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  • Sean Smith

State of the Reunion

This Saturday, I'm going to read a chapter from Transformation Summer (and, who knows, maybe sell a copy or two) at my high school's Alumni Reunion Weekend. Is it just me, or are reunions unfailingly depicted in popular culture as fodder for comic relief or existential dread, or some combination of the two?

In most TV episodes or movies, the message is that nobody should even think of attending a high school reunion, ever. There is absolutely no doubt that, soon as we cross the threshold, we'll all revert to our archetypal teenage selves and behaviors: The bully on the wrestling team will give you a swirly; the mean girls will join ranks and cut you to shreds; the person you loved secretly from afar will, once again, ignore your very existence; and, of course, the teacher who, day in and day out, brutalized your psyche (usually the phys ed teacher, right?) will – despite his or her advanced age – terrorize you to the point where you drop and give him 20 or else confess that it was you, not Madge (although it really was Madge), who stole the answers to the 10th grade math final.

I, for one, am quite looking forward to the reunion weekend. Not that absolutely every minute of my high school years was golden, but you know, I did just fine. My situation was a little unusual in that I'd transferred to this school after my sophomore year, but while I was initially skeptical about the move, I wound up settling in quite well. And – in case you're starting to wonder why I'm devoting a blog to this amble down memory lane – I feel I had some important foundational writing experiences during this period.

Being in a school with very small faculty-student ratios (there were three of us in my Spanish class) and an emphasis on fostering community certainly made a difference: There was no hiding among the crowd, and if you messed up your teacher was going to hold you accountable. I wasn't a high academic achiever, but as someone who'd typically done well in writing, and took a certain pride in it, I realized that I had to be more focused and purposeful about what I wrote.

The extracurricular domain was equally, if not more important to my writing. During my senior year, a couple of students decided to start a school newspaper. Not that I was privy to all the discussions the editors had with the administration, but my understanding was that they could print it via the school's mimeograph machine if they agreed to have a faculty advisor. Unlike my previous school's student paper, this one was not only low-rent but decidedly irreverent, starting with its name,The Rolling Papers – the editors allegedly convinced the faculty advisor that it was supposed to evoke newspapers "rolling" off the presses.

I'd served on my old school's paper, but it wasn't exactly a fulfilling experience: I think I published one article, and it had been significantly whittled down from what I submitted – my first brush with editorial ruthlessness. But The Rolling Papers was far more laid back and unfiltered in terms of assignments and content, and so I became a regular contributor, mainly in music and arts. Among other things, I remember publishing a review of an English folk music album that probably nobody else had ever heard of or would ever be interested in, and another of a concert given at the school by a contemporary-folk duo – the article got a passing compliment in a letter to the editor, which was gratifying (even if the letter came from a faculty member, not a peer). Still, this was my introduction to the process of publishing: hatching the idea for a story, working on it, writing and refining it, then seeing it in print (albeit on mimeographed paper).

In senior year, I was co-editor for the school yearbook. My co-editor and I faced some considerable obstacles, namely that the administration wasn't interested in funding a yearbook, meaning we had to raise money directly from the school community (we were at least allowed to use the school darkroom). We were essentially the whole staff, and neither of us had had much experience with design and lay-out.

In the end, we got it done, barely. The result was pages of blurry, under- or over-exposed photos, unattractive graphics, and text in ugly typewriter font; its saving grace was the illustrations done by a student who had a real flair and artistic sensibility. Nobody seemed to mind much, amazed and appreciative as they were that we'd managed to produce the thing. Needless to say, this was a valuable lesson about the non-editorial aspect of the publishing process: namely, if you can find people manifestly better than you at tasks like photography, design and lay-out, for God's sake, have them do it.

While I don't know that I kept any copies of The Rolling Papers, I will always hold onto my yearbook, mainly because of the inscriptions from schoolmates, teachers and staff. But it's also a reminder of the hard work, perseverance and cooperation needed to bring a publication to life. Of course, if anyone criticizes the yearbook, I just blame everything on my co-editor.

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