An article by Godfrey Harris
Published in Yankee Bugle, May, 2012
There are many things we have in America that we now take for granted — the right of everyone to participate in government, the right to live wherever we choose, the right to freely associate with others. But amazingly enough, all of these key elements of what we think of as integral to a democratic society came to us relatively recently. They aren’t among the fundamental rights found in the Constitution. For example, we didn’t start electing Senators until 1913; women didn’t begin to vote until 1920; restrictive housing covenants were not outlawed until 1968.
Another surprising example of these Johnny-come-lately rights concerns what we now think of as part of a basic education. The first high school of any kind established in the United States came to Boston in 1821. It was intended only as preparation for entering a university; later more high schools were opened, but these were less academic and more practical in preparing kids for teacher’s colleges. Alll of them required an application and acceptance to gain entry and most demanded tuition payments.
At the start of the 20th century, 95 percent of the kids in the United States finished what was then called “common” school in the 8th grade. Public high schools, as we know them, were not established until 1910. Even by World War II, high schools were still an economic indulgence enjoyed by a minority of American families; just 45 percent of the men and women in the Army and Navy entered wartime service with high school diplomas. Today, more than 16 million kids attend over 26,000 public and 10,500 private high schools.
Because high school in America was originally a gateway for advanced education leading to a skilled profession, communities took great pride in establishing and supporting them. High school students, at the outset, seemed to understand how special the direction of their lives had taken. As a result, once these high school graduates established themselves in the working world, they sought ways to keep connected to those they knew in their earlier years.
While a few high school alumni associations were formed around the turn of the 20th century, most are relatively new organizations. A random review of various high school websites shows that the vast majority seem to have been formed over the past 50 years. All seem to have settled on similar roles, even if the order in which they are expressed varies. They include:
- Maintaining current information on all school graduates.
- Sponsoring and assisting in class reunions and annual homecoming events.
- Providing financial assistance to current students.
- Producing an alumni publication to keep graduates connected.
- Supporting and assisting the school when needed.
- Preserving and promoting the school’s history, archives, and artifacts.
Other countries have not developed organizations based on the equivalent of the American public high school tied closely to the general area in which it is located. While some secondary schools abroad have clusters of alumni formed into “Old Boy Networks” — England, India, and Japan come to mind — they seem more akin to the focus that U.S. college alumni groups assume: These groups want the institution’s reputation to reflect favorably on them — no matter how much they achieved or what else they did during their school days. Research also suggests that college graduates have a broader network of contacts to call upon than high school graduates, suggesting another economic advantage to higher education. But it is the social connections, by and large, that high school graduates sustain throughout their lives that seem to be more lasting and more important to the political stability of the country.
It is these connections that American high school alumni organizations are best suited to foster and preserve. As a result, it is not too surprising that everything we remember about our high school experience — friendships forged, milestones reached, situations endured, competitions won and lost, performances good and less so as well as memorable events such as proms, rallies, and trips — all have become unique fixtures of American culture. Ask anyone in this country about his or her high school memories and they are likely to retreat to a flood of recollections about particular classmates, transformative teachers, memorable sporting events, recurring social situations, or a special experience that brought a whole class together.
What we remember from times gone by become the foundation for how we prepare for times to come. Because high school was such a significant element in our most formative years, every aspect of that part of our lives seems remarkably vivid — from the tingling triumphs to the depressing disappointments. Interestingly enough, high school memories seem to lose their jagged edges and lingering slights and take on a more warm and fuzzy feel about 20 years after graduation. It seems that the 20th high school reunion becomes the gathering when people have come to terms with how their life is going: Demonstrating how one looks, what one has accomplished, and how much one is worth seems less important as we approach the age of 40 than renewing connections with those we haven’t seen in a while and clarifying details that have bothered us for so long.
It makes some sense. Studies of social groups suggest that members tend to come to grips with their own mortality when they reach 40 years old. They are reported to be less aggressive and more understanding of their individual circumstances; they get more realistic about what they may be able to do with the second half of their lives. High school graduates, as a distinguishable group, have a similar reaction as they face the same mid-point of their lives.
As the country has become more highly urbanized and social connections even more specialized, linkage to high school has become an important way to recapture a moment less stressful in a situation more manageable. In addition, the importance of whether individuals graduated high school or not, whether they attended for all the required years or not, whether the high school was located within the United States or not, or whether they have participated in any post graduation activities or not, seem to diminish as the years pass. The link that seems to have overriding importance is the connection to former classmates.
We have noted something else about reunions of high school classmates. The relationship to an individual’s high school and the friends made there seem to have become an integral part in building the trust that is essential to the functioning of a successful democracy despite the geographic, economic, social, or political disparities that may have arisen over the subsequent years. President Jimmy Carter often notes that high school is where he learned that we must “adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”
As strange as it may seem, weddings and funerals are the only other occasional gathering of friends, relatives, and acquaintances that seem to serve a similar function of building trust. How often have we heard, before or after a ceremony, that it shouldn’t take such an occasion to rekindle so many treasured connections and old friendships. But it often does. The events help us learn important facts about those in this larger social circle. As a result, we come to realize that these, too, are people like us, people in whom we can have confidence, people who we believe will innately do the right thing by others. And it is this fundamental trust that serves as the mortar holding the important elements of our democracy together. It has been more than 235 years since the presentation of America’s democratic ideals in the Declaration of Independence — helping to make the United States the longest continuously surviving republic in the history of the world. To have come this far and to extend that record takes a concerted effort.
