Facebook vs. Face to Face: Why School Reunions Will Endure
A perspective from one writer's 40th
Mark Silva, the CEO of Great Unions, a reunion-planning company, noted a decline this year in attendance at 10-year high school and college reunions across the country. "There are a lot of people who say Facebook is good enough and they don't want to get together," he told NPR. Mindy Crouchley, 28, is one of them. "Anyone I've been remotely interested in keeping tabs on I have through this medium," she explained in her blog. "There's nothing a reunion could give me that flipping through my high school yearbook doesn't already provide."
I am a huge fan of Facebook. But having just attended my 40th high school reunion, I can say to Mindy and others from the "good enough" crowd that Facebook is a poor substitute for the perspective-enhancing experiences you get at a reunion face to face and across a crowded room. They include: the sound of a once-familiar voice calling out to you; the pleasure that comes with recognizing an old crush or teammate after only a moment's hesitation; character in context; and revelations far too intimate to be shared en masse or on a screen.
It's true, when you're young, that reunions tend to be an arena for networking and one-upmanship. (I remember the pressure I felt to posture at my own.) I can also understand why so many alumni are reluctant to pay to spend time with people they never really liked -- people they would never even think of "friending." But, by your 40th reunion, you realize that there's a therapeutic value in hanging out with the people who may have belittled or intimidated you in high school. You see their bad behavior for what it was: a manifestation of their own self-loathing, or a projection of your own worst fears -- and that realization can be liberating.
Facebook is to a reunion what Mindy's yearbook is to a novel: the level of detail and nuance you get on Facebook can't rival the intricacy of plot and character development you find face to face. For instance, a classmate who had become a sculptor told me about a trip he had taken to see his dying mentor: it taught him the importance of telling people what they mean to you when they -- and you -- are still alive. A former teammate recalled a no-hitter I had pitched in ninth grade. What struck me most was when he said, "I'll always remember the smile on your dad's face when you got the last batter out." That detail had not been part of my memory of the game. Now it is.
Probably the most touching story came from a classmate I had barely known in high school. He and his wife were scheduled to fly to Barcelona the next day for the fifth time in five years. Because of a chronic health problem, they had had to cancel their previous four trips I prayed that they would make it this time, and found their Sisyphean hope in the face of adversity inspiring. Had I stayed home and been content to connect with those few classmates who were my friends on Facebook, I never would have seen how the furious networking of our twenties turns into genuine tenderness as we age: All weekend I noticed how much we hugged each other, and how gently. The arm-hitting, back-slapping, high-five physicality of previous reunions was gone.
Of course nearly half of the 70 students in our class didn't make it -- they were either too busy or too ambivalent about their school years to attend. At the closing dinner, the guard on the football team expressed the sentiment lingering in the back of many of our minds. "Please raise your glass to the three members of the Class of 1971 who have died," he said. "I really miss those guys."
Five and ten years from now, at our next reunions, the list of those to whom we raise a glass will be longer. We may hear about their passing through Facebook. But face to face, in a community of classmates who are part of each other's lives and personal narratives, something deeper happens: you are forced to acknowledge the precious brevity of your life -- of life itself -- which moves you to feel grateful for your blessings and to make the most of what remains.
Click here to read the column Lee wrote before he went to his 40th high school reunion: "To Go or Not to Go: Is Your School Reunion Worth the Worry?"
Lee Kravitz is the author of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things (Bloomsbury)