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Old School

The class of 1965 has blended into one homogeneous group of senior citizens.

David Letterman did not show up at our high-school reunion. Again. Had he appeared, now or at any prior gathering, paparazzi (if there are paparazzi in Indianapolis) would no doubt have stalked the premises, and the Late Show superstar would have sucked the energy from the room. Dave’s a private guy who, oddly, doesn’t particularly glow in the limelight, so we, his classmates of the Broad Ripple High School class of 1965, understand.

A tabletop display at the 45th-anniversary assemblage included some old pictures of Dave on stage in the class play (a meager role), Dave in an unassuming pose in the yearbook, Dave in later years on the cover of this magazine, his then-reddish hair unruly, his teeth protruding. At prior reunions, even in his absence, he was celebrated, all of us marveling that someone we passed in the hallways could have made it so big.

This fall’s reunion was different. There was little mention of Dave, save for his unusual vocation appearing in a listing of everyone’s past and present careers: state trooper, corporate pilot, platoon leader, carnival clown, amusement-ride inspector, celebrity talk-show host. With so much life lived, so many personal milestones and disappointments experienced, the thrill by association has passed.

My husband and I didn’t stay long—he suffering from jet lag and a head cold and no doubt still ticked off from having to attend the last one on his birthday—but while there, I felt relaxed, comfortable in my late-life skin. When we are young, we fret too much about appearances. I’ve known those who go on crash diets before such events, or augment their eyelashes, or even undergo plastic surgery—all in the name of impressing others who might have done the same. Roots are touched up, waists cinched, skirts shortened and heels heightened. This time, I fluffed my short gray hair and, at the last minute, pulled an almost-new fitted felt jacket from my closet. Beyond that, I rationalized, I am who I am.

I thought in advance about who might attend. Similar types populate every high-school class: the jock, the brain, the pretty cheerleader, the president of students for a liberated society—and show up at reunions to strut their former stuff. When you are fresh-faced and upwardly mobile, those labels remain. After that? Hopefully, they subside, all of us blending into one homogeneous group of senior citizens, happy to have our gall bladders and crowing about grandchildren.It’s difficult to relive old emotions, so I was thankful my sweet, smart former boyfriend wasn’t there. I didn’t see my dear BFF, the final F now a fantasy, or the cool boy who used to brag he was, shall we say, so romantically proficient he could do it standing up. (Since my copy of the textbook distributed in health class did not specify what “it” was, I never knew whether “it” could be accomplished upright or not.)

Some others’ memories had faded, mine included; I slathered praise upon one striking woman about her gorgeous handwriting that slanted perfectly across the lines of her notebook paper. She accepted neither the compliment nor the credit, which left me wondering if I had the wrong girl. An attractive blonde claimed never to have forgotten the class play I wrote, despite my protestations about not having written the play at all. And another remarked that I was still short (!), as if I might have grown taller when out of sight.

Thankfully, we mostly still have our filters, so unkind observations went unuttered. One might notice how much weight a classmate has gained or hair he has lost—but we know better than to say. Reunions are a Petri dish where judgment grows like bacteria. No matter our intentions, we stand in silent appraisal of one another, never thinking we look as old as everybody else.

No one pushed or made booger jokes in the buffet line. There was no social order—and no shrieks of greeting, no drunken revelry, undertaken either to remember … or forget. The room was filled with ordinary people dressed in ordinary clothes eating ordinary chicken and telling ordinary stories. We had grown softer and more settled, our competitive spirit dulled by decades of adulthood. The common refrain—beyond whose artery stents were effective and whose were not—was “have you retired?” I myself was asked enough times as to consider the innocent question a hint.

Illustration by Valeria Petrone.

This column originally appeared in the January 2011 issue