Last week, cleaning out old boxes full of accumulated stuff, I came on a little ceramic dish, delicately wrapped in tissue paper. It has a moss rose pattern and three chipped ceramic roses raised on the edge. I recognized it at once: my great aunt’s favorite ashtray.
She died more than thirty years ago—of heart ailments brought on by smoking—and I have no idea how this little relic survived all the intervening moves. It had been broken and carefully repaired in its day, which suggests it had value for Great Aunt Alice. It doesn’t for me. But what a toboggan ride of memory it unleashed.
Aunt Alice was a pharmacist back in the 1920s, when there were few women in the profession. She was openhearted and generous and kept her drug store going when the surrounding town fell victim to white flight. She was a stubborn woman, and irascible, but somehow good with kids. Her husband had served as a medic in World War I before the U.S. had joined the combat. He was a pharmacist too but he died young—a farm boy of terrific ambition who made something of himself. Aunt Alice kept the flame and never remarried. I wonder if the ashtray was a gift from him.
Last weekend I went to my fortieth high school reunion near Pittsburgh. I hadn’t been back in those forty years and wasn’t sure what to expect. My high school was in a new district stuck together from several disparate towns: a gritty blue-collar crossroads, a pre-World War II suburb of struggling shopkeepers, and a farming community that had mushroomed into a white collar bedroom suburb when the GIs came home and put those bedrooms to use creating the baby boom. The district may have made sense to administrators, but for students it meant hour-long bus rides and a rough mix.
The reunion, however, was fine. My class’s one celebrity, the comedian Dennis Miller, was the target of some raillery. His picture was pasted on “Missing. Have you seen me?” milk cartons, and the story was that he had said he would come only if the class paid him his usual appearance fee.
There was also a poster with pictures of classmates who had died, some grimly. So-and-so of a heroin overdose. Over the course of the evening, I got caught up on dozens of lives remote from my own. I can remember being 17 and desperate to move beyond that high school world. People at the reunion and, for that matter, those who had skipped it, seemed in general to have turned out as might have been expected. Hard-working. A little chipped; glued back together in places; precious to someone.
This is a world where higher education didn’t make that much of a dent. One classmate went to West Point. There were no Ivy Leaguers. Though a good many had gone to local or regional colleges, those years were just an episode in their lives long since overshadowed by jobs, marriages, mortgages, and kids.
What is the magnetism of reunions? Many colleges of course work very hard to foster a sense of alumni loyalty. High school reunions are typically home-made efforts mounted by a handful of classmates who had the patience to track down old friends. I’m glad my class had a handful that took that initiative. The reunion wasn’t crowded with ersatz emotion. There was no calling forth a fake school spirit or any valorizing of a not so valorous past. Just a rather easy acceptance of life as it had turned out—happy in some places, melancholy in others, but more or less OK. Quite a few had lost their jobs or seen their businesses fold, but I didn’t hear anything that sounded like self-pity.
My classmates are among the folks in western Pennsylvania that candidate Obama in 2008 famously derided to the attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser. He portrayed them as “people [who] have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government,” that they develop attitudes that more cosmopolitan San Francisco types presumably find distasteful:
So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
The “bitter clinger” gibe seemed unfair at the time he said it, and even more unfair now.
I write a lot about higher education as a pivotal institution in our society, and a lot about how it shapes the character of students. The reunion was a reminder of the limits of that perspective. The textures and complexities of life outside the academic bubble are often much richer. Having spent some time around the college grads at the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’m inclined to think my high school classmates come to the nation’s economic crisis with a much deeper and more nuanced understanding. They were better schooled, by life, I guess.
We can’t hold on to everything. I am glad to have retrieved my connection to my high school class. Aunt Alice’s ashtray, not so much. Those roses are sufficiently burnt into memory; the object itself can go.
This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on October 14, 2011.