Being in Touch
Back in the olden days, when I was 13 and we moved from Greenwich Village to rural Massachusetts, and long-distance phone calls were expensive–particularly calls made during the day–the way I had of keeping in touch with friends was to write letters. Which I did, some. But 13-year-old girls are not always punctilious about returning letters right away, and gradually the friendships I had outside of school sort of fell away. My position, socially, at the school I had attended from age 4 onward was… odd enough that there was no one there I would have expected to write to me, and while I was deeply curious about how things were going with the classmates I’d been with for ten years, I wasn’t pushy enough to write to anyone out of the blue.
What a difference a bunch of decades make.
I’ve been thinking about this because of late I am in contact with a bunch of my classmates from my grade school in New York. It was a small school–no more than thirty kids per grade–and over the ten years I was there, people came and went, but the class as a whole was, well, the class. People changed their positions in the complicated solar system of friendships and un-friendships. What I’m learning now is how many shared memories we have, and how many memories we don’tshare. Someone says “hey remember…” and I just don’t. Some of this is because my family was almost never around on weekends, and so I missed a lot of the social life other people were having. Some of it was because I was, in some ways, a deeply oblivious kid. Some of it is because I focussed on different things. And some of it is simply the parallax view phenomenon: you don’t see the same event exactly the same way because you’re standing in two different places viewing it.
Not surprisingly, there are things we all remember: the day of John Kennedy’s assassination, when one of our classmates who had been dismissed early burst back into the classroom shouting “President Kennedy’s been shot!” and all the things that followed it. But we remember different parts of it: I remember the bells of every church in the neighborhood tolling as I went home after, but what I’d forgotten until a classmate reminded me of it was that my mother picked me and her up after school for a playdate at my house. The minute she mentioned it, I had a vivid memory the four of us–my friend and I, and my mother, and my brother, making our way up Sixth Avenue through crowds of people who just looked gut-punched.
Or the boy in 1st grade (maybe kindergarten) who I thought only bullied me. I mentioned his name and there was a chorus of consensus: he was a bully, and many of us were terrified of him. (My recollection is that he was invited not to return for the next school year.) Or the teacher who was beloved or intimidating, depending on how you responded to her particular teaching style (I would have found her more terrifying than not, except I saw how she teared up when the class sang some of her favorite songs, so I knew there was a soft heart in there somewhere).
I’m enjoying making contact with my former classmates enormously. And I”m feeling rather abashed about how little I knew of some of their lives. Fortunately, there’s time to learn more now. And I’m working on that.