I went to my 50th Carle Place High School reunion on Long Island last month. The weekend’s events covered the whole arc of my life. I talked with a third-grade classmate about the mystery novel we tried to write in the back of the classroom, and pondered retirement with many friends. I saw the town I grew up in with another half-century of development.
High school reunions are always about nostalgia. Wasn’t it great when we won that game, played a trick on that teacher, went out on that date? Even the bad moments have attained the gloss of memory: the pain of teenage heartbreak, boredom in class, and undeserved detention faded long ago.
This reunion was more than self-indulgent fantasies about perfect childhoods. It was a series of life lessons.
Social popularity might be the most important currency of high school life. Fifty years later, it’s easy to see the disconnect between teenage popularity and lifetime success. I met again some people I barely remembered, because we had exchanged only superficial pleasantries back in school. They had done wonderful things with their lives, aged gracefully, told fine stories, and smiled a lot. The superficialities of good hair or good dance moves had meant little over the long term, compared with good values and good heart.
I was struck by the importance of luck in life. A friend a few years younger had a difficult and impoverished childhood and was underestimated by most people who knew him, physically tough but probably going nowhere. He and his wife of many decades quietly built an organization serving foster children as he educated himself in the science of social services. Then they won the lottery and have become philanthropists serving children with their good fortune. But luck was only a means to generous ends they had developed long ago.
For others, luck had not been on their side. In high school, everybody seems to be healthy. Several classmates gave their lives in Vietnam, still remembered, now mourned again. A larger group have died during these 50 years, struck by diseases they didn’t expect and could not prevent. A couple of my very athletic friends were now hobbled by diseases, but bravely pushed on. I was struck by their courage and by my own good luck, unearned but appreciated every day.
I grew up in what seemed like the quintessential suburbia on Long Island, cookie-cutter houses built by William Levitt, pioneer in mass-produced affordable housing after World War II. Virtually every house in my school district was built between 1948 and 1950 on a former farm. Young families moved out from New York City. The GI Bill gave low-cost mortgages to veterans like my father. I grew up on streets where nearly every house had kids, ready to join Cub Scouts, play ball, and walk to school. Crime was throwing snowballs at passing cars. At our reunion, we all marveled at how easy it was to grow up in Carle Place.
If you were white. It took me years to realize that there were no blacks in my town. Housing segregation in suburbia was common in postwar America, but Mr. Levitt, a Jew, was particularly racist. He barred Jews from his first development on Long Island, refused to sell to blacks and even barred resales to blacks. He fought right up to the Supreme Court to keep his developments all white. My idyllic childhood was denied to African Americans. Benefits for veterans were also denied to blacks: of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill, less than 100 went to non-whites.
My classmates and I got a fine start in life, allowing us to make the most of our talents and our luck. We didn’t realize our good fortune was built on discrimination and exclusion. That lesson is hard to learn.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 2, 2016