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Wall Street Journal: The Last Reunion

October 16th, 2010 by jacqueline

The Last Reunion

By Byron Wien

Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2010

In 1986, some former classmates and I organized an informal 40th reunion for the graduating class of our public grammar school in Chicago. We were in our fifties back then, and many of our careers were going well. Most of us were still in good health and were enjoying being busy and watching our children grow up. The mood of the evening was one of optimism and hope. At one point a woman slipped her phone number into my pocket and told me to call her when I got to Los Angeles. She assured me of a good time.

Two weeks ago, some of us organized a similar reunion for those classmates we could locate. Although graduation was 64 years ago, most of us still live in Chicago. A few came from as far away as Denver and New York.

Our school, Nettelhorst, has gone through several phases. When we attended, it was an average middle-class neighborhood public school, and all students walked to it from their homes or apartment houses. Over time nearby residents became less enthusiastic about the place, so buses brought students in from distant neighborhoods to fill the vacancies. The school went into serious decline.

Over the past decade, though, a group of neighborhood parents developed a program to bring the school back to life—and they succeeded. The renaissance is described in a book, “How to Walk to School,” with contributions by Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education who was Chicago’s superintendent of schools, and Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who is now running for mayor of Chicago.

My classmates and I were amazed at how involved parents now are in the school. My mother gave me a dollar so she could join the Parent/Teachers Association, but she never intended to show up at the meetings. From her point of view, once her kid got inside the school building it was up to the teachers to get him educated. School had worked for generations without the meddling of parents.

Our reunion began at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. I was a little shocked to see some of my old friends. We’re now in our late seventies and time has left its mark. Some required walkers or canes, a few had gotten much heavier (that was expected), and several formerly clean-cut faces had gray beards. But the good-looking girls, while a bit wrinkled, brought back memories. Losers don’t come to reunions, they say, and some who had intended to come dropped out at the last minute. Once we were together, I could feel the old warmth in the room. We were glad to have survived this far and to see each other again.

We took a tour of the school (the fellow with the walker valiantly scaled the stairs). The old 1892 building was intact, but the interior had changed. The drab walls were brightly painted and our stationary desks with their inkwells—yes, inkwells—had been removed. A few murals painted during the Works Project Administration of the 1930s had been restored. The porcelain signs above the “boys” and “girls” restrooms had been preserved, and the seemingly ancient wooden doors were still there.

Each of us had been asked to write a brief summary of our lives. Only my old girlfriend and I, it turned out, were still working. That desire to make every minute of life count may have been what brought us together 60 years ago, though neither of us knew it then. I got the feeling that while most of the others had what would be considered “a good life,” they felt somewhat unfulfilled; goals hadn’t been reached and time was getting short.

Each of us spent a few minutes talking to a videographer about the school’s impact on our lives. Most remembered their teachers more clearly than I did. Some talked about pranks and humiliations, but it was clear that their friendships had provided a safety net for the many emotional falls experienced in childhood. A genius may thrive as a loner, but most of us need a network.

Some say your personality is formed before your 10th birthday. I couldn’t tell in grammar school who was going to be successful. We all spent most of our time back then just trying to enjoy ourselves. I learned that you were unlikely to make it without the love of others, and that you had better believe in yourself and try your best to get the most out of your talent because life in the real world is going to be hard.

Toward the end of our gathering, I expressed sorrow that this would be our last reunion. We all had accepted that we only have a limited amount of time left, but we all thanked God that we had gotten together once more. In a world of cell phones, iPads and Twitter, we all seemed to know that it was face-to-face interaction that gives meaning to life.

Mr. Wien is vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners LP.

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