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Celebrating More Than A School Year

  

I’m a Cranbrook alum who’s listened to classmates and to myself at 20th, 40th, and 65th reunions. Here are the elements of my class’s reunions that I keep with me. Sure, memories will diverge and details will vary, but I suspect other re-unioneers and other classes may recall aspects of these moments.

Our 20th (with Prologue)

While in School, most members of our cohort have a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ disposition. We bond in sharing challenges, rituals, and hopes for happiness, however defined. Intentions are to stay close. Yet during our occasional contacts after graduation, my pals from our senior year seem disinclined toward returning to a whole-class reunion (“You can’t go back in time.” “You get to be a teen-ager only once.”). Sure, Cranbrook has been a damn important formative experience. But c’mon, through the School’s alumni publication, we agree that our diligent Class Secretary keeps us sufficiently in touch. We’ve moved on. 

 

Then, from a buddy whom I’d helped marry-off, a surprising phone call comes: would I like a (necessarily long) ride to and from our group’s 20th? The pitch is that after a few awkward moments of breaking the ice, a catch-up with old chums might prove interesting and fun. I decide to give it a try, writing four other pals suggesting they too forego household routines to join us there. They can't: an ill parent needs help, a job crisis is at hand, overseas study takes precedence, and most witheringly, "Reunions are too retrospective."...                                               

 

…Plunging Right In

The Weekend begins Friday evening in Bloomfield Hills at the home of a valued classmate and his lovely wife. Eight hours of meet, greet, food, and drink later, the party-giver hugs my travel pal and then (a slightly plastered) me, saying, “Don’t go, it’s not even dawn yet!”

I’m not accustomed to such hospitality.

 

Less than 20% of our class show up, everybody looking good. Maybe because I’m glad to see them, they look better than years ago. Several bring a partner, also looking good. If living with a smart and caring mate is a measure of happiness, they’ve struck it rich.

 

A Cranbrook-Kingswood pair there, together for 22 years, project such wellbeing that I’m taken aback that they’re divorcing in three weeks. The guy is recruiting a classmate to vacation with him out west.

 

I’m wary that former peers might brag about glittering agendas that enable them to jet around the world effecting major positive change. Turns out, there’s no chance for anyone to sense inadequacy in ‘measuring up’: classmates may be aiming high, but they’re not mouthing-off about it. Or about their success, money, status, or stuff. My vibe is that prior or possible competition is replaced by interest and support.

 

In chatter, sometimes we manage to uncover and savor nuggets about those who’ve already come into their own. Thus we cheer the cut-up who now has deep professional responsibility (my words, not the still-witty classmate’s). We respect two classmates’ friendship that’s blossomed into a professional business partnership. We admire possessors of new skills such as facility in difficult languages not taught during our Cranbrook stints. Acknowledging that my fellow-students are doing fine, I connect that effect back to a cause. I feel good about the quality of my/our secondary education.

 

A payoff is talking with classmates whom I’d barely known. They’re salt of the earth. Grounded, but optimistic and open. We hit it off in exchanges that alone are worth the trek back. The same goes for a meeting of minds with a onetime teammate, no longer especially lippy or loud.

 

Nobody brings up embarrassments I’d rather forget. Yet, once in a while you can see yourself through the filter of recollections from inhabitants of your earlier life. For example, a history classmate empathetically tells me, “I’d never thought you’d be doing what you’re doing now.” We both laugh: neither of our current personas even remotely had been expected, even by ourselves. 

 

 Beyond nostalgia, we hear about others’ current hobbies. Such as skiing, digging clams with family, and get-awaying to wine country. I resolve to get out more.

 

Providing springboards for conversations are common roles as college grads, parents, strivers for fulfillment, community volunteers, and selective appreciators of arts, sports, and human conditions.  When we chat,  everyone owns a story.  I  trust  their  stories include many grains of truth.

 

We recall an ally who had been disappointed in not receiving a certain School award. Plain to see over this Weekend, that classmate has let go of that hurt.

 

Although not recognized as one of our known intellectual stars, an absent classmate is recalled as having scored highest on our I.Q. tests (no one knew how we ‘happened upon’ that classified information). Our nickel explanation for not living up to academic potential at Cranbrook: “Probably X was too interested in Other Things to make the effort.”

 

We don’t even try to ‘solve’ societal issues. Nonetheless, differences arise -- but not with daggers drawn -- about our nation’s direction. A few indicate they’d protested the Vietnam War; others allow as how they’d endorsed combat there. The ’60s are remembered as “liberating” versus “overly permissive.” 

