“Live tweeting from the bathroom of my high school reunion. Two beers in. Ask me anything,” I tweeted in homage of Reddit’s popular AMA format.
That’s right, I started writing this CandysDirt.com column from the women’s restroom of Saint Rocco’s, the Trinity Groves venue hosting my Lake Highlands High School 20-year reunion. But I wasn’t having a John Hughes 1980s movie meltdown moment. I was simply feeling reflective about something I’d been honestly dreading for weeks.
Why would anyone put themselves through that? Now that Facebook has made catching up with old high school friends as swift as clicking a button to “Add Friend,” it admittedly seems pointless. But I’m going to make a bold assertion, so hear me out: Going to your high school reunion could actually be good for you. Here are four reasons why:
1. I walked in alone. Like alone, alone. But I did it by choice and I survived.
Sure, you could gather an army of gal pals to blow into the party like you’re on your third beer, and some of my classmates did — nothing wrong with that. But if you’re semi-gluttonous for punishment and hoping to have some kind of cathartic moment at one of life’s milestone events, then take the plunge solo like I did. Your first lap around the room will be awkward, but everyone’s is. Just smile and nod at eye contact you make with people around the room as you make a beeline for the bar.
Being accessible — like literally people being able to walk up and say hi — is the first step in being approachable, and something that networking pros will tell you is their secret to making networking happy hours worthwhile. Walking in by myself made it easier for people to say hi and start a conversation, and that’s often the most awkward hurdle to get over.
2. Reunions are best at bars and not ballrooms.
Remember walking up to the cool kids’ table at lunch, and being invited to sit down and join the conversation? No one does either, because it never happened. So, here’s a tip for amateur party planners: skip the ballroom “8-top” tables. Tables and sit-down dinners force people to choose a table to sit at, where they’ll likely congregate with their closest friends, and stay there for the evening. That’s what happened at the 10-year-reunion, and it didn’t have the same intimate feel and mingling that this one did.
Mingling is how the realest conversations happen, whether it’s gathered around the appetizers or waiting at the bar for drinks. Environmental design experts, particularly those who design open office concepts, call it creating collisions, where people are likely to congregate and collaborate by virtue of sheer proximity.
At my reunion, having one central bar naturally created a high-traffic space where thirsty people would congregate. It was at the bar that I reconnected with an elementary-school-friend-turned-short-lived-junior-high-boyfriend-turned-back-to-high-school-friend that I hadn’t spoken to in 15 years. He’d grown up into the good man my mother always said he’d be. Talking to someone I’ve known since I was 10 years old was a comforting but visceral reminder of how nearly 30 years has passed, yet good friends leave imprints on each other’s lives, as if no time has passed.
3. Have a go-to question. You can steal mine.
Because I’m a reporter and I’m awful at small talk, I tend to ask a lot of questions in conversation. At the reunion, I asked people who they hoped to see at this reunion that they hadn’t kept touch with, and I got a lot of thoughtful answers.
The most social people admitted they see most of these people regularly in person or through frequent updates on Facebook. The saltiest in the bunch said no one, and meant it. Others who gave it thoughtful consideration thought back to childhood friends whom they’d split from for some reason and never managed to reunite as friends. It was a good cut-the-B.S. question that offered a lot of insight into people’s lives.
My heart filled when someone said me, that I was someone they wanted to see here. It meant a lot because this was someone I always respected in high school, so him thinking of me was a compliment. He had the looks to be one of the most popular guys in school (because school can be superficial like that), but unlike the boisterous boys that always drew attention to themselves, he was soft-spoken and not one to seek the spotlight. I think nice guys like that should get the spotlight they deserve, and reunions are wonderful opportunities to share a kind word or compliment that you never had the chance to tell someone back then. How often do you get the chance to share a genuine compliment with someone or hear those kind words from another? Take that opportunity next time you can.
4. We need name tags with 20-pt-size font.
For all the good conversations I had, there was one that left me thinking for days. I spoke a few times to a classmate there who was so nice and friendly throughout the night that I could tell this was someone of substance. But it wasn’t until after I left the party that I remembered their name; I was too embarrassed to be caught looking straight at their name tag. I went to bed wracking my brain, literally going through the alphabet to remember because I felt so bad that this classmate was nice enough to make meaningful conversation with me, but my memory had failed me earlier in the night.
Unless your graduating class was a one-stoplight town, small in size, it’s difficult to remember every name 20 years later. Obviously, I’m wrestling with this in my head, so I came up with two solutions:
One, reunion and party planners should start printing name tags in 20-pt-size font, at minimum. Thirty-year reunions get 30-pt font and so on. That way you can quickly glance down at someone’s name tag and back up without being detected. While we’re on the topic, let’s settle the debate of which side your name tag should go once and for all. Name tags or badges go on the right side of your shirt, so that people shaking hands can easily gaze up and see your name. Until we all adopt this, I have a second solution: Point out something interesting on their name tag, like their yearbook photo. It sounds like a magician’s sleight of hand trick because it is, and it’s probably the only time I’ll ever say in this column that you shouldn’t be 100 percent completely yourself and transparent with others.
While time fades our memory of names, we remember faces of people we’ve met. I might be off base on this, but admitting you forgot the name of someone you’ve known for years doesn’t sound any better if you say, “But I recognize your face.” Put yourself in their shoes and you’ll realize how awkward this feels.
I think surviving high school together affords a level of mutual respect with others in your class, like a knowing nod to someone you’ve been in the trenches with. I wish I had snuck a peek at this classmate’s name tag so I could have addressed them by name that night and told them I appreciated our conversation.
But it’s another visceral reminder how people touch our lives. I’m usually the first one to say, “People are the worst,” but after my high school reunion, I realize I’m not as anti-social as I thought I was. I’m glad I got the chance to speak to several acquaintances that I’d now call friends after that night. Too often I let the walls of my self-designed bubble grow thick, not letting others in because it’s just more comfortable that way. But the fundamental need to connect with others is what makes us human beings, and surprisingly, this reunion reminded me of that. Well, that and some libations from the bar.