It was 40 years ago last June, a warm Tuesday evening on the 12th, that we lined up in our green caps and gowns outside the front entrance to the high school. Laughing at each other’s jokes, we waited for the signal to march inside for commencement. The grass was freshly mowed, a light breeze stirred the air, a few puffy clouds dotted the horizon. And inside, a gymnasium full of parents, friends and family politely fanned themselves, awaiting our entrance.
We’d done it. It was 1973, and we were the cocks of the walk: the graduating seniors. We imagined ourselves experienced.
Last night, I looked out on a 40th reunion, and I saw what experience really looks like. We were no longer virgin canvas; our faces had been transformed by the process of living into complex statements of character. Every face there was utterly beautiful. We had become walking stories. I wanted to hear them all! Yet at the same time, every face carried a precious piece of the “once upon a time” that was Nelson County in the early seventies.
I have recently found myself wishing that I could go back and eliminate the wasted opportunities, that I could somehow know every single classmate as a close friend. But you remember high school: the cliques, the shyness, the peer pressure, and of course, the still fresh divisions of black and white in the ’70s.
Now, all those actors’ masks that once seemed so necessary and so compelling – we simply toss them aside.
And so, last night. . . forty years out. . . we show up. We present ourselves to each other with that stumbling fearlessness that only comes with age. We arrive with our faded dreams, our crowned glories, our pictures of grandchildren, our memories of departed classmates, our successes and failures. . . and this is what forty years written over eighteen-year-old faces looks like. Rembrandt was never so sublime.
Last night we looked at each other, and we glimpsed something that we somehow always knew: we are all one human being – written over and over again by an author who delights in the variation assigned to us as individuals. It is for us only to recognize ourselves in each other. And celebrate.
We are the celebration of that creation, of an era that has found itself at last. A more rural, less worldly moment in county history than today. A time fraught with its own uncertainty: the winding down of the Vietnam war, the rise of counter-culture, the essential progress of civil rights, and above all an eternal dilemma: whether to accept our parents’ views on society, or to strike out along new paths and to forge new visions of the world.
If there had been an open mic last night, I am not sure I could have made it through this. But I want to say that I consider you ALL my closest friends whether you were there or not, or whether I am ever able to tell you in person.
Until next time. Be well.