Last week, I got a message on facebook from someone I’d gone to elementary school with. She had decided, on the spur of the moment, to plan a mini-reunion of our eighth grade class. It wasn’t anything formal. She’d picked a date, chosen a pizza place a few miles from the old brick school building, and then announced the event on facebook. That was the extent of the planning. No committee, no phone calls, no flier, just a facebook message.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I’ve stayed friends with Kindergarten Friend (and her husband, who also went to elementary school with us), but some classmates I hadn’t seen since 1975, the year we graduated from the small, Catholic elementary school. Now and then, I’ll run into an old classmate at the grocery store, or at a school function, or at a funeral, but mostly, we lead different lives.
I wasn’t even sure if anyone would recognize me. I figured maybe I ought to braid my hair, put on a white blouse and plaid skirt, and wear some green knee socks. Last time any of these folks saw me, I was a skinny kid wearing glasses and braces. Right away, I could see that an elementary school reunion had a real advantage over a high school reunion: I might be turning 50 this year, but I still look better than my eighth grade self. It’s a pretty low bar.
When I arrived at the pizza place, I wandered about, squinting in the dim light, wondering if I’d recognize anyone. I’d just talked to Kindergarten Friend on her cell phone, so I knew she and her husband were on their way.
Just then I heard someone call my name. FirstTwin walked up to me and gave me a hug. “Hey! You’re here!” he said. He acted as if he’d just seen me the other day. “I think we’re the first ones. Let’s find a table.” We sat down and began chatting. His twin wouldn’t be joining us, he said, because he had moved south. Soon we were joined by a couple of guys from our class, who said hello and then began joking around — just like they used to in school. More classmates trickled in, until we were a group of ten, drinking and eating pizza and talking.
It felt no different than when we used to hang out and eat french fries while bowling on Friday afternoons back in eighth grade. I listened to the talk around me and felt right at home, like I was with family. There was just one difference. “I never used to talk to boys,” I said to FirstTwin. He laughed, but it’s true. I was painfully shy in elementary school, at least in the early years. It wasn’t until puberty that I shed the last shyness and became the extrovert that I am now.
None of the men seemed to remember how shy I was, but the women did. “You were the shyest person in the class,” said Brown Hair. Kindergarten Friend nodded.
We stayed for about four hours, later than any of us had planned. When one classmate confided in us that he’d had cancer last year, we listened to his story and then FirstTwin looked at him and said, “I’ve been there.”
“I remember when you had cancer,” I said. We all did. In fifth grade, the doctors gave him six months to live. We said prayers for him in school, and we made cards, which the teacher sent to him. His twin brother and two of his first cousins were in our class, so we got daily reports on his condition. When he came back to school, the chemotherapy had made all his hair drop out; the oddest thing was that he suddenly looked different than his twin brother.
“I’ve still got that box of cards you all sent me,” he said. “Every time I move, I look at them. It’s one of the things I couldn’t possibly throw away.”
Before the night ended, we began making plans for another get-together. Kindergraten Friend says that next time she'll bring the videotape she's got of us all dancing in second grade; we figure maybe we'll put it on the big screen in the bar.
We brainstormed for other classmates who could come. A surprising number still live in the area. As we talked, we were able to account for just about everyone in the class. Two have died, and some have moved away, but we pretty knew where everyone was. Except for the kid who left in fifth grade.
“He got called out of his class because his father died,” said Kindergarten Friend. Her mother was the fourth grade teacher so she had inside information. He was called out of class, and none of us ever saw him again.
“He and his mother moved to the West Coast,” said FirstTwin. “He and I were close friends, and he called me once – on my birthday – but I wasn’t home, and no one wrote down the number. I never heard from him again.” We all paused for a moment, thinking back to the kid we haven’t seen in 38 years.
Ice Fisherman was the first to leave. “I’m giving everyone hugs,” he announced. "Well, at least, all the women." Soon we were all putting on our coats and heading out to the dark parking lot, where we said goodbyes and hugged each other. “Safe driving,” everyone kept saying, the routine parting in this part of the country, where the roads are often icy. But most of us didn’t have far to go. We’ve never left home.