On June 1 and 2 I was in Chicago to participate in the 50th high school reunion of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Class of 1962. I have not attended previous class reunions, and was not sure I would attend the 50th reunion either when I first heard that it was being planned. But, as it turned out, this became an event that I’ve been looking forward to for the last six months. And, the actual reunion surpassed my expectations, turning out to be a very positive experience.
The U of C Lab Schools was, and still is, one of the top private schools in the country. Almost all its graduates go on to college. Our class had an interesting mix of very sharp students, including children of faculty members and others associated with the U of C; kids from nearby fairly well-to-do, mostly Jewish neighborhoods; and other students throughout the Chicago area attracted by the Lab School’s academic reputation. The school has long been known for the diversity of its student population, being the first private school in Chicago to admit African American students. Our class included a number of black students, mostly from middle/upper-middle class families. In this mix, a Cuban-born, Jewish kid fit right in.
I only attended U-High, - as the school is often referred to, - for my junior and senior years, after arriving to Chicago from Cuba in October of 1960. I have stayed closely involved with the University of Chicago, which I attended after high school for both college and graduate school until moving to the New York area in 1970 to go work at IBM’s Watson Research Center. But, since graduating in June of 1962, I have not been involved with the Lab Schools nor have I stayed in touch with my classmates. So it is not surprising that I did not attend previous class reunions given my relatively short stay at U-High, my lack of contact with classmates and my living in the New York area.
Sometime around the Fall of 2011, people started getting into the spirit of the upcoming reunion and sending e-mails to class members reminiscing about the past. One of our classmates set up a Yahoo! Groups site to help facilitate our shared communications and we were off and running. The U-High Class of ’62 has been quite an active social media group for the past six months.
I joined the online group initially out of curiosity to learn about high school classmates I had not heard from in fifty years. At first I was a passive participant, but after a little while, I was really looking forward to the postings. It was fascinating to learn about my classmate’s present lives, as well as to read about long forgotten teachers, neighborhood places and class events.
These discussions reminded me that U-High had been a very special place at a very important point in my life. The last couple of years in Cuba had been very painful, seeing my parents lose everything they had worked for as Fidel Castro’s government started taking the country on the path to communism. In October of 1960, at the age of fifteen, I left Havana for Chicago with my sister to go live with an aunt. My parents followed several months later.
Through a number of lucky circumstances I ended up at U-High for my last two years of high school. Overnight, I went from a nightmare environment where everything around me was falling apart to this wonderful, stimulating, nurturing environment.
I found myself being drawn into the group discussions and making my own contributions. They were tentative initially, as I was not sure how many of my classmates would remember me after all these years. But, once it was clear that many did, I became an active participant. Before long I made the decision that I was definitely going to attend the 50th reunion in June. For the past six months I have been looking forward to the many posts that different classmates were writing, some reminiscing about the past, others talking about their present lives. In February I posted an entry in my blog about my U-High experiences.
I started making contact with some of my classmates outside the social group. I arranged to meet with two who had been friends in high school and lived in the East coast. These were both very satisfying experiences, reminding me how much we still had in common. I became quite friendly with another classmate living in the Chicago area when we found out that we shared a number of interests including blogging, even though we had not been close while in high school. We arranged to meet in person when I first got to Chicago for the reunion and went out for a beer. I felt I truly knew him because of all our e-mails and a few phone conversations during the previous months.
I don’t know what high school reunions are normally like, not having ever attended one until now. But, it is clear that the social group helped break through the awkwardness of meeting with people for the first time after decades. We felt we knew each other, especially those who had been active participants in the group. In the past six months, one of our classmates lost his wife, whom he was planning to bring to the reunion. A couple lost elderly parents. The group reacted with strong expressions of sympathy and support. By the time the actual reunion took place in June, the sharing in the social group truly gave us a feeling of knowing each other. We were all ready for the real thing now.
While I was looking forward to the reunion I was not sure what to expect. After all, I had not seen these people for fifty years save for the two I had recently met with. We had a number of planned activities, - dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings, and a Jazz picnic lunch on Saturday. There were also a number of informal gatherings, including small group discussions to talk about our lives for those interested in participating.
It turned out to be a very positive, emotional experience for me, as well as for many of the classmates who attended based on their ensuing group postings. Let me share some of what they wrote, as it so nicely captures my own feelings.
“This event brought a class together that was a disparate group of bright, ambitious self doubting kids 50 years ago. . . The people who have survived this long are softer and kinder than the 17 year olds of 1962.”
“Personally, I expected to be let down by the actual reunion because the online reunion . . . had been so affecting, but it surpassed my expectations. Perhaps, the web talk allowed us to dispense with some of the usual chitchat and connect with ourselves and our peers more directly than we ever did as kids.”
“I've given so much thought to this weekend having approached it with more trepidation than I would have thought possible. All of that melted away so quickly that I kind of wondered why it had ever been there in the first place”
“Sitting in Jimmy's [a local Hyde Park pub] and talking to Irving who I probably said twenty words to the entire time I was in U-High was such a warm and enveloping experience. Other conversations and seeing other people that I haven't seen for fifty years, reconnecting with people I've seen at other reunions, but at such a different level, makes me feel truly humbled and grateful.”
“I really was struck by how this group of diverse, bright, energetic kids had become a group of diverse, bright, creative, accomplished, warm, open and KIND adults”
“Half a frickin' century!! First of all, I think I'm partly exhausted from the challenge of wrapping my mind around that surprising statistic. How the heck did that happen?!!.”
The reunion organizers put together a memory book, aptly named Lab Results: 50 Years of Memories. We were invited to contribute a personal essay about whatever aspects of our lives we wanted to share with our classmates, as well as recent pictures. Fifty six of us did so.
Lab Results is a remarkable, compelling document. Lives well lived is the thought that went through my mind as I read the various essays. I’m not sure what I feel proudest of. The achievements of our classmates, so many of whom have done so well in their chosen professions. Or their perseverance and resiliency, as they struggled through the tough curve balls that life inevitably throws our way and went on to reinvent their careers, personal lives or both. Reading about my classmates’ lives proved to be quite an emotional experience.
As my fellow blogger friend observed in a post-reunion e-mail, this Class of ’62 is not ready to go gently into that good night. We are continuing to think ahead, making plans for the future rather than reminisce about our younger days. We keep looking for new challenges, ways to stay relevant, and perhaps push out the old age that will inevitably arrive.
It was a truly inspiring, memorable weekend.