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The great high school reunion
Haley - Reunion
Members of the Robert E. Lee Academy class of 2003 at their recent 10-year reunion. C-I Localife editor Haley Atkinson is third from the right in the striped shirt helping to hold up the reunion sign.


Earlier this summer, I made the wise decision to see the Baz Luhrmann version of The Great Gatsby. I have to say I was an immediate fan of the film, not surprising as I love the book and Leonardo DiCaprio and modern remakes of classic works in general. I have read Gatsby close to 30 times by now, I’m sure, and the final words of the book have a way of replaying over and over again in my mind for days on end, as incessantly as if they were part of some Taylor Swift song -- “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I love that phrase for all that it implies and those were the very words in my mind this past weekend when I attended my 10-year class reunion. There I was, out of school for 10 years now, having lived in various cities, attended various schools, maintained and dissolved various relationships, and I was going back to the place where I began, to rejoin, if only for an evening, the people who knew me way back when. To say the least, I was unenthusiastic. Really, I was sick to my stomach with anxiety. I must have told myself a thousand times, “I don’t want to do this. I’m not going to do this.” Yet, when my phone rang and I saw the name of our former class president, I couldn’t hit ignore. In fact, I answered and even said, “Why, yes of course I’ll be there!” when he asked if I’d be attending the reunion. It wasn’t even his various threats that swayed me; it was a tiny voice in the back of my mind saying that if I didn’t go I knew I’d regret it.

So, with some further encouragement from another friend and a few glasses of wine, I found myself in the parking lot of “Harry’s” -- Lee Academy students’ favorite hangout spot -- holding a cheese ball and cracker arrangement and wondering how soon I could slip out without anyone saying anything snarky about me.

I think everyone who attends a class reunion feels some level of hesitation like I did, maybe not to the same extent, but it’s got to be a universal feeling. However, as soon as I walked in, the feeling all but disappeared. It was like I’d walked right back into 2003. I was greeted by one of my oldest and dearest friends, Corrie, who pointed out the yearbook display that she had set up. “I couldn’t put out K5 and 1st grade,” she whispered. “I crossed out some people’s faces with black marker.” Oh, how those elementary school rivalries come back to haunt us!

Within 10 minutes of being there, I was handed a camera by Grayham a/k/a class president a/k/a party planner extraordinaire, and told, “Haley, do what you’re good at. Take pictures.” For a second, I wanted to argue, but then I realized how right he was. I’d been the editor of a few yearbooks and school newspapers in my more vulnerable years and I have a real knack for getting those priceless action shots where someone is devouring a chicken tender or sneezing or laughing in such a way they look possessed by a demon. The selection of me to be event photographer was obvious … and unavoidable.

The night progressed as most nights of the sort do, tentatively at first, but quickly easing into something much more pleasant and comfortable. What I discovered after chatting with many of my former classmates is that people don’t really change that much in 10 years. The laughs sound the same, the smiles are surprisingly familiar. I find that comforting in a way. So many times, I’ve been in a situation -- a graduation, a breakup, a move -- where I was so terrified that this change I was making would make the place, the people I was leaving unrecognizable if I ever came back. I’m the type of person that embraces change while being utterly petrified by it. There’s nothing like a 10-year class reunion to remind you that a new beginning doesn’t necessarily mean the end of something previous.

There we all were, after having done “our own things” for a decade now and how easily we fell back into conversing about weddings or Carolina football or memories of some third-grader who may have thrown up all over another third-grader during a spelling test. I’m not saying the third-grader at fault was me and I’m not saying that even after that fiasco I still managed to get a 100 on the test in question, but those could be the facts. They certainly could be…

What I’m left with after all this is an overwhelming sense of gratitude -- gratitude to have shared my childhood years in such a welcoming and protective town as Bishopville which I’m sure is very similar to so many other small, Southern towns in its welcoming and protective appeal, gratitude to have gone to school with such good, genuine people, gratitude to have friendships that have lasted for 20-plus years (my friend Jody and I have been friends since we bonded in K4 over both of us being thumb-suckers), and gratitude that F. Scott Fitzgerald was so correct when he said the past would always be with us, and that we truly are “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly.” Fitzgerald may have intended those words to impart a sense of despair, but I’ve never been the best at following directions. I read them as hopeful and optimistic and comforting. I read them as saying, nothing, not even the past, is ever really lost to us.