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A Half Century of Lessons

Everyone is a different genome against which life throws stuff, painful and pleasant. With some of my best friends from school dead at early ages and now contemporaries dying at an accelerating rate, I'm pleased that I'm still here to contemplate the vivid colors of life in a high-school reunion book.
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My class at what was then an all-boys boarding school will have its 50th reunion next May and two of my classmates, one a retired CIA and paramilitary officer (and early worshipper of James Bond!), the other an Albany lawyer, and I are working on the reunion book. Most of it will be biographical sketches and frightening then-and-now photos.

To prepare for the chore, I looked at the Class of 1965 reunion book and found it more interesting than I had expected. It offered lessons in how to go or not go with life's flow.

Plenty in the class seemed to have followed false gods, at least for a while: They ended up in careers that their families, their elders and the "Establishment'' thought that they should enter and then inertia took over. Some then bravely made the switch to where their hearts were before it was too late to have careers there. Some waited for retirement to do so but by then they had lost their health and so their ability to focus on pursuing much-delayed dreams.

Still, a surprisingly large number had worked in fields you wouldn't expect them to enter. Some arty (but probably financially anxious) types went to Greater Wall Street and some guys who you'd think were headed for bank jobs ended up in Bohemia instead. Some served in the Vietnam War. Some claimed to have been at Woodstock. And some, of course, are dead.

Something of a surprise was how sensitive and indeed raw some were willing to show themselves. At our school, hiding emotion -- or, indeed, any sign of weakness -- and wrapping painful moments in cynical asides was de rigueur. But now, with money and careers having been made or not made, marriages made or unmade, children's successes or failures, health or illness, there seemed to be a general agreement to open up, especially with the reminders of "time's winged chariot'' from classmates' deaths.

Well, not entirely. I noticed a disinclination of some to talk about divorces. They gave it away by using the first-person singular in writing about their children: "My children instead of our children.'' (Of course, a few are widowers.) So far as sexuality goes, one could only guess that if there were no references to spouses that they were probably gay. Virtually no one openly referenced homosexuality in our school. It was too fraught a topic in our little, closed-in world half a century ago.

Reunion books of younger alumni/ae are probably more honest.

There's a wide range of 20th Century experiences in the Class of 1965. The cover of the reunion book is a reproduction of a lovely and slightly melancholic autumn painting of the school by a classmate and distinguished artist who died of pancreatic cancer. Other alumni include a film director/producer, professors, a former sawmill operator, lawyers, engineers, management consultants, an oceanographer, a spiritual-retreat founder, writers and someone who sells flooring in a Lowe's in South Carolina. A surprisingly large number have lived abroad.

Some readers may remember a 1995 movie called Mr. Holland's Opus, about a high-school music teacher whose family and work duties prevented him for years from finishing the composition of a great orchestral work. In the end, his work is performed by a gathering of many of his former students.

But his real opus, of course, is the students he has guided over the years. Life's rocky and swampy terrain provides many definitions of success and failure. I find myself still occasionally regretting my innumerable failures to achieve what my elders and contemporaries said I should strive for, especially given a head start as an upper-middle-class (but downwardly mobile) American male in the last half of the 20th Century and on the frayed edge of what used to be called the "East Coast Establishment.''

But everyone is a different genome against which life throws stuff, painful and pleasant. With some of my best friends from school dead at early ages and now contemporaries dying at an accelerating rate, I'm pleased that I'm still here to contemplate the vivid colors of life in a high-school reunion book.


Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based editor and writer, partner in Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a health-sector consultancy, overseer of newenglanddiary.com and a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. He is also a former Providence Journal editorial-page editor, former International Herald Tribune finance editor and a former Wall Street Journal editor.