I had an unfashionably good experience at Catholic schools in Minnesota from 1974 to 1985. Contrary to popular myth, not a single nun who taught me was ugly or mean. I got solid academic instruction, but was also encouraged to look within and to live with deliberation.
Still, we were teenagers who engaged in all the classic forms of teenage pettiness, so I dreaded my twentieth high-school reunion, afraid my classmates and I would all resume our old roles-jocks clinging to former glory, the few jerks being mean again. I worried that my peers wouldn’t think I was “good” enough (hadn’t discovered a cure for cancer or won a Nobel Peace Prize). And I had wrinkles.
I surprised myself by enjoying the first reunion event, the “Meet Your Former Teachers” reception. The brilliantly articulate nun who taught me eighth-grade grammar stood modestly at the back of the room. She was celebrating her fiftieth anniversary as a nun but did not look a day older than she did twenty years ago. She had worked hard all those years and been paid next to nothing, and still radiated optimism. Another nun had been a marathoner. I had been startled one day to see her running through town, her impressive biceps flexing. As a result, I had decided to take up distance running. The sisters I knew modeled womanhood as mental and physical strength, authenticity, and self-respect. They were not defined by sex, but by selfhood. They were voracious readers who believed in love and justice.
The reunion banquet had topped my list of anxieties, but it turned out I bonded easily and remembered almost everyone’s name. No one was boastful. No one put me on the spot. Instead, two of my classmates inspired me.
The class fashion trendsetter revealed to me that her former husband had abused her for twelve agonizing years. When the danger escalated, she escaped with her three boys. She has since started over, selling flooring for a lumber company. How did that delicate, petite girl in the perfectly tailored skirts and high-heeled boots survive years of beatings and emerge with smiling confidence to command the respect of a warehouse full of men?
I talked for a long time with the guy I used to sit beside in National Honor Society meetings. We had been friendly competitors. In college, he was attacked on the streets of Boston after escorting two women friends to a subway station. His head was bludgeoned from behind and afterward he had no memory of what had happened. No one was ever prosecuted for the attack. He spent three months in a coma, suffered brain damage, couldn’t swallow, and lost half of his body weight. Over the years he worked tenaciously to rebuild his body and mind. I would have been consumed with bitterness. He wasn’t.
“I know that I used to be ‘too cool to move,’ and with good reason,” he joked, speaking slowly but clearly. “I never would have given the time of day to someone who talks the way I do now. So why should anyone else? Ironic, isn’t it?” He said that he often stays in his apartment now, he’s so embarrassed by his speech impairment.
“But you sound like the same person to me,” I said, “except maybe now you’re a little less annoying.” We laughed. I’d forgotten how much fun we used to have harassing each other. As we talked, I was back in high school, sitting in a desk next to this bright, athletic, droll young man who was more naturally gifted than I and succeeded with less effort. No criminal act could destroy the essence of his identity-his contemplative, self-ironic, courageous spirit.
The highlight of the weekend was the mini-reunion with my high-school girlfriends. Each of these women had contributed to my development. During those self-critical years, they had served as my personal cheering squad. At track meets and in life, they had urged me to move forward, to realize my potential, to win. They expected that I would.
There was a wholesomeness to our high-school days that seems unusual now. Drug use was not cool, and those of us who were nondrinkers and celibate had peers who made the same choices. We had sports, the school newspaper, music groups, and community-service projects. We hung out together, had movie nights, ate too much pizza, and spent most of our time laughing.
I am grateful for such an education, for the teachers and friends who made me a better person. The reunion brought all that back.