The Memoirist at the High School Reunion: Part 1

Mining for gold.  Drinking from a firehose.  Kid in a candy shop.

Whatever idiom used, when you fancy yourself to be a memoirist, going to a high school reunion is not just a trip down memory lane.  It’s not mere reminiscing, this conversation over finger foods;  it’s priming the pump.  It’s kindling for the fire.  It’s prewriting.

I spent about eight hours with folks from my high school’s graduating class, the class of 1975 from William J. Palmer High School, this past weekend.  From teammates on the baseball team, to the academically motivated kids I passed in the hallways but didn’t really share many classes, to the band kids, smoker kids, kids who climbed on rocks — the 100+ or so who made it to the 40th reunion mingled and shared stories of the past and current stories of their present.

In more than a couple of conversations, I started questions with “Do you remember …” which must be some sort of memoirist mantra.  The memoirist is cursed;  remembering isn’t just about the memory filtered by time and distance and shaped by other experiences.  The memory isn’t just about recalling the facts — or something resembling the facts.  As Mary Karr said in her Paris Review interview “More important than remembering the facts, I have to poke at my own innards.” It’s about finding some meaning in the remembered experience, some emotional truth in the facts.

I’d ask “do you remember …” in part to confirm that the experience did, indeed, happen but also to see and hear the emotion behind their recollection.  Did they cringe or grin?  Grimace in disbelief at the “man, we’re lucky to be alive” memory?  I didn’t look at their response to be a mirror of my own recollection (it couldn’t be!) but as a way to access my own response, my own emotion to that memory.

Members of Palmer High's 1975 baseball team. Missing some key guys, though!

Members of Palmer High’s 1975 baseball team. Missing some key guys, though!

So the memoirist at the high school reunion gets to hear different perspectives around shared experiences — which are not shared memories.  A bunch of boys were sitting in the booth in the back of the Bon Pharmacy enjoying cherry cokes (when they actually had to mix the cherry syrup with the Coca-Cola at the fountain) when Dave P (maybe 13 or 14 at the time) snagged that housefly right out of the air and then, for twenty-five cents, swallowed it down.  Taken separately, that event is just evidence of the strangeness of teen boys;  in the bigger context of my life around Bonny Park, it speaks of a time and of relationships that were impactful. Similarly, we were all at Gerry Berry Stadium when Tony S, paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident several months before graduation, received his diploma, pushed across the stage in a wheelchair.  Yes, the scene was emotional.  But it is an event in a larger memory landscape that has meaning, that shapes me, that is part of the arc from the booth at the pharmacy to graduating from high school.

Mary Karr says “With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept.”  I have the events — and a headful of notes about more.

So if memoirs are beyond the “what” of remembering;  it is the “why” of remembering.  What is worth writing about?  And why is it worthy of that time, energy, and emotion?

I’ll need to get back to you.

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5 Responses to “The Memoirist at the High School Reunion: Part 1”

  1. Wow! As I think of you all these years later trying to make sense of experience, I wonder how my students at 11 will make sense of experiences so recent, so fresh. Perhaps we are all still wrestling with the significance of small moments. Willa Cather wrote something about how most of a writer’s material is acquired before the age of 14. Funny, isn’t it, how the memoirist is always trying to make sense of experiences–those from today and those from 40 years ago. Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Right. I wonder about what “reflection” looks like even for my seniors. I’m leaning toward having them explore several experiences that are linked by some thread and then generalizing about those. For example, if I have several meaningful experiences backpacking or in nature, can I reflect on the significance of those collectively, generalize the experiences?

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