California Forum

Bruce Maiman: High school class reunion also an affirmation

I finally attended my high school reunion. Forty years. If they’d had any before, I hadn’t noticed, or cared. I simply moved on after graduation.

You often hear how people dread attending their reunion, having to measure themselves against the success of others. Reunions portrayed by Hollywood all seem to hinge on lingering insecurities that somehow must be rectified.

Not so at New York’s High School of Art & Design. An art school in Manhattan, it was attended by kids from all over New York – every color, economic and social strata – but all sharing the solidarity of creativity that transcended the typical boundaries of high school cliques and the individual social identities of most New York neighborhoods.

Mention Randy Pearson and you’d invariably hear, “Best artist in the school.” He was, too. No one ever said, “The black guy.” That didn’t matter. Gay students weren’t closeted, they were flamboyant. Yeah, there were juvenile gay jokes, but these fashion design students made their own clothes, wore them well and we marveled at their talent.

I’ve wondered over the years whether such recollections – often shared – were simply just a memory clouded by hazy nostalgia, but that same memory permeated the reunion.

“Nobody judged you,” Lilly Braun-Goldbard said. “Art was what counted.”

“It was truly a special school,” Robert Weisberg added. “Every student wanted to be there, knowing how privileged they were to be able to kick-start their lives toward their future chosen careers.”

Of course, there were the usual schemes and hijinks. My “access” to each semester’s schedule enabled me to doctor it so that our large contingent of friends could lunch together. “UTSA,” we called ourselves – United Table of Stupid Artists. At the reunion, Roy Aiuto displayed a plastic sheath containing an UTSA “membership” card with his name and my signature. Apparently, I was chairman.

Why would anyone save such a thing?

“It’s our history,” said Roy, an avid memorabilia collector. “It’s so my kids will know where I came from.”

They’re likely more impressed with Roy’s career, which includes licensed art for films like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Austin Powers.”

Indeed, most of my classmates had turned their talents into viable livelihoods. Robert is an architect for the city of New York. Lilly and Randy are art designers. Others run agencies or teach at distinguished institutions like the Fashion Institute of Technology or Parsons The New School for Design.

Some chose differently. Close friends Rob Trombley and Richie Marino, who organized the reunion, and Domenick Lorenzon all eventually landed management positions in blue-collar fields. At the reunion, no one judged that, either.

Roderick Ward – “RB” – has been Branford Marsalis’ tour manager for 20 years, all because RB’s art agency work included photo shoots at his Brooklyn residence where Marsalis also lived. Marsalis one day asked about all the pretty models being photographed. That evolved into a friendship and then a working partnership. RB still maintains his art career.

Some now contend that reunions are in decline because social media, with everyone’s constant status updates, have eliminated the excitement of surprise that comes from attending one. Anybody can sneak a digital peek at old classmates.

But I didn’t know RB in high school, or Lilly, or many others in that class of 1974, and never would have through Facebook. There is sweet pleasure in visiting with old friends remembered, but reunions also allow the privilege of making new friends with classmates you’d known only from afar.

And while I’ve often believed myself lucky to attend a high school far more diverse than my little neighborhood, I was heartened to hear nearly everyone in the room say the same thing, that it provided a learning experience no curriculum ever could.

This wasn’t just a reunion but an affirmation.

Maybe your high school reaped similar benefits, I don’t know. But the years I spent with my class contributed profoundly to the formative years of my life, evoking associations more deeply than most I would experience later. Looking back, you appreciate Wordsworth’s belief that “the child is father of the man.”

We were hardly the myth of the American teenager. We were a generation marked by the Vietnam War, riots, protests and Watergate – the final nail in the coffin of the post-Elvis generation of innocence. We knew of violence, drugs and sex. I doubt we looked forward to the future in the way a 1950s graduate might have. Still, we were taught well. We were the best class. And most of us turned out all right, a reminder that high school can be the time that helps you drive the miles that follow and give life a great ride. For this class, I’d say, most of us have done that, with good gas mileage, even.