This weekend, marked the occasion of the 10th anniversary of a very special kind of junior year in high school.
Having never attended a reunion for college or high school, the following reflection may in fact be a standard recounting of how things unfold at class reunions.
Maybe, though, just maybe, this was a different kind of reunion.
First, if you are not sure what a Congressional Page is, or does, click here or here for a history of the program. Among other things, you’ll learn that the institution has been around as early at 1827.
The school year that was 1995-1996 was a year of major changes. The Republicans had just become the majority in Congress and many in Washington, DC were feeling “growing pains.” It also an election year, the year of a Blizzard that brought Washington to its knees and a few scandals occurred as well.
This could easily become a revisiting of various memories like how we slacked off at work, the crazy things we did after work like jumping into water fountains or even a discussion of how we attempted to learn in school amidst all the distractions.
But this is about something truly remarkable that occurs when members of congress nominate a bunch of America’s brightest sixteen year olds from all over red & blue America, (many of whom mirrored their same political philosophy) to live, work, and study in Washington, DC.
For nearly all, being a Page was the first time experiencing life away from home. And with subsidized meals, housing and education together with a nice paycheck and free reign to explore a major urban city, you could easily see why we’d be the envy of any reality show casting director if they knew all that went on that year.
The reunion weekend began with dinner & drinks at Bullfeather’s on Capitol Hill which served as the rendezvous point and a first reminder of where many ate on the weekends, and situated across from the very buildings were we once worked and lived.
With so many keeping journals of their experiences, the first night had your typical “do you remember when’s.” It’s likely that each person gathered could recall with clarity a moment for every day of their experience in Washington.
About 28 pages attended this year’s reunion. But nearly everyone was represented as at least one attendee had regular correspondence with the others who were unable. Some couldn’t attend because they were pregnant or taking care of their own children. A few nobody knew what happened. And two pages were in attendance together by virtue of the fact that they were recently engaged.
Sure, news of marriage between classmates is common talk among high school or college reunions where memories lasted four years.
But what if the instead of getting married after knowing a person for four years you knew them for an event that lasted just nine months at age 16?
Particularly touching was the fact that so many spouses and significant others joined as well.
How many times have you been to a reunion where people fly themselves and their spouse from across the Atlantic Ocean just to rekindle old bonds?
We had that.
Pages certainly mentioned this time in their life to their spouses and partners. But for those that never experienced that aspect, being here was the only way to truly put it into context.
When we left in 1996, some mocked the very idea that we should follow in the footsteps of our predecessors and plan on ensuring that every five years we get together. Not only have we held to our regular five year commitments twice, we even held a one year reunion!
But for some, the thought of a reunion would only serve to remind everyone again of the same personalities that still existed at age 16. After all, nobody changes or grows up after age 16, right? Isn’t that reason enough to shun an experience like this?
True, hairstyles and waist sizes came and went among classmates, but witnessing things like that irresistible laugh of a friend again can be just as-if not more-memorable than any actual spoken memory.
It really was experiencing those personalities again that can ignite old memories-both good and bad. And, truth be told, the cliques had largely evaporated. We viewed each other no longer as just former classmates but people of a unique support group that we could share a lot more than just old war stories.
On Saturday morning, our group was given a tour of the U.S. House of Representatives Page School, located in the attic of the beautiful Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress building. Linda Miranda, at the time the foreign language teacher and presently the school’s principal, gave up her Saturday to greet and escort them through security.
We had our opportunity to ask how things changed and validate old rumors. Faculty and curriculum had certainly changed but the challenges that students went though appeared to remain the same (including how to be absorb knowledge and punctual at 6:45 AM for the start of class after working until 1:00 AM the previous morning).
Mrs. Miranda sat us down in the same classrooms chairs and went about the room asking about our current occupations. It’s probably not surprising that there are an abundance of lawyers in our class. These are lawyers who graduated top of their class and are working at world class firms. We also have our share of MBA graduates, those in medicine, accounting, corporate life, the arts and other respectful professions.
Later, we were given a tour of the Page Residence Hall, by a dorm supervisor who himself was a Page. The dorm was completely new since we were arrived some ten years ago. The old building was condemned and torn down. A parking lot now exists where it once stood. Given the choice between the very nice new facilities and the restrictions on living that go with it, I’d take the old dorm any day.
That afternoon, during free time, much of the conversation turned from retelling old musings to learning how one took the career path they did and the complexities of each person’s life today.
That evening, we gathered for our formal dinner at Marrakech where the environment of a seven course Middle Eastern meal lent itself well to catching up and moving around to different tables for one-on-one conversations.
During dinner, the question still went unanswered: What is it about this experience that tells me we’ll be doing this every five years for many decades to come?
What is it also about this experience that tells me you’ll likely be reading about many people in this group in the headlines in the future?
It might have something to do with the fact that, in catching up, it’s obvious that many continue to demonstrate the same commitment to excellence just as they did when they were nominated. The experiences we went through conditioned us for many of life’s challenges ahead that few get to appreciate at that age.
I have little doubt that we will be successful in life. Success, as the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, is to “laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give’ one’s self…to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation.”
We’ve done that.
Ten and Twenty-five year class reunions where you recount four years of your life are a common enough span of time and occurrence to get together.
But when you spend every aspect of your life together-work, school, play-for nine months at that age you develop bond that is different and that transcends the typical reunion commitment.
Nearly everyone graduates high school and about half graduate college in America. Yet, only 62 students per year are given the opportunity to be Congressional Pages and thus are able to participate.
On Sunday, the few that remained gathered at Clyde’s in Gallery Place for brunch and final farewells. “I just don’t like seeing people say goodbye so I’m gonna leave now,” remarked one former page whose eyes were beginning to well up.
Saying goodbye again today reminded people of when they said goodbye for the first time; trusting only in the bonds they formed that the promise to see each other again would be fulfilled.
We can only leave our desire to maintain correspondence in the coming years to fate and to trust. This, despite the thought of recounting bad memories or difficulties with money, job and family schedules.
Attending gives one the opportunity to both laugh again or to grow wiser by mending fences. It also is an opportunity to share unrelated personal events with a core group of people who instinctively understand.
When Ronald Reagan delivered his remarks on the 40th Anniversary of the Normandy invasion, he looked out among the veterans who traveled to be at Pointe du Hoc and remarked, “You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer.”
It was a difficult question for those veterans to answer. “Why? What made them unique?”
While not to trivialize that important day, I find myself asking the similar question this weekend.
We were certainly risk takers. Fate had a funny way of selecting each one of us and affording each the luxury of being able to share this special bond for a lifetime.
Sometimes, the answer is larger than the question itself. Sometimes the answer is not able to be spoken or written down and instead the answer comes to you just by being at the right place at the right time.
This will likely be the only type of reunion I ever attend. It’s hard to argue that an experience like this at that age didn’t have a profound effect on your life.
Being here again is, if nothing else, validation.
How about you? What is your favorite class reunion story or memory?