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How to Survive Your High School Reunion

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The first high school reunion I attended was held in a basement reached by a rickety elevator. After I got there, I hung out nearby to see the other arrivals. This turned out to be a mistake.

The elevator became a direct portal to my past: Who would step out next? I grew so anxious that a friend gently led me to the bar.

Rarely are we neutral about class reunions. A therapist friend told me that, every spring, she treats clients who spend entire sessions debating whether they should attend theirs in the summer.

For many of us, high school was our whole world — willingly or not. “It’s a very sensitive time of great change,” said Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist at Yale who attended her 40th reunion a few years ago.

Research suggests that the memories we form in adolescence and early adulthood are the most vivid — a phenomenon known as the reminiscence bump. That can make reunions feel like a kind of psychological time travel, where your past identity collides with the present identity that you have spent years building, Dr. Divecha said.

I asked experts for advice on how to decide whether to go — and if you do, how to make the most of it.

You may have fantasies of going back and impressing people who ignored you in school, said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association and author of “Popular.”

Don’t waste your time, he said. The movie scene where a former nerd makes a red-carpet entrance as everyone lowers their sunglasses in awe only exists on film, he added. Instead, present yourself as the person you are now.

At my reunion, I realized pretty quickly that we were all grown-ups. Many of us, by that point, had weathered our share of knocks — which made us more empathetic with one another. I discovered that a few classmates who had intimidated me in the old days had somehow turned into pleasant middle-aged people. As had I.

Hitting the bar can be tempting if you want to take the edge off or revive the old days, but it’s probably better to be present and lucid, Dr. Divecha said. “It’s one night,” she said. “And it goes so fast.”

Instead, have a reliable game plan for quelling your nerves. “When I went to my reunion, my strategy was to go with a friend, and we processed at various points during the night,” Dr. Divecha said. “Even in the bathroom.”

If you approach your classmates with curiosity, said Dr. Prinstein, you can observe and engage without “setting up residence in the past.”

You may find that people you didn’t think were particularly cool back in the day are worth your admiration now, he said. “And for many people that can lead to some pleasant surprises and nice interactions,” Dr. Prinstein said.

It can be weird to reconnect with people who witnessed to all of your awkward adolescent glory, but shared history can have its rewards. One of my friends lost her mom when she was a teen and spent her reunion asking former classmates for memories of her mother. She heard a few stories that she had never known.

If the idea of attending still makes you anxious, that’s OK. “It’s not for everybody,” Dr. Divecha said. In which case, she said, give yourself permission not to go.

I understand why many people have no interest in going, but I did end up having a good time at my reunion. I was my senior year class clown, and it was immensely freeing to act silly with my friends — something I don’t get a ton of opportunities to do these days.

I was also excited to see my biology teacher at the reunion (who wrote in my college recommendation letter about my transformation from a “distasteful caterpillar into a butterfly”) and we’ve since become text buddies.

And, like Dr. Divecha pointed out, the event did speed by. A few hours later, I was taking the rickety elevator back to the present.


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