Can New Friendships — True Friendships — Grow 50 Years Later?

“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.

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The Daughters of the Dream L to R — Debbie Riddick, Debby Smith, Marsha Ware, Veronica Abrams, Tamara Copeland, Renee Mills (missing: Jean Petties); photo courtesy of Tony Abrams

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.

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Top: Class of 1969; Bottom L: Carolyn Mosby; Bottom R: classmates: Steve Montgomery, Debbie Lunsford Webb, Harrison Marks and Tamara Copeland; Photos courtesy of Sylvia and Bill Craighead and Steve Montgomery

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.

 

The Friendship Spark

There’s always the chance a dormant friendship can re-ignite, but doing so needs a little kindling, a resurrected spark, and someone to breathe life into it.

If I had thought about it at all in my 20s and 30s, I would have said the friendship of the Valianettes—my closest childhood friends—was over. It wasn’t an unpleasant ending, no drama, just life’s transition as we moved into adulthood. First, different colleges, then careers, and husbands and children. The distance grew between us. I didn’t think then about how time had passed and life had parted us.

We had been friends since elementary school, a group since middle school and a named club—the Valianettes—since high school. We went everywhere together. Long before seat belts limited (and protected) the number of people in a car, we would pile into someone’s car, sometimes on each other’s laps, to get to that Friday night party. We always went together. We had to. None of our parents would allow us to go unless a critical mass of the group was going; protection in numbers. There were duos and trios of even closer friendships within the group, but we were all intertwined friends. Then that major rite of passage—high school graduation—occurred, and the bond evaporated. Even for those of us who went to the same college, too many things—the newness of becoming an adult—took us in different directions and it just wasn’t the same. For nearly twenty years, we were apart. No one thought anything of it; we had all moved on.

Then in just one day—with the arrival of my son AJ—my friend Marsha changed all of that. She and AJ were the kindling.

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Top photo — L to R — bottom row: Gloria Reid, Marsha Ware, Debby Smith; middle row: Zena Claiborne, Debbie Riddick, Tamara Copeland, Renee Mills; top row: Veronica Abrams, Janice Bowie, Madeline Swann; Bottom photo: Tamara and baby AJ

Marsha’s life had taken her to a small girls’ college in Western Virginia—Hollins College—not as a student, but as a staff member. As part of her responsibility, she would periodically bring a group from Roanoke, Virginia to Washington, DC to see the nation’s capital and would call me to get together for lunch. After several times, we realized it was like old times and when I told her my then-husband and I were adopting a baby; she decided to host a shower for baby AJ.

Who would come? Well, the Valianettes, of course. They were the core of the invitation list. That one gathering was so much fun it led to many others. We just needed that spark. First just lunch now and then, then regularly-scheduled lunches, then weekends at someone’s home, then our first trip together — all led now to twenty years of being reconnected after twenty years apart. Last year, we laughed and finished each other’s stories on a beach in Jamaica.

Is our friendship special? I think so. I know no one who is a part of a group that has been together since the first grade. Sometimes I think about the role that segregation played in placing us together in school, early dance classes and in scouting troops, but that wasn’t it. Others have been together in similar circumstances, but that magical connection didn’t happen for them. It wasn’t until we attended one of our high school reunions we realized that others had noticed the strength of our bond. One of our teachers was there and commented on the fact we were together at the gathering. She said, “I knew you would all be together. You were always together.”

As we enter a new year, reminisce, and consider our prospects for the future, we sometimes think of a joyful moment in our history and believe it was just that, the past — something to be remembered with a smile. While singular events may be long ago, whatever led to the joyfulness of that event, the core of that happiness, is still there. It can be brought to life with intentionality and nurturing. So, as I enter 2019 and reflect on what gives meaning to my life, family is paramount, but friends—the family you choose—are a close second.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

— Robert Burns, 1788