Is the High School Reunion Dead?

When you’re twenty-seven and living with your parents, it seems a little too soon to exchange achievements

Greyscale yearbook photos overlaid with colourful “Hello My Name Is” stickers covering each person's face with names “Nice House,” “Happy Family,” “Active Lifestyle,” and “Successful Career.”
Celina Gallardo / iStock

It’s summertime in Cape Breton, and I’m standing in a dimly lit banquet hall. A DJ is set up in a corner, and pop songs from the 2010s play out of the speakers. Groups of people dressed in semi-formal attire mill about, mingling and laughing and catching up. It’s the ten-year reunion of Riverview High School’s graduating class of 2013.

A classmate I haven’t spoken to in a decade sidles up to me and says, “What have you been up to lately? ” It’s not that I am ashamed of what I’ve been up to since graduation. I’ve been working, travelling, living—all that good stuff. But, really, is it anyone’s business? The past is so difficult to wrangle. I try to conjure up a few sentences to capture the failures and triumphs of my young adulthood, package them, and give them away to a now stranger.

Well, that’s how I imagine it would happen anyway.

I’m not actually going.

I wish I had a bulletproof excuse to miss my high school reunion. I wish I were jetting off to Italy to explore some coastal village or heading on an ocean-exploration vessel with marine biologists. I’m not. Such a reason has yet to materialize. And as I stare down the impending reunion, struggling to pinpoint why exactly I don’t want to go, I realize it’s because I’m afraid. The debate plays out in my head like a schoolyard game of tug-of-war. Would I flatten myself to fit a mould forged a decade ago? Or could I really show up as exactly myself?

I don’t get the appeal. To me, class reunions are like first dates or job interviews—painful occasions where you’re expected to recount the story of your life. Homecomings like these, cropping up for just one fleeting evening every decade or so, are rare opportunities to investigate our own nature. We uncover our identities. We look back while standing firmly in the present.

But what happens when you don’t feel like peering into that portal to the past?

I don’t blame some of us for wanting to skip the whole spectacle. Where is the allure? On social media, we get a play-by-play of everything our peers are going through. We watch as milestone achievements pop up on our feeds: the new houses, the dream jobs, the weddings, the honeymoons, and, of course, the babies. Meanwhile, colossal worries hover over us as the millennial generation faces unprecedented debt levels, historic barriers to homeownership, and pandemic-related job insecurity.

And while the ritual lacks a certain charm for some, there’s still a human urge to see where our contemporaries ended up. About one-third of American alumni attend their ten-year reunions—typically those who were popular in high school, participated in extracurricular activities, or retained friendships. Others go to reunions because they have met perceived standards of success, like scoring a good job or having a spouse. (Ouch.) When you’re twenty-seven, and perhaps living with your parents a mere five minutes’ drive from your old high school, it seems a little too soon to get together and exchange achievements.

Humans can’t help but compare themselves to others. That’s how we come to know ourselves: our abilities, opinions, and personalities. In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger theorized that social comparison is the only way to evaluate and judge our opinions and abilities accurately. Self-evaluation is a basic human desire, and we need others around to do it right.

And what better place to do it than at a reunion with peers who are kind of like you? Same age, same hometown, same high school education. The tradition started in the early 1800s: graduates of Princeton University returned to campus every September to visit professors and connect with former classmates. It was an opportunity to network and see how their peers were making it in the world. Alumni dined and drank, and eventually, the reunions centred around an annual baseball game against Yale. Over time, the tradition spread to high schools; in the US, up to 250,000 high school reunions are held each year.

Sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi argues that people who go to reunions are looking for a community in which to anchor their identities. They want to grapple with who they once were and who they are now. They seek consistency between past and present. “They are looking for themselves,” Vinitzky-Seroussi writes in her 1998 book After Pomp and Circumstance: High School Reunion as an Autobiographical Occasion.

With this in mind, I relate to the titular characters in the 1997 film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. When they hear about their upcoming ten-year reunion, the two carefree, fabulously dressed party girls take stock of their lives and find they haven’t accomplished everything they set out to do. So they lie. They reinvent themselves as successful businesswomen. They pull up to their reunion in a flashy (but borrowed) Jaguar and tell classmates they invented the Post-it Note. When their fabrications get called out, they do the bravest thing of all: be themselves.

