one’s name from Zoom attendance can enable the special pleasure of eavesdropping on a reunion invisibly and free of small talk (or heavy talk).
Reunions can fuel a competitive streak, a fact not lost on Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University, “The fantasy is that your classmates will tell you, ‘Look at you, look how far you’ve come!’” she said. But trying to score points with old friends who are doing the same thing can be futile, she added. “Who are you going to impress if everybody is in the parade and nobody is watching the parade?” she said.
Ideally reunions give people a chance to get over themselves, and in an unsettled time, to revive a flagging sense of social justice. Dr. Solomon, who was planning this week to attend a reunion of her own, confided, “For me that visit is meant to reunite, repair, and bear witness to the l layers of racism that we, at 14 or 15, didn’t know how to make sense of.”
Victor Quint, 71, an anesthesiologist in Toronto, took part earlier this month in his first grade reunion with chums from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he grew up. That meeting, and current racial tensions, sparked a sense of déjà vu, he said. He had spent his youth fighting apartheid, joining protests in the street, being beaten, detained, and arrested by police. “That was my time,” he said, “and I’m reminded of it now. I didn’t enjoy living in that system.”
Ivan Dreyer, a lawyer in New York and Mr. Quint’s former classmate, helped organize that online gathering and another taking place this month. “I didn’t have much of a social conscience at that young age,” Mr. Dreyer, 70, acknowledged. “At home, I would say to a servant, ‘Make me such and such for lunch.’
“Only at around at around age 10 did I think, ‘Oh, hell, these people must wish they lived in our house.’ Now I’m left wondering what it would have been like if the situation had been reversed.”
Mr. Upton’s former classmates met remotely, their aim in part to recall and attempt to redress long-entrenched inequities. “We discussed the ways that diversity was addressed, or not addressed, in our school and in our American history textbooks,” he said. There was also an 8-minute, 46-second silent tribute to George Floyd, a digital clock ticking in the background. “A lot of people were clearly very moved by that,” Mr. Upton said.
At their most probing, reunions can uncoil a skein of early sensory impressions. “I can still see the pullout couch that we used in the seventh or eighth grade for sleepovers,” Ms. Fischer, the publicist, said (meaning in her mind, not in someone’s Zoom background). “We used to take off the pillow cases and pull them over our heads like veils to make believe that we were getting married. To me it’s laughable now that that was our focus.”
Childhood recollections remain viscerally intact for Mr. Quint. “I remember the smell of the chalk we used, and the pens that you dipped in an inkwell,” he said. “Our desks slanted downward; you could lift the tops and there was a space to put your books inside”
Old injuries still smart. “In our day, if you did something naughty, you had to take your pants down to get ‘six of the best,’ six switches of the cane,” Mr. Quint recalled. “It only happened once to me, but my bum was blue for six weeks.”
Some old taunts were remembered more fondly. “I miss the inside jokes that we used to have,” said Rachel Da Foe, a freelance communications consultant in Singapore. Ms. Da Foe, 26, who met online last month with her former classmates at an international high school in Melbourne, Australia, took their good-natured teasing in stride.
“My friends used to call me Piranha, because I had braces,” she recalled with a hoot. “Which of the friends I’ve made lately could remind me of that now?”