“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Nelson Mandela
I have a lot of friends. Some are closer than others. I think I understand what it takes to build and maintain a true friendship: shared experiences over time, mutual respect, similar values.
Earlier this fall, I attended a milestone high school reunion. My fiftieth. John Marshall High School, Richmond, Virginia, Class of 1969. I suspect that for many, a 50th reunion is a long-awaited event to renew acquaintances and recapture friendships. It seemed to me that a lower percentage of black than white graduates attended. I wonder if fond memories of high school were not shared equally by both groups.
The ‘60s were a time of great racial change in Richmond and across the country. My high school started the decade as a primarily white institution and finished as a mostly black one. White flight was real. The class of 1969 was probably the last one at John Marshall with a white majority. Our class felt the impact of the changing demographics. The black and the white students were classmates, associates in school clubs, or teammates playing a sport, but we were not friends. At least not friends as I consider them. We didn’t go to social events together or hang out at each other’s homes. Our interactions were casual conversations in the halls of the school or at school sporting events.
For my friendship group, the 50th reunion felt more like an inevitable event, not a much-anticipated occasion. We had attended the 40th where everyone, including me, mostly stayed in our old high school cliques, with only nominal mingling. As an inveterate traveler, it is noteworthy I even passed up a trip to Greece with another group of friends so I could attend this 50th reunion. I guess it may have been more important to me than I wanted to admit.
I entered the first event of the reunion weekend with a bit of trepidation. “Cautiously curious” would best describe my emotions at the Friday evening, Meet-and-Greet. There was a much different feeling from the 40th. It was welcoming, inclusive, people seemed genuinely happy to see each other. Racially mixed groups—genuine laughter and what-seemed-to-be real conversations—was what I saw and experienced. That feeling of camaraderie continued at the weekend’s culminating event, the dinner dance on Saturday night.
What had happened between 2009, our 40th reunion, and 2019?
A significant conversation about race had started in the United States. Did that play a role? Did we understand the dynamics of race in a way that we never had before, and did that understanding make basic conversation easier?
Over the decade between the 40th and 50th reunion, cell phone videos had captured startling displays of injustice that could not be ignored. Newspaper articles, magazines, television documentaries were layering messages about racial inequity throughout the popular media. And great attention to the topic surrounded the presidency of our country’s first African American president. Awareness of race and the disparity between races had probably become more prevalent in America during this decade than since the civil rights movement, the time when our connections as classmates were forming. Maybe these discussions and events were a factor in making the encounters across race more genuine. I wonder if the heightened understanding made it easier to walk up to people of a different race and start conversations. We did, after all, have a shared framework—the halls of John Marshall—if not a wholly shared experience. Maybe it was that recognition of only recently revealed, parallel universes that opened some conversations.
When speaking at the dinner, Carolyn Mosby, one of the few African American faculty at John Marshall when we were there, said to the group, “tonight we will throw back any regrets, any dislikes, any old grudges.” In those words, she acknowledged that many of the black students had felt prejudice, discrimination, aloofness, racism during our time at John Marshall High School, and acknowledged that some white students, consciously or unconsciously, through words or actions, may have hurt their black fellow students. That was real, but she wanted us to move on. Ever the teacher, she was helping us bridge any racial chasms that had existed and to recognize the passage of time.
Regardless of race, we had all been young with the callousness and insensitivity of teenagers. AND, we were the front guard. The mid-to-late ‘60s were still the early days of integration. When we were in high school, there was not even the semblance of a road map for understanding racial differences and promoting honest dialog across races. There were no experienced guides. We plotted that territory. Mrs. Mosby reminded us to cut each other some slack. We are all different people now than we had been fifty years earlier.
That is an important reminder. We must give each other room to grow, to change beliefs, and to adapt to new understandings of historical “facts” and current reality. Who we were does not reflect who we have become.
I don’t have white friends from high school, at least not yet. In the last few years, I have crossed paths with a growing number and enjoyed those connections. We are friendly, but not yet friends. But who knows, by the next reunion, some budding relationships may evolve into true friendships.