Why I Go to My High School Reunions
Growing up at the height of the 1960s and 1970s, my classmates and I were keenly aware of the racial tensions that surrounded us, but the bonds we've formed have been lasting
The sun sets in a rainbow blaze atop the flatness of Long Island Sound. About 60 of my former high school classmates, black and white yearbook pictures slung around our necks, gathered to catch up on each other's lives.
One of the organizers, and nicest people I have ever met, walked in gingerly using a cane. Fellow classmates helped him make his way to a pergola with seating by the water. The gritty voice of Bruce Springsteen bellowed "Born to Run," bathing us in nostalgia.
My high school class of 1975 turned 66 this year, just two years shy of our 50th reunion. In this post-pandemic world, we had already begun to lose those we thought would always be with us. So, when a wealthy classmate made good on a pre-pandemic promise to have a gathering at his Oyster Bay home, we took him up on it.
We rode our bikes on the neighborhood streets, played flashlight tag on our darkening front lawns and reluctantly went home for dinner at dusk, after our commuter fathers returned from "The City."
Growing up in Westbury, Long Island, at the height of the 1960s and 1970s, my classmates and I were keenly aware of the racial tensions that surrounded us. Our town was an early adopter of integration and did so by busing kids to neighborhoods that before were mostly single race communities.
In 1967, the year my family moved to Westbury from New York City, we were bussed to a new school in a Black neighborhood and were thrust, at the ages of 9 to 11, right into the Civil Rights movement.
Our Diverse Neighborhood
Westbury offered city kids a freedom we never expected. Our new home was a split level, where my brother and I each had our own rooms, a den and a finished basement. We rode our bikes on the neighborhood streets, played flashlight tag on our darkening front lawns and reluctantly went home for dinner at dusk, after our commuter fathers returned from "The City." To us, it was paradise.
Many of the new Black families that moved in were headed by doctors, lawyers and other professionals creating a diverse school system which at the time was one of the few white areas that sold homes to Black people.
But our suburban paradise had an underbelly which I saw for the first time in a fourth-grade classroom at the Park Avenue School. A man I'd never heard of named Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on a balcony at a motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968.
By the time we reached high school, white flight had begun, and those of us who remained were left to figure out where we fit.
There had been fighting among Black and white students in the middle and high school a couple of days before and the high school was still closed. We were lined up quickly, the fear of those who guided us out was palpable. A classmate recalled one teacher said to another, "We have to get these white kids out of here." The riots never came.
The Ties That Bind
Thrust into a new school situation, friendships between races developed slowly and early on were mostly school based. By the time we reached high school, white flight had begun, and those of us who remained were left to figure out where we fit. Our reading addressed many different races and backgrounds, and I remember discussing the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley and "The Diary of Anne Frank" with great enthusiasm.
Our music taste included rock and roll as well as soul and funk which blared from loudspeakers in the school cafeteria and on the PA system. Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Kool & the Gang were favorites. Yet the world was what it was. Tales were told about kids who hung out with Black Panthers.
Arguments between Black and white students weren't usually about color but about what kids fight about – someone taking another's boyfriend, perceived slights and more.
The outside world might be tearing itself apart over race, but we were not going to let it do the same in our school.
It seemed that while the outside world might be tearing itself apart over race, we were not going to let it do the same in our school. When there was a problem the news media descended, and we would sit on the lawn together ignoring them until they left.
Sports helped build lasting friendships between us. Our basketball coach Ed Krinsky sent many players to colleges that led to the NBA including Dennis Duval who played for the Washington Bullets and Joe Dupre who played for the NY Nets in the 1970s. By the time I got to high school our team was mostly Black and we dubbed the one white student who was good and often played center forward, "The Great White Hope."
There was some interracial dating, but most of it was kept quiet. At one of my high school reunions, a Black friend reminded me about a date we went on in eighth grade with two middle school basketball players. She told me, "You were kissing goodnight while we waited in the car with my mom. My date whispered to me 'I want some of that.'"
After we graduated, the well-attended reunions began. A big group of us showed up at the first one, which was the 10-year mark. Some of us had moved to New York City, others still lived on Long Island, some had married, others had rolls of baby pictures. But mostly, it just felt great to see everyone.
We watched the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and posted things about it, but mostly avoided incendiary discussions. We all still needed each other.
At early reunions we still clustered around the people we knew best, who were often of the same race. At one, I was sitting at an all-white table, and one of the former basketball players said, "Look at us, we are still segregated." So, we all got up and moved to different tables.
I skipped some reunions, but I did go to the 30th and 40th, the last one we had before the pandemic. There is a photo of a Black friend and I arm in arm on a couch chatting happily with each other. She passed away not long after. We became the poster children for the reunion in Oyster Bay.
Facebook also helped cement our bonds. Class pages popped up before reunions, and many of us migrated onto each others' spaces and stayed there. A good number of our Black classmates had put down roots in Atlanta, where New York transplants could prosper more easily than in other parts of the South. "Westbury in Atlanta" became an annual barbecue and get-together.
When Donald Trump became president, I had a lot of new friend requests from people on Facebook who went to Westbury High School. I did not know them at first, but we thought alike and supported each other as best we could. We watched the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and posted things about it, but mostly avoided incendiary discussions. We all still needed each other.
About a week after the Oyster Bay reunion, a message came that our friend who was sick at the reunion had died of cancer. His passing was a great loss, but what a wonderful moment he chose to say good-bye.