When I first got the invite to the weekend this July, I thought, Oh jeez, I certainly won’t be going to that. But why was that my instinct? I had to investigate the unpleasant prospect of revisiting the past under the watchful eye of people I once knew. I took to Facebook and asked people about their ten-year reunions. Some replies: “You couldn’t pay me to go.” “I would rather poke my eye out with a stick.” “I don’t think mine even had one.” “I never got invited to one.” “Are those still a thing?” “I’ve only ever seen them in TV/movies.” “Those people give me anxiety.”

I asked my friends and family what they thought. My older cousin was so nervous at hers that she accidentally got drunk and rambled on to former classmates. My dad didn’t want to go because of the buttoned-up group that organized the party. “They were straitlaced and weird,” he told me. He didn’t hang out with them in high school, so why would he under those circumstances? My friends don’t want to go either—they’ve kept in touch with classmates they want to see. One friend didn’t want to have to explain what she does for a living. (She has a relatively normal desk job, by the way.)

Sure, I can blame my unwillingness to go on social media oversharers or pin it on broader societal issues plaguing people my age. But, really, who wants to come face to face with former classmates as they parade around as doctors, open their own businesses, or have another child? As a freelance writer currently living with my parents, I chose a different path, one that doesn’t neatly track alongside my peers in the conventional achievements department.

And there’s the question of who you were then and who you are now. People are multifaceted, complicated, and flawed. I’m sure some classmates would say I was a bitch in high school. I could see that; I had a tight-knit group of friends since I was in junior high. We played sports and went to parties in the woods on weekends. I was also an anxious teen who didn’t tend to socialize outside of my friends’ group.

These archetypes established in high school are often lifelong afflictions. Even in adulthood, they’re used to make sense of people. Just think of how media reports on suspected killers tend to include a section digging up who they “were” in high school. (From a New York Times piece about the suspect in the University of Idaho murders earlier this year: “‘Mr. Kohberger had been heavier when he was in high school and was bullied over his weight,’ said a former classmate.”) I guess tapping into these well-worn tropes is supposed to clue people into some unspoken thing, to spark recognition. It’s The Breakfast Club in action. Were you the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, or the criminal? The budding “self” formed in adolescence haunts us in the present.

At reunions, people want to know whether you’re still a bitch. Are you still a loser? Did you make anything out of your life? Did patterns formed in frenzied high school hallways continue into adulthood? Though our reputations may follow us, the reality is we’ve all changed since then. But entering a reunion is like hopping into a time capsule—you’re expected to act like you once did. Maybe you’ll reprise a persona that feels lightyears away. Kudos to those brave souls who reunite and face their past selves. It’s a reckoning.

Yet I’ve heard that engaging in the age-old ritual often feels unsatisfactory. Expectations fall short in the banquet hall or rented restaurant or dingy cafeteria. There’s pressure to show up authentically. But we may find that we’re not where we thought we were, or maybe we over-inflated our standing compared to that of our peers. Through this process, our little worlds are shattered. We let people witness us in a vulnerable moment. Why give them the chance?

It turns out I didn’t have to worry about going to my reunion after all. While I was bothering friends and family about the tradition of class reunions, classmates were quietly staging their own rejection. Tickets were on sale for two months: $90 for a three-course dinner at a local banquet hall. (“Dress to impress!” the invitation read.) There was very little interest in that. Only three people in my graduating class bought tickets, and the organizers were forced to begrudgingly cancel the event. There were a few heated Facebook comments in the 2013 grad group and lots of blame thrown around about the $1,000 non-refundable deposit used to book the venue.

With the official event cancelled, one classmate suggested we do what we did back then: party in someone’s parents’ backyard. (Her post got twenty-six likes—much more engagement than the few posts about organizing the official event.) There was some tugging desire to get together under certain conditions—not by masquerading as established adults in a stodgy banquet hall. If we’re going to pretend at all, let’s slip back into the reverie of teenhood: carefree and young and blissfully unaware.

Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer is a journalist and fact checker based in Nova Scotia. She’s written for the CBC, Canadian Business, Longreads, and more.