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CHICAGO — As Tara Hoffman gears up for her 20th high school reunion this summer, she’s looking forward less to memory lane than to shedding the snobby reputation that got her voted "most likely to marry the next Donald Trump."
Now a working mother of two with a 12-year marriage to her college sweetheart — who bears no resemblance to the ill-coifed hotelier — Ms. Hoffman is eager for her old classmates to see her in a new light.
"I need people to know that I’m not that awful, money-hungry [person] they probably thought I was," says Ms. Hoffman, 38, who works as a pharmaceutical sales rep in Orlando, Fla., and graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville. "It is redemptive in a way to go back and show that I’ve found happiness, that I’m a good mother, a good person, and that that wasn’t truly me."
On the surface, high school reunions are a chance to reminisce, reconnect, and discover who has been posting deceptively flattering photos on Facebook. But the collision of past and present is also a time of self-reflection, measuring who you are against what you wished for yourself and what you think your peers expected of you.
For some, reunions offer vindication. For others, they’re a dreaded reckoning. For many they really are just a chance to catch up. But what most everyone has in common is some level of anxiety, as the insecurities of the past get thrust into the present.
Eric Beam said he was struck at his 20th reunion last summer when a former classmate, by all accounts successful, sounded embarrassed when discussing her cubicle job.
"It was almost like she was apologetic that she wasn’t climbing the Himalayas as a National Geographic photographer," Mr. Beam said.
For Mr. Beam, in contrast, the reunion was a heartening retrospective of how far he has come: from being the nerdy kid with undiagnosed ADHD — the kid who talked without raising his hand and interrupted people midsentence — to his life now as a school administrator in San Diego with "a phenomenal wife and two wonderful kids."
He doesn’t understand why people feel the need to impress.
"There’s always going to be someone smarter, there’s always going to be someone with a nicer car," Mr. Beam said. "The people who aren’t happy are the ones who worry about that."
Even the most confident adults can regress in the face of reunions, said Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist based in Marin County, Calif. Emotional memories are very strong, she said, so when people are thrown back into a high school context they trigger the self-conscious emotions most common in adolescence: embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride.
When people avoid reunions because they’re disappointed in their lives, "it’s like staying home from school because you don’t want people to see your pimple," Ms. Lamia said.
But such fears are based on the expectation that others will judge you as harshly as you judge yourself, which usually they don’t, Ms. Lamia said. Those who do judge and gossip are the ones who have their own shame, she said.
Ms. Lamia said people who are anxious about attending their reunion should make it a point to go. Chances are, their concerns won’t be validated.
After avoiding her reunions for several decades, worried that she wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone or have anything to talk about, Leslie Hoffman Kirn was relieved last year when she went to an all-class reunion and had a great time.
"I think that took away any fears," said Ms. Hoffman Kirn, 47, who this summer is on the planning committee for her 30th reunion at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Mo.
Ms. Hoffman Kirn, an IT security analyst, said she was "your average girl, not real popular" in high school, and credits the connections she has made with old classmates on Facebook with drawing her out of her shell.
Going to a reunion tends to be a reassuring experience: People are generally surprised at how well they are remembered and how well they remember their classmates, said Glenn Reeder, professor of social psychology at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., who co-authored a 1986 survey of people invited back to their high school reunion, one of very few to study the topic.
The study found that by far the most important factor in the decision to attend a reunion was the memory people had of high school. Those who recalled having a great time, and the more popular kids, were more eager to go back. The less popular kids were less likely to attend, sometimes worrying that no one would remember them.
But that’s not always the case.
Jan-Michael Sacharko was valedictorian and captain of the math team at the all-boys Catholic high school he graduated from in Portland, Maine. He enjoyed high school and was well-liked, but decided not to go back for his 10-year reunion.
"I wonder if I’d have to defend what I do," said Mr. Sacharko, 33, a development director at a homeless advocacy group in Arlington, Va. "I think some people would expect me to be successful in terms of money, and I’m not, I’ll tell you that."
The pressure to live up to others’ expectations tends to subside as the decades progress.
Mr. Reeder’s study found that while younger age groups focused on what changes they saw in their classmates (who got fatter, who got richer), older returnees focused on continuities — the hair may be grayer, but the sense of humor remains the same.
Ms. Hoffman, seeking to shed her snobby reputation, said she’s hopeful enough time has passed that she’s not boxed in with her teenage persona. "I’ve put myself out there, and I’m comfortable with myself now," Ms. Hoffman said. "It would be great to be welcomed, but if they’re not gracious, I think I’m OK with that."
AS THE YEARS ROLL BY ...
Every reunion has a distinct personality, said Cyndi Clamp, president of the National Association of Reunion Managers, a trade group for professional reunion organizers. She describes how things change over the decades.
10th: This is the least well-attended and the most pretentious, with many people focused on how they look, what kind of car they drive, and what their date looks like. Because most people are in the same general place in life, many are measuring themselves against their classmates.
20th: With more perspective and life experiences under their belts, classmates care much less about superficial success and are more earnestly curious about how people are doing in their families and careers. The 20-year is the most well-attended and a time when people’s paths start to diversify.
30th: The 30th gets more interesting because people’s lives are all over the board with divorces, career changes, and kids of all ages. Classmates show greater confidence and fewer spouses and guests come along because people don’t feel that they need someone by their side.
40th: As retirement nears, people’s lives start to resemble each other’s once again. There’s less drinking and more talking, with conversations focusing on "remember when." People find value in being around others they knew when they were younger because it makes them feel younger.
50th: The golden reunion is the second-most well-attended. There’s a sense that this could be the last time you see these people. Plus, people go because they are able to attend. Like the 40th, nostalgia is strong.
Beyond 50th: These are much smaller reunions, and those who do attend are just really glad to be able to be there.
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