Is social media causing the demise of in-person class reunions?

South Bend’s James Whitcomb Riley High School class of 1982 has the a “significant” reunion this July. Reunions aren’t what they used to be. No, I’m not talking about “Grosse Pointe Blank” excitement, where hitmen attend a reunion in the movie. I’m talking about what social media has done to the way we stay in contact with one another. 

I’ve attended only two of my high school reunions; our 20th and 30th. I helped organize the two I attended. The organizing committees met at Hacienda to plan what hall to rent, how much to charge to attend, and how best to contact classmates. Although we found contact information for the majority of our classmates, it was difficult to get many people to commit to attending the reunions.

A mere 33 class members attended our 30th reunion, only 10 percent of our graduating class. In a day and age when you can track down almost anyone using the Internet, you might think it would be easier to contact and persuade fellow classmates to attend. But it seems like the majority of the class of 1982 was either not at all interested in revisiting their high school days, did not want to suffer the stereotypical braggarts who want to show off how they have succeeded in life (that never happens on Facebook, does it?!), or they are already keeping track of the friends from their school years on social media.

When my parents purchased their first home as a married couple in 1969, they selected a house in Beverly Heights subdivision with the thought that their kids would be able to walk to school from kindergarten to 12th grade (Monroe and Riley). School desegregation during the 1970s disrupted that plan, so my brother and I were bussed to Jackson Middle School for three years. Other than the Jackson years, I did walk to school. 

I had a group of close friends in elementary school. My stomping grounds were between Chippewa, Miami, Ewing, and Michigan Street. We walked or biked to each other’s homes. Moms were usually around to supervise us. There was no need for cellular phones to keep in constant contact. If my brother and I were close to home, my mom used a cowbell from her extensive bell collection to summon us to dinner. Yes, that was embarrassing, but effective.

Middle school severed most of my elementary friendships. Many of my Monroe classmates rode different buses to Jackson and of course middle school meant changing classes more frequently than we did in elementary school. Different elementary schools were feeding into Jackson, so there were a lot of new students to get acquainted with. 

The year I started at Jackson, the school was just transitioning from a high school to a middle school, and there were problems. I witnessed a teacher pick a condom off the gym floor with a pen (I had no idea what a condom was). Fights in the halls were common. I got punched in the gym by a girl and I was bullied in the halls between classes. Rumors of fights spread and exterior doors were locked, either to keep students from leaving or prevent parents from coming in to collect their kids. I count my Jackson experience as the worst three years of my education.

My arrival at Riley was a relief. Riley was only for sophomores to seniors when I arrived, so there was none of the junior high angst. I felt at home right away. I really loved high school. For the most part, I had terrific teachers. I was interested in journalism so the student newspaper became my passion. I had made a couple of new friends at Jackson and those friendships solidified.

At the two reunions I did attend, I found myself spending most of my time with my elementary school mates. Those bonds seemed deeper and more lasting than my middle and high school friendships. As young kids, we experienced school for the first time together and played at each others’ houses. As we grew older, we found independence and spent less time in our homes and more time at sporting events, the shopping malls, and after-school jobs. At our 30th reunion, all the Monroe classmates present posed for a mini-reunion picture.

One reunion I did not attend was hosted by a classmate on his farm property. Legend has it things got kind of wild out in the wild. I think there is still a lien on the port-a-potty.

For a couple of years during the 2010s, I created and used a Facebook account. My primary reason for doing so was to document the renovation and expansion of Monroe School. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful school in South Bend. My mom still lives close to it, so I could take pictures of the work in progress and share them online.

 The initial burst of people “friending” me when I first joined Facebook was a rush. Reconnecting with people was fun. But soon the reconnecting was replaced by recommendations for silly animal videos, disinformation, and other content designed to keep me on the platform. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, I quickly deleted my Facebook account. I now sport a “Facebook isn’t your friend” bumper sticker.

As a result of no longer being on any social media (unless you count LinkedIn), I have lost track of some of my closest friends from my school days. I no longer subscribe to the South Bend Tribune, so unless my mom tips me off, I have no idea when my friends’ parents who used to watch over me pass away. I do miss those connections. I have lived in South Bend most of my life, so I still encounter classmates once in a while

But for some reason, I have little interest in going to my 40th reunion. What I’m hearing is that only a tenth of our class has committed to attending. Maybe it’s just our graduating class isn’t particularly close. But I sense social media has caused the demise of traditional in-person class reunions. If somebody really wants to locate me, I’m easily found. 

So I send a shout out to the Riley Class of 1982: “Down by the River. Started to drown. Thought about Riley. Couldn’t go down!” Riley Wildcats will understand.