Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When Grads Come Back

(Or, how I spent my high school reunion)

By Greg Guma

In our hearts, sometimes we were the Jets, a teenage posse strutting down Bell Boulevard in Bayside, rapping lines from the opening song in West Side Story. We were also members of our own fraternity, Gamma Beta Sigma – otherwise known as GBS or the Guinea Ballbusters Society.
     Not that we were very tough. Our crib was a basement rec room, and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw – another GBS – was our mascot.

Holy Cross High
     To be honest, we were “normal,” relatively innocent kids who went to confession on Saturday night (before going out to “party”), early Baby Boomers, mostly Italian, and all student “knights” at Holy Cross High School in New York City during the early 1960s. My core group, my compadres – the guys I trusted, the ones who watched my back and kept me in line – were Paul, Jack, John, and Jim.
     I hadn’t seen most of them for decades, in most cases since graduating over 40 years ago. But they agreed to turn out for a high school reunion. Celebrating a half-century of educating “articulate Catholic youth,” the school was hosting dinner and dancing for grads from the early and later years on two consecutive nights in the school gym.

Revisiting the old days isn’t for everyone. For some, even thinking about it – no less actually contacting people who knew us when – can be painful and disconcerting. That may be why some prefer to put the past in a box and tuck it away, focusing on who we want to be rather than the way we were. At least that’s how I felt about it for many years.
     Attending a Catholic school wasn’t my idea. In September 1960, most of my friends were returning for ninth grade at one of New York’s better public junior highs. But I was off to spend four years “with my own kind,” as my parents put it. I’m still not sure what they meant, but it didn’t sound promising.
     As I soon learned, the Brothers of the Holy Cross put a heavy emphasis on faith, obedience, and orthodox piety. Gone were supportive teachers who nurtured my creative side. A beautiful closet socialist who used to sit on my desk, exposing me to political thought and encouraging my urge to write, was replaced by a freshman English teacher/football coach who opened his first class with the warning, “You're going to learn how to read, or you're going to learn how to bleed."  In the days of corporal punishment, it wasn't just a rhyme.
     Holy Cross upperclassmen had been in this thing together for years. Even most of the freshmen knew each other from attending parochial elementary schools around Queens County. I had no idea what it was about, and for a long time (until I found my crew) I felt like an outsider, a public school immigrant who didn’t know the score.
     Nevertheless, when a flyer arrived for the school reunion I was curious. Time had healed enough wounds, and it might be worth the seven-hour drive from Lake Champlain to Long Island to find out what had become of my high school compatriots.
     From the outside, Holy Cross looked the same – a grim stone building in a middle class neighborhood, decorated with an austere crucifix and the school’s name. Going inside early in the morning used to feel like entering a prison. 
     This time it was like time travel.

I arrived with Jack, my best friend from those days, wing man extraordinary, biting humorist, and primary co-conspirator in so many teenage adventures. Becoming a media educator on Long Island, he had handled labor relations for the teachers’ association and mentored students at the community radio station. It was hard to suppress a bit of envy, since he was on the verge of retiring from his full-time job.
     Inside, we linked up with Paul and John. Both had brought their wives.
Joan and Paul at the reunion
     Paul and Joan met while they were still in high school, and married once Joan finished nursing school. After playing in a rock band and a few years doing hair – his story about handling wigs for half-naked models was priceless – Paul settled into the insurance business. He’d put on a few pounds – truth be told, we all had – and yet was still the same slick dude, stylishly casual, a gold cross and an anchor (he enjoys sailing) hanging from his neck.
     During high school, a necklace played a role in one adventure that proved Paul was ready to go to the mat for our friendship. I had been meeting secretly with my girl friend – our parents disapproved of “going steady” – and we surreptitiously talked on the phone in the middle of the night.
     One night, my father burst in, Mom behind him holding the necklace she had discovered in my room. (Was nothing sacred?) The inscription told the tale: For my love. 
     “Who’s on the phone? Dad demanded as I hung up.
     “Paul,” I lied.
     “And what’s this?” Mom followed up, brandishing the evidence.
     “I'm holding it for him” was all I could muster. They immediately called his house.
     Awakened by his parents, Paul backed me up the best he could while half asleep. Our parents knew it was baloney, but there was no way to break us. We’d all seen The Great Escape, and understood what it meant to be part of the team.

