Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
A few weeks ago I attended my Five Zero high school reunion. (For some reason it’s not as, ah, “impacting,” to spell out the numbers versus seeing 5 and 0 right next to each other.)
My classmates and I were the last graduating class of St. Francis High School on 18th St. in Eugene, Oregon, now O’Hara Catholic School.
Even, back then, as the sixty-five of us finished our final finals, measured for caps and gowns, and cleaned out lockers once more (or perhaps excavated and scraped them out for the very first time—you know who you are, or were), school staff was packing up for the big move—and big name change—to what has been now, also for fifty years, Marist Catholic High School on Kingsley Road.
Over this recent two-day reunion, I laughed a lot, cried some, ate too much, and really regretted not staying in better touch over the years.
I also remembered a couple of things some classmates had forgotten about a few of our extra curricular activities–blackmail-worthy, if one were so inclined and if the priest, brothers, and nuns were still alive to tell.
For example, there was the beer somebody brought to the girls’ “slumber party” in the church hall, and that hastily-tossed cigarette that somebody started a small fire with in the “can”. (“Can”–synonym for bathroom circa 1968.)
Yes, we had our ten and twenty year events that seemed mostly about who completed what college degree, who had spent time in the military—and made it back from Vietnam safely–who had launched their health occupations, music, law, teaching, professional sports, farming and/or business careers, and who had the most children already, to name a few early accomplishments.
We had the subsequent 30th and 40th reunions, too, plus a few in between, both official and informal, sharing the typical markers of age, levels of later accomplishment and growing families (and at the latter reunions, some of us shared those impressive stacks of cute, adorable grandkid photos; generous stacks…really…you shouldn’t have…).
However, this Forty-Nine Plus One reunion held special significance, and not just due to our longevity as a class with many members participating (with a little help from borrowed “readers,” helpful arms to climb steps, and prescription medications), but because like no other, it impressed upon one and all how precious time and friendships are.
We have decided to not wait another ten years, by the way. In fact, we will all be turning seventy in two more years…just a heads-up for the next possible get-together.
Woven into the weekend’s conversations were threads about who is retired and from what, how all the siblings we also knew are faring (and in good Catholic families of by-gone years sibling update threads can comprise a veritable–and sizable—tapestry of conversation), what our favorite memories are (and nobody cared if you repeated yourself, we may have already forgotten the first telling), and of course, our spiritual journeys that may differ now but certainly had their roots in our early education.
I would also like to commend all of us for one more noteworthy—and timely–element of this reunion.
Amid the “gab fest,” food, and fun, some also discussed political, social, and religious views, and we realized there is as much diversity of thought and belief as likely exists in every other kind of gathering these days, but with a big difference.
There was no anger, name calling, insults, or any of the sad markers of the state of such “discourse” nowadays that not only threaten relationships but also, if the populace does not rise back up to a reasonable level of civility, endanger society at large in a time when we need to be united as much as possible.
Our reunion conversations reminded me of how it used to be, that is, how you could “agree to disagree” while dealing with tough topics which is something we learned in civics, history, speech and debate classes at St. Francis, some of us learning our lessons the hard way.
I remember a few of my own editorials for the school magazine, the Scope, for example, that Sister Mary Lynn Weber rejected outright. “Too much smoke and fire,” she’d say. “Tone it down.”
And for the class of 1968, having learned those lessons proved to be very helpful.
That year, that some historians describe as perhaps the most tumultuous year of political and societal upheaval in an entire decade of same, brought our normal twelfth-grade activities to a screeching halt on several occasions, most notably, the assassinations of Civil Rights activist, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th and Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy on June 5th, which happened to be the night of our graduation party at the YMCA. Twelve-fifteen a.m., our time zone, to be exact.
I will never forget the scene, many us huddled around a little portable radio in the gym, listening in shock and in tears to the news.
We also watched an escalating war in Vietnam featuring, that year, the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre, and on the home front, the nation exploded with protests against the war and racial injustice that escalated into riots and bloodshed on many American streets for the first time in our lifetime.
So it would be no ordinary rite of passage for this group of graduating high school seniors back in 1968. We would need unique communication and problem-solving skills to face the troubled and troubling world we stepped into.
The usual challenges of leaving the shelter of K-12 education now included worrying about going to war, a loved one going to war–or worse, not coming back–domestic travel in hot spots, and even bombings at what colleges we might attend.
Thus, those lessons in critical thinking and well-crafted debate (listen, reflect, respond with respect) learned at SFHS proved very useful then as well as later on when the nation worked at coming back, at least for some years, into a semblance of calmer and more reasoned social and political activism.
But considering serious challenges in that arena that loom large—and dangerous–again, those skills are especially needed now, too, and perhaps as “seniors” in another sense and on the other end of the age spectrum, we can still make an important contribution to societal progress that seems to have been seriously interrupted by today’s brand of “smoke and flames”.
By modeling those old lessons for new generations, whether just our own (that continue to grow in number), or the population at large, we can still make a difference.
But even if it only makes a difference in our own families, as our teachers used to say, quoting from a 1907 sermon by Wesleyan minister W. L. Watkinson, and later, a speech by President John F. Kennedy, “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” even though, as Watkinson also noted–and I suspect Sister Weber, for one, would have agreed, especially when she conferred with me about those rejected Scope editorials–“Denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper…and proves a popular temptation.”
At least, from this end of time and of life, we can hope and pray that our influence will yet make a difference.
And, oh, on two more very different topics to set the record straight once and for all:
It was destiny, DESTINY, I tell you, that foreordained I was to be the one to walk beside J. in the graduation processional.
Girls (you know who you are), one last time, I did NOT cut in line or bribe the nun!
And I think it’s time we all got over it!
(And thanks for being such a good sport at the reunion over this, J. I promise I won’t make you blush ever again.)
I also believe it was destiny that I was to have been THE ONE that 1968 Presidential Candidate Bobby Kennedy chose to touch, if ever so slightly, on the hand…my right hand…right there…when I by chance got close enough to him on his campaign stop in Eugene after some of us had successfully lobbied Brother Tim to let us skip school for the historic event.
And, no, I don’t think I kept “bragging” about this for days!
And lastly, thank you, classmates, for a truly memorable—and fun–(Five Times Ten) reunion.
See you sooner!