 

Come Saturday afternoon, dissimilar approaches are evident in how we physically approach the School. For instance, having driven directly from our Woodward Avenue hotel to campus parking, my travel pal quickly walks to the School’s central crossing of pathways, there to absorb its special essence. I choose instead to exit my pal’s car beside Christ Church and to amble the School’s peripheries. I reach that central crossing of routes only gradually, saving Saarinen’s magical core until last. That long way ‘round to architectural and site-planning beauty is my sweet way ‘home.’

 

Yep, I’ll re-une again.

                                                                                                           

Our 40th

I’m struck anew by that aforementioned path-crossing core of Saarinen’s enclave. In-between the Finnish designer’s buildings, vistas reveal open space and a road, each triggering the sensation of escape. That’s apt: after all, Cranbrook is a stop en route to elsewhere. 

 

From a scattered elsewhere, some return for their first reunion. Nevertheless, we muster little more than 35% of our living members.

 

Certain behaviors remain the same. We dress in Cranbrook fashion. We recognize each other, not needing the provided nametags. (A couple times, we address each other by first names that classmates had swapped for other monikers.) We are polite. From spoken language among numerous persons that I overhear, we’re consistent and therefore likely authentic in style and substance. From body languages, I view fellow-alums as understanding and really re-connecting with each other.

 

When we’re told we hadn’t changed outwardly, we want to believe, but know better. Sure, inwardly we've become different in some ways from the past but (by my reckoning) not enough to disrupt our nostalgic and accepting interactions.

 

At a prior reunion, we might have wondered how ex-classmates might judge us. Now the pressure seems off. Folks appear to relate to our mature selves for what we are. Besides, aren’t we all eccentric about something?

 

Of course, more than when we’d mingled daily, each classmate is something of a mystery. Still, candid demystifications spill-out about our post-Cranbrook days:

I’ve had a short first marriage and a long second one. It’s given me good and strong children.”… “Raising three kids, we’re always in debt but never in want.”… Once Z and I bought, at a huge discount, a box of 500 condoms. We divided-up the contents.”.... From a couple wed 37 years, “Our marriage is based on humor.”…We have a stable family, not without our share of Sturm and Drang. But we’re always committed to working it out.”…“I’ve learned about not complaining from the bravery of a son. He died, after a long and painful illness, in his 20s." … Following the death of a spouse, “I turned to Zen.”…“These glasses? I’m astigmatic. A keg cork at my brother’s wedding exploded in my eye. Hey, I’m okay now.”…“I wrote a novel based on my experiences in Africa. Couldn’t get it published.”…“Failure taught me more about myself than any success.”…“My co-workers prefer sitting easy behind computers instead of getting out and talking with customers.”…“I love to run. But after three hip operations, I’m not in the best shape.”…“I’m about as far from being bored with life as I have ever been.”

My spouse and I observe classmates seeming to come across as fairly confident to handle whatever life hurls at them. Of course their accounts of adulthoods are mere starts at possible revelations -- every classmate retains some mystery and unique meaning.

 

Scamps that we’d been, we can retrieve tales of derring-do:

At Cranbrook we survived acne, wasted time, cut Sunday church, ate awful chipped-beef lunches, and had more discernment in music than students at other schools…Even though one of our English teachers had warned that the word ‘lousy’ was uncouth, we enjoyed deploying the term randomly… Occasionally on Saturday afternoons, boarders piled into a day student’s car and cruised into downtown Birmingham, horn-honking and enjoying the freedom of that brief shift of environment… We kept a lookout for each other when one of us was meeting a date at the ‘off-limits’ boathouse…Kingswood girls wore pleated skirts with cashmere cardigans. A Cranbrook jock donned a pink sweater long before pink was ‘in’ for males…During an event years after graduation, a Kingswood girl strolled over to the Cranbrook ex-boyfriend she hadn’t seen for a while. Observing a drink in his hand, she quipped, “I see you’re still drinking.” Whereupon he quipped back, “I just remembered why we broke up.” At that, both are recalled as cracking up.

  

Far as I can tell, we 40th revelers also readily smile at others’ sly one-liners.

 

Not least, count us as being proud that one of us gives this year’s Commencement address. While the speech has wisdom and force, the about-to-graduate students appear inattentive. Then, diplomas in one hand, the fresh-faced alums parade out of Christ Church, their other hand giving high-fives. In contrast, our march down that center aisle 40 years earlier had been uptight.

