Posts Tagged ‘school’

If you are interested in how people age, a school reunion is ideal for observations – especially if several decades have passed since graduation. The types are quite distinctive, although since my own recent reunion, I am still puzzling over what the physical changes indicate. However, I am starting to believe that George Orwell was correct when he wrote in his journal that, after forty, everyone has the face they deserve.

In my experience, people tend to age in one of two ways: either they continue to look much the same as ever, or there is a drastic change in them. Very few are anywhere in the middle, and those who are likely to have had major upheavals in their lives. Their bodies, for example, may be similar to what they were when they were young, but a stiffness in their walk may indicate knee replacements, or deep-set lines in their faces a prolonged illness or trauma.

Those who continue to look much the same are often those who take exercise and diet seriously. These people are rather strained – threadbare around the edges is the phrase that comes to mind – but usually move well and seem lightly brushed with age, either mentally or physically.

More often, those who look much the same are heavier set than when they were young, but are still recognizable. They may be bald, or have a limp, but you can easily subtract such incidental changes to see their younger selves beneath, and, once you do, they remain unmistakable. Some of them seemed to have grown into their bodies, so that what what seemed like too large a nose now seems to suit them. If they were clumsy, they have developed, if not a grace, but an appropriateness in their movements. Somehow, they have learned to accept themselves.

In contrast, others look so different that you would never recognize them without a name tag. Often, they have gained considerable weight, as people tend to do as they age because few of us realize that our eating and exercise habits need to change as we age. However, those who greatly changed also tend to be more careless in the way they dress. It is not that they are eccentric so much as they no longer worry about the image they present to the world. To my eye, they seem tired and often colorless

Very occasionally, you do find someone who has changed for the better, but, after several decades, they are the rarest type of all. Often, they have overhauled their lives because of a premature heart attack or some other crisis, becoming slim where they were once chunky, and outgoing where they were shy To be honest, this type often disconcerts me, because I feel that I have never known them at all.

These categories are fairly complete in my experience. However, what I am less certain about is what to make of them. I tend to think that those who look basically the same have been true to their natures, while those who have greatly changed have given up on life, and are preparing to follow the chalk marks on the floor for the rest of their lives.

However, this may be my own prejudice. In theory, those who have greatly changed may have matured, and now please themselves instead of doing what every one expects. Yet judging from their conversation, which is all about retirement and their empty nests, that doesn’t seem to be so. Perhaps Orwell was more accurate than I first imagined.

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Coming back from the pool the other evening, I saw a neighbor dressed in a suit, pacing by his car. He was going to his son’s high school graduation, and worrying that his family was going to be late. I hadn’t thought of my own graduation in years, but before I had reached my front door, the memories drifted back.

For me, graduation came about two years too late. My last two years were memorable largely for Creative Writing, Literature, cross-country and track, and a boredom that I increasingly hid under a diffident politeness while I waited for school to be over. I was given a grudging respect for my running championships, so none of my classmates ever bothered me, but I had developed a reputation as a loner, and was mostly content to keep things that way.

Moreover, for the last six weeks of the year, I had convinced all my teachers except one that my time would best be spent preparing for the provincial exams, in which I was expected to do the school proud. So far as I was concerned, I had already made my mental good-byes.

Still, the ceremony meant something to my parents, so I dutifully climbed into my suit. The summer weather had hit early, and almost immediately I was sweating.

My diffidence had found a new gear, so I remember little of the ceremony. I remember looking from the stage over the gym, where more mothers and fathers and siblings had been crammed into the bleachers and the folding chairs on the floor than I would have imagined. I remember sweating under the lights, and being more bored than I had been in Grade 12 French, which for some months previous had been my standard for measuring boredom against.

Dimly, a small corner of me was scorning the platitudes that speaker after speaker offered to the graduating class. Did these people even remember what being a young adult was like? I wondered. Most of them seemed to have no idea that the advice they offered would have been out of place in an idealized 1953.

I no longer remember the name of the guest speaker. But I do remember that he was an architect of some small local fame, and that he took ninety minutes to develop some analogy between growing up and building a house that I stopped trying to follow after ten minutes.

All I remember of his speech is that, seventy minutes in, a fat old man stood up, pulled on his suspenders with his thumbs and said something like, “If you’re such a great architect, could you build a gym that would house all of us here tonight without half of us collapsing from the heat?”

He was cheered, but the guest speaker gave only a sentence or two in reply before returning to his topic.

Finally, the boredom was over, and the graduates duly marched across the stage. There would be another ceremony in September, after the provincial exam results were released, in which those of us who won scholarships would be officially presented with them, so this exercise was token. We shuffled forward to receive blank sheets of rolled paper, then descended the stairs to the stage and rushed into the hallway to open the back doors, tearing off our jackets and taking turns at the drinking fountain.

Then, suddenly, boys and girls I had known for years – some since I was six – were shaking each others’ hands, and saying things like, “Good to have known you.” They sounded like they were trying to voice the sentiments they had put into year books.

Still stupefied by boredom and heat, I couldn’t understand what they were doing. Most of us would be living in our parents’ houses for the next few years – we lived in a privileged municipality, where the university attendance rate was well over 90%. We would still be neighbors. We could still see each other, if we liked. In most cases, I didn’t like, but we would still probably encounter each other regardless.

I felt like everyone was mouthing the sentiments they thought the occasion demanded, not anything they really felt or believed. After a few minutes of such glad-handing, I escaped upstairs to join my family, anticipating getting home and changing into shorts and a T-shirt.

However, as things turned out, the farewells were warranted. That was the last time I was together with my graduating class until seven years ago when I went to my first reunion (who knows why). Almost all my class was headed to the University of British Columbia, while I opted for the younger, then edgier Simon Fraser University on the other side of town, which reduced the chance encounters and what little socializing I might have done. By the time a handful started at Simon Fraser, I was ahead of them, and had even less in common with them than I had had in high school.

Since then, I haven’t looked back very often. All that really remains of my graduation is a sense of pity that, at this time of year, millions of young adults are enduring boredom for the sake of their families, while the families are enduring an equally acute boredom in the face of platitudes for the sake of the young adults. I hope that none of them have to endure guest speakers like the architect who graced my own graduation ceremony.

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