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After tonight, I will no longer be able to say “I have never gone to a high school reunion”.  I’m headed to my 25-year Mainland Regional High School reunion with what I am guessing are the usual mix of feelings.  Isn’t there a reason I haven’t seen these people in 25 years?  We didn’t get along all that well the first time around.  But maybe we really have all grown up and become better, more interesting, people.  What if I don’t recognize anyone – this was more than half my life ago?  What if no one recognizes me?  What if they DO remember me and what a jerk I was in high school? 

High school is a time when much that is good and bad about our identities is forged.  If you ever thought of yourself as a jock, Valley girl, or math geek you probably first thought it in high school – probably because someone else called you it.  Though, most of us have moved on from these identities to form longer lasting ones (e.g. mother, engineer, community activist) our high school identities hang around like a box of childhood artifacts that your parents keep in the basement, despite your protests.

Reunions seem like a lose-lose proposition.  If you were a bit of an outcast the first time around, why would you want to subject yourself to standing in a room full of people who made you feel that way.  If you were the prom king or star athlete, you probably aren’t anymore and showing up at the reunion is likely to burst the bubble of everyone’s memory of you.  People have said to me “but you have a book coming out next week—everyone will be excited to talk to you.”  But if someone didn’t like me in high school, why would they be excited to talk to me now that I have written a book.  That’s more like John Hughes movie magic wish fulfillment than the social psychological dynamics that play out in real life.

So then why do we go?  I don’t want to presume to speak for everyone, but I suspect for many of us it’s the same reason why we would watch a Friends reunion show all these years later.  We know it wouldn’t be very good, but we still want to know how the story turned out.  Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures.  All these folks from high school were in the story of our lives when it was at its most intense, with small, but magic-seeming, triumphs and earth shattering defeats that made tomorrow seem like an impossibility.  None of us had any idea who we would be 25 years later (or even 5 years later), but now that that time has arrived we want to see how the stories played out.  Even when I’m watching a third rate movie on an airplane, I still want to see how it ends before they turn everything off at landing.

UPDATE:  I went and it was a lovely affair.  Everyone is happy to see everyone else made it.  We survived intact.  And we all seem to be better, more complete versions of ourselves.  Its impossible to know whether this is a result of the 25 years of growing up or just a show for one night because no one wants to be the outsider on this night.  Either way, it was very cathartic and it felt like the credits could have rolled at the end of the evening.  As my former classmate and now screenwriter Ernie Vecchione wrote as his senior quote: “I’d rather be with these people than the finest people in the world.” They were part of my story and from what I heard, I was a part of theirs.

Matt Lieberman's new book "SOCIAL: Why our brains are wired to connect" arrives in stores October 8 and is available now from Amazon.  For more, follow Matt on twitter @social_brains 

About the Author

Matthew D. Lieberman Ph.D.

Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Social.

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