We think the country will be better off when everyone realizes that American high schools have a broad unifying function and an ability to bring people back together periodically after long absences. We think if some of the energy now associated with organizing a high school reunion or homecoming football game could be channeled into more substantive ends, the country would be much stronger and less divided. We can no longer afford to smile at Kurt Vonnegut’s famous thought that “true terror is waking up one morning [to] discover that your high school class is running the country.”
To this end, we hope the alumni of every high school in America will join in a new national organization called High School America to —
- Insure the relevance of American high school education to the future needs of the Nation;
- Improve the facilities, courses, and programs of America’s high schools;
- Expand on the friendships forged with exchange students in the continuing conduct of the Nation’s foreign policy; and
- Provide assistance to school mates and their relatives who may have fallen on difficult economic times.
One of the reasons that High School America has been formed is the fact that most of our 16 to 24-year-old population seem woefully ill-prepared for what the world now demands. Will the rush to learn by computer from home — now involving 250,000 kids full time and two million more part time — improve the results of American secondary education? Or will it merely save money on the number of teachers needed to supervise students? How will the loss of day-to-day social interaction at a bricks and mortar high school eventually affect the functioning of our democracy?
The Hamilton High School Alumni Association is in the forefront of High School America’s development. It became the first formally constituted group to join the Association of High School Alumni Organizations. Board members of the HHSAA believe that as high schools became an important element in American education during the 20th century, so its alumni, acting together, can be a force for continuing national good in the 21st century.
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HIGH SCHOOL BONDING
Look at any mail order catalog for women’s clothing or view any television commercial for a popular beer. All you see are endless images of laughing, smiling, happy people — as if shiny shoes or a tangy taste is all that is needed to initiate endless good times with close friends in a carefree world. According to one analyst, Anheuser-Busch “has always sought to position its flagship light beer as a uniquely social animal that brings people together…”
Maybe it does — but just maybe investing in a Bud Lite is not quite so portentous or wearing a new blouse from Chadwick’s is not quite so life-changing. Having a drink or putting on a new outfit, in themselves, are not the equivalent of bonding with another person. Bonding comes from spending sufficient time with a friend or relative to develop the shared experiences that yield a level of affection and trust that allows for unalloyed support.
You see expressions of this type of bonding in an endless array of cushions, T-shirts, plaques, trivets, bumper stickers, and other specialty items:
A friend is the family you choose
To the house of a friend, the road is never long
Friendship doubles your joys, and divides your sorrows
Friendship isn’t a big thing – it’s a million little things
The relationships that sparks the depth of these feelings usually begin early in life; in fact, our closest bonds outside the family are probably formed with those people we meet in our journey from elementary school to high school. The glue that cements these early ties lasts a lifetime.
Other friends and more distant relatives are counted in degrees of closeness — from simple acquaintances to BFF (Best Friends Forever). They are most often developed after school days in religious settings, social clubs, and work places. Church congregations, Masonic groups, military units, occupational circumstances, and family functions are places that famously initiate close personal friendships.
But these types of friendships, like marriages, can also prove fragile, moving up and down the scale of closeness as the situation in each person’s life is changed by time, geography, and events. Bonding, on the other hand, seems to have a permanence that is as difficult to rend asunder as it is sometimes hard to explain. But one thing we can say: Bonding emerges over long periods of time from knowledge gained together. So search your memory for those school friends who shared your feeling that older people could never understand or appreciate your hidden spaces, special language, deep secrets, and unending dreams. It involved something, in short, more than what a beer or blouse can ever produce.
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SOCIAL MEDIA’S ROLE IN HIGH SCHOOL CONNECTIONS
Recently, The New York Times offered an essay that explored the question of whether participation in class reunions has been reduced by the use of social media. The premise of the writer was that Facebook, LinkedIn and other such Internet connectors had robbed reunions of their essential mystery—seeing what people looked like and how they interacted after many years of being out of touch. The Times postulated that being able to see a photo of these same people, read about their activities, and sometimes exchange messages with them on a social media platform obviated the need to get dressed up, drive great distances, and spend large sums of money for a reunion function. In lamenting the loss of the surprise that reunions can engender, the writer seemed to feel he was being cheated of one of life’s special events.
But is the assumption correct that social media brings classmates together in ways that only reunions did in year’s past? We don’t think so. First of all, we know from Hamilton High Alumni records that most graduates don’t really start to feel nostalgic about their school days until around the time of a 20th class reunion. It is a moment when most are beginning to slow down, become set in their ways, confront the path to the end game of their lives, and deal with various health issues. It is just as significant that those who are 40 and up are also much less likely to communicate with friends or learn about new activities or events through the Internet. They still send cards, still rely on the telephone, still seek out occasions when they can be face-to-face with others.
While we have no doubt that the Internet and new forms of social media will continue to play an ever-bigger role in the lives of those who participate regularly in high school events, we also have a hunch that human nature will not be significantly altered by masses of electrons speeding through silicon chips in unique ways. People will still want to deal with people in person, still want to evaluate someone’s body language in light of the words being expressed, still want to use all his or her senses to renew acquaintances and rebuild friendships. Just as theater owners once worried about what movies would do to their audiences and then movies feared what television would do to its business, now television fears what the Internet is doing to how people get entertainment. Despite the fact that change remains the one constant we can always count on, people still seem put out and unbalanced when confronted with a new situation.
Change, in fact, merely offers new ways to respond to everything that surrounds us, including old habits. Because high schools play such a vital part in the success of our democracy and reunions are so much a part of American culture, we see social media as a mechanism to heighten the importance and participation in reunions rather than something to be feared.
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