I’m on the brink of my ten-year high school reunion, and all sorts of scary questions have started popping up. Have I accomplished enough with my life to show my face? Do I really want to put myself in the position of having to relive those awkward high school years again? Am I even interested in seeing all those people from my past? How am I going to feel if half of them don’t even remember me?
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And the big one: Should I go?
Thinking about attending my own high school reunion necessarily calls to mind every single movie I’ve ever seen that features a reunion, and there are quite a few. Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, American Reunion, Zack and Miri Make a Porno… even the fake trailer imagining a live-action Daria film, the one starring Aubrey Plaza that CollegeHumor.com released a couple years ago.
Two of my favorites are Grosse Pointe and Romy and Michele, released just two weeks apart in 1997, a year that also produced the famous, fictional commencement speech published by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. (You might remember it better as “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” a spoken word remix by Baz Luhrmann.)
“Wear sunscreen,” Schmich writes. “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”
The sunscreen tip isn’t insincere, but it is a little tongue-in-cheek. However,the rest of her advice, like about enjoying the power and beauty of your youth, doing one thing every day that scares you, not wasting your time on jealousy… these are lessons we can all live by. But advice can only really emerge from collecting strange life experiences, then passing the knowledge gleaned from them onto a new audience, which can hopefully benefit—self-indulgent and maybe only potentially relevant though it may be.
Reunions offer an opportunity to check in, review, and assess whether we’ve turned into potentially legitimate advice-givers ourselves. Where are we in life? Is this where we wanted to be… and do the wishes of our younger selves even really matter? What advice would we even offer a youthful version of ourselves?
More than any other “milestone” event in life—graduations, weddings, and funerals—we don’t really go to other people’s reunions. Half the time, people don’t even show up to their own. So we collectively look to film for answers about what they’ll be like… and of course, in Movieland, the event usually looks like Prom: Part Two.
If you’re thinking about attending your own reunion and you haven’t seen Grosse Pointe and Romy and Michele, watch them. Trust me. One may be about a listless assassin returning to his small hometown and the other about two Valley girls who pretend to be successful in an attempt to impress the former popular kids. Of course, indulging in a little fantasy is part of the process; Romy and Michele win “Most Changed for the Better Since High School” medals in an elaborate dream sequence, while Grosse Pointe culminates in a fight to the death between hitmen. Who hasn’t wanted to settle old scores in the hallways of high school? But both films are, at their core, about reconciling our lives with our concepts of self, either moving away from who we’ve become or making peace with who we’ve always been.
Reunions offer an opportunity to check in, review, and assess whether we’ve turned into potentially legitimate advice-givers ourselves.
In my own life, I’m experiencing both. I wasn’t unpopular in high school, but I definitely didn’t fit in, instead absorbed in movies, TV, and pop culture. I was torn between not wanting to attend high school at all while simultaneously wanting to be accepted by my classmates. When I graduated, I didn’t keep in touch with many people outside a few friends, and focused on building a career. Now, a decade later, I find myself writing professionally about film and television, which is what I really always wanted… but to my surprise, I’ve also been interested in reconnecting with those people from my past. I can’t look back at my life without considering them.
Of the rest of Schmich’s advice, the things that I got right include holding onto old friends, being self-sufficient, respecting my elders. From time to time, I sing. I dance. I stretch. I read the directions but rarely follow them. What I’m still struggling with: forgetting insults people have told me; not worrying about the future; not constantly comparing my life to others’ (of course, Schmich’s essay never predicted social media); not getting to better know my grandmother before she passed away earlier this year. She was 90 years old, which meant that when I graduated high school, she was 80. I should’ve realized back then how little time we really had left.
When we’re too focused on building incomes and new relationships, we sometimes take for granted the people we already have in our lives. We assume that because they’ve been there from the beginning, they’ll be around forever. It was a hard lesson for me to learn that I need to make more memories with the people who are important in my life. I know that now, looking back.
“Advice is a form of nostalgia,” Schmich admits. “Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
I’ll add to that questionable pile of recycling: Do it. Go to your high school reunion.
Own the plot of your own story; be an active protagonist. The only reason we’re able to look back on high school, for better or worse, is because we all bothered to show up in the first place. This article, that essay, those movies—they’re about people reflecting on and learning from the past. Go to the reunion so you can see how far you’ve come. Yeah, yeah; this may be sentimental and hokey, but that’s high school. Or as Schmich would say, “Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”
James Charisma is an award-winning writer and editor in Honolulu, specializing in stories about entertainment, pop culture, and the arts. His work has appeared in Playboy, VICE, Complex, Paste, Hi-Fructose, Hyperallergic, Thrillist, Inverse, Knockout, Where, Whitehot, and other publications. Follow him on Instagram @jcharisma and Twitter @charismaind.