“Joan’s still waiting for her necklace,” Paul joked 42 years later.
     We were strolling down the hall to our old in-school getaway, a tiny room from which our group had run the school’s public address system. For us – and our captive student audience – it was WHCH, a “radio” station that we used to offer news, the latest music, and the occasional crazy skit.  “Ah, the ‘don’t bother me, I’m busy’ room,” Paul recalled.
     Although the members of my group had varied interests in high school, we often joined the same clubs; athletics, forensics (various forms of public speaking), the Spanish Club, school paper, Great Books Club, and more.
     John and I also were part of the cheerleading squad (no girls attended Holy Cross, and someone had to orchestrate the cheering). Thinking back, we laughed about the trouble we sometimes had explaining why boys were cheerleaders. Still, he was surprised to learn why I actually joined – to irritate my over-protective parents, who worried that I might get injured doing flips or fall off the pyramid.
     Like Paul, John had become an insurance executive. His comfortable home on the New Jersey coast had cute nautical touches, and he was still the same straight-shooting, earnest guy. I dropped in several years ago, and our spirited political conversation went late into the night.
     Down in the gym, we grabbed a table and looked for faces we could recognize. Sometimes it wasn’t easy. But I had no trouble picking out Artie, the person who had served as our year’s Mr. Wonderful. That’s the guy who is not only smart, but also has real athletic ability, and, to make matters worse, is an all-around nice human being. In this case, he had been class president and vice president over three years, excelled at football and academics, served on the student council, and edited our yearbook.
Artie remembered the show
     Artie was in management with New York’s Group Health, Inc., remained a strong presence, and attended as many reunions as he could.
     “I often wondered what happened to you,” he said, smiling. “Remember WHCH? I loved hearing you guys.”
     Jack and I were surprised that anyone was actually listening.
      Later, I asked Artie how he felt about being that special figure in our class, or whether he was even aware of the role he had played.
     Artie nodded and explained “I guess more people remember my name,” he said. “That’s why I try to keep in touch, bring people back. Every time we see a few new people. I feel it’s kind of a responsibility.” He also hadn’t changed.

Before dinner arrived, Jim joined us. Now the reunion was complete. Although Jim wasn’t “officially” part of GBS – he couldn’t be bothered with our absurd initiation rites – we were debate team partners for most of high school, spending countless hours developing arguments and taking on opponents from other schools. You had to be ready to take either side, but we specialized in “going negative.”
     I found the skills I developed more useful than most of my classes. Jim agreed. Chief of the children’s ward at a New York psychiatric hospital, he noted that understanding and responding to arguments was a major help in his work as a mental health manager. Our salutatorian (second in the class), he remained sharp, serious, and sensitive.
     For the next few hours, we reminisced and shared bits of our stories (all of us had children and most had been through at least one divorce). About the only topic that didn’t get covered was religion. When former Catholic school kids gather, it may be one of the only social taboos left.
     At one point, I considered walking up to my freshman English teacher, the one who connected reading with bleeding, and reminding him that I hadn’t plagiarized that book report on Howard Fast’s Spartacus. For some reason, I just identified with the story of a slave revolt. He was there as a special guest and finally looked approachable. But I let it pass. He wasn’t likely to remember and it no longer made a difference.
     Anyway, there were more helpful teachers. Although many were young, a few downright incompetent or even sadistic, and most Holy Cross brothers with limited experience and marginal social skills, some could make learning relevant.
Jack: Brainy BFF
     Jack and I agree that our junior year English teacher was perhaps the best. He had a knack for getting us excited about literature and ideas. My exposure to major intellectual currents through writing papers for him about Jack London, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, the early 20th century muckrakers, and the luminaries of the “lost generation” truly set the context for my career as a journalist, editor, and teller of stories with some social relevance.
     That one class made the travails of my high school years worth enduring. 

As the party broke up, Jack, Paul and I extended our reunion with drinks at a nearby bar. We talked about Madeline, the object of all our desires, and other young women we had dated. Although no one got much sex in those days, we agreed that they were among our most romantic and exciting. It was all about anticipation, the mystery of what might happen next – the process of being young and horny.
     But that was then, when we were Holy Cross knights and the “sap was running” – as our principal would put it. We had phony IDs, raging hormones, and more attitude than we could handle. Now we had business cards, responsibilities, and great memories that hadn’t faded with time.  All things considered a worthwhile trip. 

Four Knights: Greg, Jack, Paul and John
Originally appeared in Vermont Guardian, 2005
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