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March 16, 2011

Are high school reunions going extinct?

Voices: Showcasing different voices from the community.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/are_high_school_reunions_going_extinct_20110316

Old friends: The five of us were friends since Balboa Elementary School. Above, from left: Aaron Schulman, Jennifer Simpson, Tamara Schweitzer Raben, Carolyn Lertzman, Jordan Levine) Inset: Raben’s 2000 high school graduation photo.

Old friends: The five of us were friends since Balboa Elementary School. Above, from left: Aaron Schulman, Jennifer Simpson, Tamara Schweitzer Raben, Carolyn Lertzman, Jordan Levine) Inset: Raben’s 2000 high school graduation photo.

I was part of the infamous Class of 2000, the class that everyone has been watching since the time we entered kindergarten in 1987. Back then, it seemed almost impossible to imagine what the world would look like in 2000, but everyone was certain that the turn of the millennium would be momentous, and our class would be front and center as we graduated high school and headed out into the world. Well, the year 2000 has come and gone — anticlimactically — and over Thanksgiving weekend, I attended my 10-year high school reunion for Cleveland High School, a public school in Reseda.

For all the pomp and circumstance that was expected of the Class of 2000, only 50 of our classmates — out of a graduating class of close to 500 — turned out for the reunion, which I’d helped organize. I’m not one to measure the success of an event by the number of attendees (I happen to think it was a great night), but the general lack of interest from our class got me thinking about the significance of high school reunions in our hyperconnected era, and whether the prominence of social networking sites like Facebook would herald the death of this American tradition.

I always felt pretty certain that I would be at my high school reunion, and as 2010 approached, I started looking forward to it. My expectations were admittedly high. I knew it wasn’t going to be anything like “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” Nor would it be like the formal affairs our parents attended at fancy hotel ballrooms. Still, I was eager to see how much those notions had changed and if the reunion still held meaning as a kind of rite of passage in American culture — a rite I wanted to experience for myself. After all, we graduated on the cusp of the Internet explosion, and technological advancements have redefined how we interact with one another.

There is no doubt Facebook, founded in 2004, has changed the role of high school reunions. Facebook affords us the opportunity to avoid awkward small talk and skip straight to satisfying our curiosity about how an acquaintance from high school turned out. Those now graduating high school won’t ever lose touch with one another entirely. They’re a click and an update away. So, it begs the question: What’s the point of reunions nowadays?

After going to my own high school reunion and talking to friends about theirs, I have come to the conclusion that there is still value in the ritual. While I’m as guilty as the next person of looking through hundreds of photos of a friend of a friend’s wedding on Facebook, I mostly use it to interact with close friends. The rest of my 300 or so “friends,” I rarely connect with. Sure, there’s that quick thrill of looking at an old classmate’s profile and catching yourself up. Occasionally there’s a short exchange acknowledging how nice it is to reconnect, but it never goes beyond that. Facebook interactions tend to be cursory. So despite knowing who got married, who had a baby and who moved where, Facebook didn’t take away the intrigue of seeing my classmates in person after all that time.

There was still a good deal of excitement in catching up and reminiscing with my teammates from swim team face to face, or chatting with someone who now lives near me in New York. There were some genuine, in-depth conversations that took place, and meaningful connections were definitely formed. Did Facebook take away some of the curiosity that used to make high school reunions so compelling? Absolutely. But I’m OK with reunions becoming more low-key. There was something nice about not putting on a big dramatic production, and just gathering for drinks and food with some old friends at a Mexican restaurant.

I actually think there are many ways that Facebook is contributing to the continuation of high school reunions. We used the site to do all our outreach, which eliminated the need to hire a service that tracks down people’s home addresses. We were able to quickly communicate with classmates and deliver information about the reunion by creating an invitation directly on the site, updating it in real time. Another element that enhanced the experience was forming a community around a group page for our graduating class where people have reconnected, commented and reminisced, and will do so long after the 10-year reunion has passed. And, I’d like to think that no matter how connected we are online, there will still be a Cleveland High School reunion in 2020. 

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