Judith Lichtman, attorney at law, executive director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, one-time guest on the Today show and a former civil rights worker in the state of Mississippi, calls me all the time. Her business is urgent, her voice bold, her manner insistent. This is one issue that I must address, she says. She is speaking, of course, of our high school reunion.
I am intrigued with the proposition. It will be 25 years this June since I departed high school to auspiciously begin "real life" by flunking out of college and then learning a trade in the Army -- building floating bridges. (Just call if you need one.) In fact, I remember graduation day well. It was hot. More than that, I cannot recall.
There must have been a speaker. It's traditional. And there must have been songs sung. Also traditional. I guess the band played and a classmate must have walked off with all kinds of awards, but I remember none of that. I cannot recall where I sat or what I did afterwards (dinner with my parents?) or even whether I knew at the time if I had yet been accepted to the first of the two colleges and one graduate school I would attend. Psychotherapy may bring it all out someday, but for the moment it all remains an anxiety-filled void.
And yet for some reason this business of a high school reunion intrigues me. Just why I should want to relive the worst years of my life is beyond me. I was desperately unhappy in high school, so unhappy that my private version of hell is a place where you call all week for a date and then get a pimple on Friday night.
Later, in college, I was for a time a psychology major and dutifully read my Freud. He and others stressed the importance of infancy, the early years, and from everything I've read since I have to conclude that they were probably right. But somehow I cling to the notion that nothing matters before high school and nothing matters afterwards. It is there that your self-image is formed. No matter where you go afterwards, no matter what you do, in your mind every street you walk down is your high school corridor.
This applies to both women and men. Women who were not popular in high school, who did not have the requisite chest and the vapid bubbliness that is mistaken for personality, forever go through life not quite knowing their own worth. And men who did not play ball, who did not fight and thereby test their masculinity, are forever wondering if they have what test pilots call "the right stuff."
In my fantasies I come to my high school reunion (assuming I go) acclaimed as a Great Columnist. Former classmates come up and tell me how much they love my stuff. I read you in San Jose, says one. You're in Philadelphia, says another. Boy, how I envy you, Cohen, says a third. A fourth says his mother asks why he could not have turned out like me.
Like apparitions, my former teachers materialize. They apologize for the way they treated me. They humble themselves before me, groveling, saying they were wrong -- Wrong! -- for thinking that I would amount to nothing. Even in the land of the dead, where most of them probably are by now, their mistake is manifest and they have been condemned through eternity to take the class roll over and over again as punishment for underestimating me.
I know, of course, that none of this will happen. When my wife, the former debate champ, spelling whiz and all-round terrific student, went to her 10th high school reunion as the managing editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, she walked right into a time warp. Did anyone want to know about Washington? Did they care about Watergate? No, none of that. It was high school all over again, the only difference being that instead of sweaters the women talked about how successful their husbands were.
I fear the same thing will happen to me. But Judith Lichtman calls me incessantly about the reunion. I am both drawn and repelled by the prospect. I have been asked to serve on the planning committee, which meets next week. I must have dreamt about it last night.
I woke up this morning with a pimple.