Paul Andersen: Looking back 50 years at the class of ’69
June will mark 50 years since I graduated from New Trier High School in suburban Chicago back in 1969.
It was the summer of love and war, of Woodstock and Vietnam. I was 18. My hair was long. My ideas were radical. I was launched into the world with a handshake and a diploma, headed to Western State College in Gunnison where I would discover my true home in the Elk Range.
A class reunion is being planned, but I have no meaningful bonds with a place I never intended to live. I just grew up there. What I never anticipated was how jackfruit would prod me to reflect on my long lost classmates.
A fellow student and member of the reunion committee posted on the reunion website under: “Senior tales — adventures — from your classmates.”
“I have elbowed my way to the front of the food chain at Costco many times to guarantee a sample. On a recent trip I made an even better discovery — how to get the most! I found an interesting jackfruit sampling so I maneuvered my way through the throng of seniors to be certain to get my share. In order to ensure that I found the largest piece available, I had to turn several of the plastic cups so I could see into them. The sample lady adamantly insisted: ‘Now you have to take each and every cup you touched.’ The jackfruit industry took a hit that day.”
Rather than share her humor, I fumed over the feckless values of my ge-ge-generation. A following post from another classmate queried our class on how we had been shaped by the tumultuous issues under which we came of age — the Vietnam War, civil rights, etc.
After stewing for a week, I fired off my first post, a goad for the class of ’69 to look beyond the social media groupthink to which many have become habituated.
“I wonder how our generation will be judged by history,” I prodded. “The demographic wave we have ridden reflects a bulge in consumerism, carbon emissions and self-gratification — something my 26-year-old son condemns repeatedly. So what values did we learn throughout the ’60s cultural transformations that can redeem us in the eyes of the future?”
Here was an edgy invitation to connect “on pursuits that go beyond status, image, self-gratification and the mundane.” The message intended to shake things up, wake things up. My post included a link to the nonprofit I founded — Huts For Vets — a holier-than-thou example of my lofty service to mankind.
“I’m giving back as a means of balancing out the entitlements that our Boomer generation is often accused of exploiting,” I trumpeted. Then came the moral indictment: “The final line of ‘Schindler’s List’ — ‘I could have done more …’ rings in my ears and prods my conscience.” I hit the submit button — done!
I suddenly felt like an ass for putting myself above my classmates by assuming a superior alternative lifestyle compared to the suburban status quo in which we all grew up and in which many still live. I had to wait a few anxious days for a response.
“Hi Paul,” wrote the woman who had posted about jackfruit. “Sounds like you are doing an incredibly worthwhile service for veterans. Thank you for that and helping to bring the message forum to such a real level. I know the purpose of this activity was to get former classmates to interact, but sometimes those ‘everything is glorious in my life’ entries can intimidate and stifle people from responding authentically.”
This fellow student described herself as a Chicago area educator for 40 years. Now living in Tucson, Arizona, she said she uses dogs to offer emotional support and facilitate learning for children. She cooks meals for ICE refugees. She thanked me for my message. I cringed in guilty self-righteous regret.
Auguring beneath the mundane surface of social media, one finds real people with real values. I appreciate my classmate in Tucson for causing me to apologetically drop my judgments. I would consider attending the reunion just to thank her.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org