High School Reunion as Psychological Time Travel

Why you have to go to your 30th high school reunion!

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Back in the day, I was a pretty ho-hum high school student at James Caldwell High School in North Jersey. I wasn’t the captain of a sports team. I was in zero clubs. My GPA was pretty mediocre. Definitely nothing special! But I had a good experience overall and made some good friends along the way.

This past weekend was my 30th high school reunion, and I concluded I was going to attend. After all, I only live about 90 minutes from the venue and I actually had the date open in my schedule. I coordinated with one of my best friends from high school, “Duf,” and we headed to the venue. And I have to say, I’m glad I went. From any vantage point, it was a fascinating experience. As a behavioral scientist, I found the experience particularly interesting.

Glenn Geher
Four brave graduates from the class of '88: (l-r): Shefali, Nicole, Glenn, and Duf—all doing fabulously!
Source: Glenn Geher

High School Reunion as a Naturalistic Experiment

In the behavioral sciences, we talk about large-scale “naturalistic experiments.” A naturalistic experiment exists when some kind of huge manipulation of the environment takes place due to some natural occurrence, and not due to something that the researcher manipulated. For instance, an earthquake or a tornado provides something of a naturalistic experiment in terms of how people deal with a natural disaster.

The 30th high school reunion is a huge naturalistic experiment. What a unique opportunity! When else in life do you find yourself surrounded by a large proportion of people whom you knew extremely well during your formative years but whom you have, for the most part, not seen for about 60% of your life? That’s one heck of a naturalistic experiment right there!

Psychological Time Travel

And let’s face it, odds are that you’re not going to experience time travel in your lifetime. But if you want to experience time travel psychologically, I strongly suggest that you prioritize going to your 30th high school reunion! It is a trip!

My graduating class was small—somewhere between 200-300 kids. I’d say that during high school, I knew about 95% of these kids by face. And I maybe knew about ⅓ of them reasonably well.

Imagine being in a room where suddenly 50 of the kids from your graduating class are all around you. But they are all the 48-year-old versions of themselves. And you have only stayed in touch with a handful over the years. And you have only physically seen like a half a dozen since you all graduated. And there’s beer! Honestly, it’s pretty much like being in a Black Mirror Episode!

What is it Like to Talk to Someone 30 Years Later?

In some cases, you continue conversations from 30 years ago seamlessly. My friends Phil and Nick and I used to talk about the classic 80’s “Bad Dog” t-shirts—and we quickly found ourselves in a conversation about those stupid shirts pretty much immediately. My friend Brian and I were on the wrestling team (he was the captain and I was a “scrub!”)—we talked about Coach Gibbons’ inspirational coaching style and all kinds of things that took place on the mats in the 80s. These conversations were seamless.

In other cases, you might find yourself at a loss. You might spark up a conversation with someone that you had very little in common with during high school to find that you still have very little in common with that person. However, I found it to be just as likely that I’d have a conversation with someone with whom I’d had little in common in, say, 1986, who is in the middle of a life that is incredibly similar to my own right now. People change a lot in 30 years!

Name Tags, Please!

Then there is the whole thing about what people look like now versus then. This is kind of an elephant in the room at an event like this. I’d say that in this category, people could be roughly placed into one of three categories, as follows:

  • The you look exactly the same!: About 20% of the people I talked to at the event looked exactly the same to me. Like not aged one day. They were, generally, easy to pick out and to identify (although not in each case, because sometimes it seemed impossible that someone looked exactly the same as he or she did in 1988!).
  • The double take: About 40% of the people I talked to at the event looked (after some degree of processing) like 30-year-older versions of themselves. They might have filled out a bit. Their hairstyle may have changed dramatically, and so forth. These people were generally great surprises! It was like, “Oh—you’re that kid! Yes, I can totally see that now!!!”
  • The totally different: I’d say that, at least as I saw it, some percentage of folks looked totally different from my memory of what they had looked like back in the day. These people were generally people whom I didn’t know too well back in the day, so that may well be fully driving this particular phenomenon.

On two occasions, I think I may have offended people by not recognizing them. Honestly, I am sorry about this! Even though the 30-year gap seems like a reasonable explanation for not fully recognizing someone, from an immediate social psychological perspective, it never feels good when someone tells you that they have no clue who you are. I figured it out pretty quickly in both cases, by the way! But, this said, at some point, someone who worked for the venue asked if we wanted name tags, and I was like “Heck, yes!!!”

Seeing Everyone at Their Finest

To me, the best part of the experience was the fact that everyone seemed to be doing so incredibly well. These were the kids I grew up with. I had been close with some percentage of them during my upbringing. But I found that I was really happy to see others whom I had not been too close with. We grew up in a small town and, 30 years later, I felt like everyone is rooting for everyone else. Being part of the same high school graduating class is a huge bond. And regardless of whatever relationships existed back in the day, I really found that people were just so happy to see everyone else and to celebrate all of the successes that people had to share. It's like we were just happy and appreciative to be here at all!

And let’s face it: Life is not all peaches and cream. By this point in life, you know that everyone has seen all kinds of adversity and unpleasantness. Loss of family members and friends, health issues, problems at work, divorce, etc. Life is hard, and we all know it.

But for that one night, everyone put on his or her best face. After all, we were not planning on seeing all of these other people again for a while. If ever. Might as well keep it positive! And in this vein, I have to say that it was really great to see all of these people in such a context. People looked great. They had great stories. So many had kids that they were thrilled to brag about. People had really interesting jobs and had been traveling to all kinds of interesting places, etc. Sure, maybe we were just seeing the most positive faces that everyone was putting on for the occasion. But I don’t care! I was happy to see so many of these folks whom I’ve known for so long doing so well.

Claps to the Organizers

Organizing a high school reunion has to fit into the category of thankless job. After all, it’s a ton of work and includes a great deal of organizational effort. This said, I’d like to, here, formally thank the event organizers, Elaine Vitello-Burger (whom I, unfortunately, did not get a chance to speak to at the event) and Gina Cutalo Leonardi. The effort that they’d put into this event was clear and was much appreciated by all.

Glenn Geher
Here I am with event co-organizer, Gina Cutalo, whom I've known forever. Gina is doing great!
Source: Glenn Geher

Further, here’s a story about Gina: She was the only kid in my graduating class who, like me, lived in the small town of Nutley immediately before moving to the Caldwells for K-12. Our mothers were close friends when we were little kids. Both my parents, to this day, beam when Gina’s name is mentioned. They talk about what a great kid she was. From this context, I have to say that it was really special to catch up with her at this event and to see how great she and her family are doing now. Keep up the great work, Gina!

Bottom Line

Hey, while technology is advancing at breakneck speed, don’t bet on ever engaging in time travel in your lifetime. That’s OK because there’s always your 30th high school reunion. Want a total trip into the past? One in which everyone is at his or her finest and is generally happy to see you?

A 30th high school reunion is pretty much a form of psychological time travel. I went to mine, and I have to say, it was worth the trip.

Dedication: This post is dedicated to the 1988 graduating class of James Caldwell High School. And to my most influential teacher from high school, Coach Ed Gibbons. Because he believed in me and made me believe in myself.