One of my classmates from the Hickory High School class of 2004 was recently on Facebook spreading a survey to make plans for a 10-year reunion. The fact that he (and those who “like” his statuses) are already so eager to prepare for a high school reunion strikes me as fascinating, especially considering that Hickory isn’t the type of city to have entertainment venues so happening and in-demand that they need to be booked a year in advance.
Personally, I don’t look back at high school as a particularly glorious era (the Carolina Panthers’ lone Super Bowl season notwithstanding). I’m probably not that different from most grad students in that regard. If you asked a grad student why he or she doesn’t glorify high school, they might make a remark about not being in the popular crowd or something to that effect. Indeed high school can be a time of significant social cleavages between different groups, and as sociologists like Julie Bettie have documented, these cleavages can have effects whose consequences are more profound and lasting than mere popularity contests. But for me, a lack of enthusiasm toward high school – both at the time I was actually in it and in anticipation of a reunion – isn’t just about familiar battle lines between jocks and preppies and nerds and outcasts. It’s more of an uncomfortable question of whether one sees high school as a regrettably necessary stepping stone or as a the site of some of one’s greatest achievements in life.
In the social world of graduate school, it’s easy to forget that about 55% of Americans have no educational degree beyond a high school diploma. For them, high school was the culmination of their journey through institutionalized education. Its conclusion – at least in theory – emphatically thrust them into the “real world” that college and graduate school are so often cast as efforts to avoid. If one moves from high school to a rather nondescript, low-paying job in the service sector or in one of the furniture or textile plants that dot Western North Carolina (and even these are moving overseas), high school may well be seen as a last gasp of youth, with the kids you’ve grown up with since kindergarten, before it’s time to get serious about earning a living.
While he still lives in Hickory, the guy scrambling to organize the reunion doesn’t work in a furniture plant; he’s actually – from what I can tell from Facebook – sort of a self-employed photographer/videographer (perhaps he sees the reunion as a tantalizing gig). Nevertheless, I feel that the “high school as glory days” sentiment I just described might be stronger in Hickory than in many other places. I remember during my days at my first job, as a bagger at Harris Teeter, that one day the employees were, for some reason, asked to put stickers on a map of the US to indicate where they were born. I was one of the last employees to place a sticker on the map, and after putting mine on Charleston, South Carolina, I noticed the mountain of stickers that had been plopped onto Hickory and the immediately surrounding areas. I knew very definitively that that sort of life – going to high school in Hickory, staying in Hickory, working at a grocery store in Hickory for so long that, as was the case for one employee I remember, you’re working there in 2003 with a name tag that says “Proudly serving you since 1976” – wasn’t the sort of life I wanted. I wanted to get out, to do things beyond high school, to not still be hanging around the town where I went to high school looking recapture the glory of those old days. In many ways my attitude hasn’t changed; I don’t want to move back to Hickory and the idea of a high school reunion doesn’t strike me as particularly appealing. Yet there’s a part of me that is profoundly uncomfortable with the highly classed nature of my feelings. With everything I’ve learned about structural constraints on educational attainment, is it really ethical for me to have the feelings I have toward those who would celebrate high school – an awkward combination of they-aren’t-my-grad-school-kind-of-people antipathy and patronizing pity? It really speaks to the larger question, I suppose, of bourgeoisie guilt. I always try to stop and appreciate how lucky I’ve been to have the experiences and opportunities I’ve had in college and now in grad school. The flip side of that appreciation is the uncomfortable knowledge that not everyone has these opportunities, and I’ve always struggled with the question of what I can and should do…and think…and feel…in light of that.
Let me close with a much lighter commentary on high school reunions.