 

Afterwards, bidding goodbye to classmate Y’s significant other, I say, “Take good care of Y.” Immediately offended, the spouse bristles, “As if I haven’t already been taking good care of Y!”  Uh oh, I won’t say that again.     

 

Overall, what I would say is that our reunion evoked pleasant thinking about good times. That makes my take divergent from George Orwell's prep-school reflection in Such, Such Were the Joys:

"It is not easy for me to think about my schooldays without seeming to breathe  in a whiff of something cold and evil-smelling a sort of compound of sweaty stockings, dirty towels, fecal smells blowing along corridors, food with old food between the prongs, neck-of-mutton stew, and the banging doors of the lavatories and the echoing chamber-pots in the dormitories."

 

 

Our 65th (with Epilogue)

Huzzah, everyone looks not just good, but Great!

 

Our attendance numbers decline from the splendid major turnouts at our buoyant and busy-busy 50th, 55th, and 60th peaks. Frankly, I was too preoccupied and celebratory then to keep notes (I do srongly recall, though, a jarring note: one of our number -- at the time, he was standing in the Quad 
-- had to ask me where the Assembly Hall was. We fragile septuagenarians were supposed to convene there). Now at our 65th, we would’ve enjoyed seeing each other’s good and strong children again, but this time, no progeny make the trip. 

 

 

During Friday night’s dinner at Cranbrook House, we catch up with a couple married 63 years (“Best decision I ever made,” the Kingswood alum says about her marriage to a Cranbrook grad). We update each other on absentees we know about. Two East-Coasters are caregiving for their spouses. A Floridian’s promising to make it to our 75th. A Midwesterner’s “taking a break from travelling.” A south Californian’s “penetrating ever more deeply into the jungle of old age.” A north Californian’s coping with the loss of a lifetime partner. We miss these compatriots. Others too.

 

Saturday, at a Kingswood picnic under a big tree and at a Cranbrook dinner under a small tent, we throw ourselves into the reunion moment. At other get-togethers, we didn't much dwell on specific classroom lessons from our high-school past -- but this reunion over lunch at the girls' school, a Kingswood grad and I did recall specific fox-trot steps we learned (maybe in Second Form?) from Mrs. Brown's jubilant dancing class. Later another K'49er and I mused about possible impacts on our lives if Cranbrook's 'Aim High' motto had been imprinted on Kingswood students, and if their 'Go Forth To Serve" had been the boys' school slogan. We also shared fragments of data about our avocational pursuits, as well as our continuing to evolve via family, community, and recreational involvements. We broadened our viewpoints about contemporary life too during Sunday breakfast at the Class Secretary's house. To some degree, we re-encouraged one another to “Look us up if you’re ever near [my home town].

 

“You know, your school reunions are even better than mine,” my spouse tells me

 

 

…What’s Really Going On?

This Weekend’s over, and all that I’ve got on offer here are those few vague lines above that ‘cover’ 65 years on. Since I’m no longer into keeping notes on specific and characteristic episodes (I’m rheumatic of shoulder), allow me to just summarize my interpretation of general feelings about our atmosphere. Don’t you know, Fellow-Alum, feelings, emotions, and moods can be more reliable barometers of goings-on than ‘objective’ concrete factoids? Believe me, for octogenarians, perceptions sometimes rule.

 

So why is it we re-une? In the context of lifetime journeys, our Cranbrook Time is brief. It‘s enough, however, for an attachment to develop among those who reconvene. Across the years, periodically huddling with the gang at and from School helps satisfy a yen to identify with an institution larger and more permanent than our transient selves.

 

The pal who’d driven me to and from our 20th is dead. Of the four others I’d encouraged to re-une 45 years ago, all again are no-shows (but now for different reasons). In the meantime, I’ve had the chance to strengthen other Cranbrook friendships.

 

No, we don’t over-share our secrets or stresses in discussions. But you could perceive us reunioneers as reinforcing the essential within each other. Neither complacent nor overly pleased, we alums muse about our less-than-perfect lives. Overall we feel O.K. about what we’ve been, what we currently are up to, vital relationships we’ve had, and tasks we still need to do. To cap it off, an emotional thread is that we appreciate our great good fortune, definitely including a Cranbrook launch denied others.

 

It’s been interesting, fun, and golden.  – Richard Townsend


 

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