From the London Free Press, Oct. 21, 2017:
Like the monarch butterflies that gathered at the tip of Point Pelee, we fluttered back to Leamington last weekend from points both distant and near.
Forty-five years had passed since 79 of us had bade farewell to Leamington District Secondary School. Now, for two days, nearly half of us were back.
Like many graduating classes, we’d held a 10-year reunion. Then, in the mid-’90s, many of us answered the call to the school’s centennial celebration. We occupied a classroom in the school’s east wing reserved for the Class of ’72.
But after that, nothing — until four classmates issued an invitation, in February, for an autumn get-together, figuring the opening of a brand new LDSS on Oak Street West was reason enough to rally our reminiscences once again. And while many of us drove by to glance at the school’s fourth incarnation, we had little interest in going in.
Our school — the one still alive in the neurons of our temporal lobes — sits mothballed on Talbot Street, a few blocks north. Unless the Greater Essex County District school board designates funds for its demolition, it will stay there for years to come, a dark and crumbling decrepitude and a mute monument to another educational era.
The first high school in town opened in 1896 in the three-storey home of Lewis Wigle, one of Leamington’s founders. A proper school was built in 1922 and opened the following year at a cost of $65,000.
The school my classmates and I attended opened in 1953, the year we were born, its cornerstone and time capsule set in place a year earlier by Ontario premier Leslie Frost. Two subsequent additions were built to accommodate the burgeoning student population, which, at its peak, reached 1,497 students. Today, the school’s enrollment is right around 1,000.
But we didn’t come for the buildings. We came seeking each other, as if searching for missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzles that had become our lives.
It took most of us a few seconds to identify each other — even with the help of name tags bearing our likenesses from our ’72 school yearbook. But after those uncertain moments, recognition set in, first as a flicker, then a flame, then a full-on bonfire — and we laughed about why we hadn’t known each other at first glance.
We are in our 60s now. Life has left six decades’ worth of indelible paw prints. Some of us bore the invisible wounds of separation, loss and illness; others had already dealt with fearsome scourges such as cancer or chronic diseases.
And though our chatter during the reunions of ’82 and ’96 had focused on university experiences, chosen vocations, children and the reach of our geographic diaspora, this time the talk was decidedly different.
Oh, we still revelled in our memories. But there was a palpable sense that the race — if there had ever been one — had been run. Our families were complete and often scattered. Our careers had either ended with retirement or were nearing their conclusions. A few of our classmates had already passed on. Whatever might have been left of our competitive streaks had melted away, like ice in a warm patio drink. Old pretensions, where they existed at all, had become as transparent as cellophane. There were a few regrets.
Stripped to their essence, our exchanges were more candid and forthright. Time had become both an ally and an adversary. Perhaps for the first time, we were genuinely mindful of the moment and gazed at one another a little more purposefully, intently, deeply, appreciatively.
We re-discovered the fact that there are many things in life for which to be thankful, not the least of which is memory — and its ability to protect our shared experience and sense of identity in a world that conspires to steal it from us.
And amid all the reverie was the sobering realization that, next time — if there is a next time — our numbers will almost certainly be fewer.
Like the monarchs at the Point, the most perilous of our life journeys now lay directly ahead of us. We could only hope to see one another again.
Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org