Reunions – why are they either the best or the worst thing that ever happened?
Back in 7th grade, I had the good sense to hook up with the crowd of girls that were smart and cool (in my 7th grade eyes). They were not the ones who made the cheerleading squad, nor did they do anything in particular that was representative of being cool. They were just…cool. So while the cheerleaders rallied everyone for exciting basketball games, we were in the crowd, excited to be there. But we took our claim to fame from being with each other and from who we were. Our status came from the inside out, not the outside in. Teachers, students, and administration loved us, so we rarely got in trouble, except for the occasional slap on the wrist for being mischievous.
We had a blast in 7th grade and all the way through high school, staying on just this side of the line. We were able to feel out our autonomy but didn’t have to pay the high price of being on the fringes or ending up in jail. I had the car. We’d skip out to lunch, my best friend challenging me to cut through fear so we could go to Hopwood for onion rings. The onion rings were worth it, but the real reason we went was to test ourselves and our limits. We had our heartbreaks and our triumphs. We went to college at different places. We made sure we saw each other often but made new friends and new lives all along the way.
After college, back in our hometown, we decided that, although we respected where we came from, we couldn’t let ourselves be limited by the small town mentality that characterized Fayette county. Not that it isn’t a great place to grow up, but we had big dreams. (You can read more about Fayette county in this Washington Post article, “In Pennsylvania coal country, voters not thrilled with their choices.”)
So we jumped in my Cougar–burnt orange with sequential turn signal lights–a beauty. Drove to Philly “on vacation” and never looked back. We lived in a variety of houses and had changes within in the group. Some people moved in, some out, some went to law school, some got married. All through, though, we acted in ways that kept our code of behavior solid–that right blend of autonomy and connectedness, of respect for difference and shared values.
Then, last weekend, we had our first ever reunion: The Upsal Street Finishing School Reunion. The name came from our street in Germantown. The finishing school really referred to how–if you were going to be in this crowd (and it was worth it to be in it)–you had to be smart and your character had to have at its core: “do no harm, be who you are and have fun…a whole lot of fun.” Those were the terms.
The reunion drew around 40 people from all over the country and was a blast. Like really good parties, the years flew away in a second. The paradox was in the eyes–still the same person but with a few more miles. Everything was the same, and, yet, everything was different. Life challenges gave us a chance to say in poetic, if not literal, unison, “We‘re still standing.”
What is so interesting is that, back then, the struggle to find yourself, which could have easily descended into bitter competition, became instead soft acceptance with the understanding the good outweighed the not so good. Looking back on those days with wiser eyes now, I think, even then, we were cultivating a strong sense of self that didn’t cave in to external influences and was more accepting of differences and change. And that’s what made us cool.
Had it gone the other way, I don’t know what would have happened.
Maybe that is why some people hate reunions. They are still measuring themselves up against others. And in leadership, you see them everywhere. Always trying to please with little self awareness and even less ability to act on their beliefs. They know how to act like they are great leaders, but, at their core, they are sycophants, lost to the overwhelming need for attention and working hard to do what those in power think they need to do. I have worked for people like that. It’s not the best experience I ever had.