The Personal is Historical
It’s Not Like the Movies or Social Media: Let’s Reimagine High School Reunions

It’s Not Like the Movies or Social Media: Let’s Reimagine High School Reunions

Emily Contois

My twentieth high school reunion is this summer, and I can’t decide if I want to go or not. Enmeshed in ambivalence, I’m weighing my more-bitter-than-sweet high school memories alongside how those years undeniably influenced me. What’s more, our society performs a collective myth-making around high school culture that’s immortalized in the films and TV shows of my youth. From crushes and BFFs to unforgettable parties, homecoming game touchdowns, and prom night, high school is constructed as not just a rite of passage, but “the best years of your life.” Whether rosy or regrettable, our high school experiences can’t be rewritten, but as adults, we could reinvent reunions to be more inclusive and intentional, more worthwhile and fun. While social media fosters surface-level connections for us on a daily basis, once-a-decade gatherings could be socially transformative, if we embrace the opportunity to reimagine them.

When I first saw the announcement for my reunion several months ago on Facebook (of course it was on freakin’ Facebook), I was surprised by the rush of warm feelings that coursed through me because I never considered going to my ten-year reunion. But over the last decade, I’ve found myself yearning for the company of fellow life travelers. Adulthood as an “elder millennial” leaves much to be desired. Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term Millennial in 1991.[1] Because I was in first grade, I had no awareness of the term till much later and no idea that an existential generational specter would hang over us and shape our lives, often not for the better. As high school classmates, we aren’t bound by just our birth years. We’re yoked by our collective experience of Millennial adulthood, its joys and triumphs but also its distinct struggles and dissatisfaction.[2]

Given the built-in and potentially powerful solidarity a high school reunion could cultivate, I was immediately drawn to the prospect of gathering with people who’ve weathered the same number of years as me. We’ve trod a path that started at the same origin—in Billings, Montana, in a kind of run-down red brick building that celebrated its 60th year in 1999, when we started our high school journey. It was the year of Y2K, the end of the twentieth century, the start of something else.

It’s likely true that no one has an overall happy high school experience, but some of my classmates seemed to enjoy hijinks in the halls, pool parties, and dances with dates, even if the DJ at our senior prom closed the night with Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” Some classmates had (and still have) close friends from those years. They have good memories, inside jokes, treasured stories.

I, on the other hand, had a pretty awful time in high school. Bookish from the start, I was raised on friendships like Anne of Green Gables and her kindred spirit Diana Barry and the feisty members of The Baby-Sitters Club. I yearned for close friends, but I never had many.

Even more than bosom buddies, I wanted a boyfriend. Oh my word, how I wanted a boyfriend. As a feminist today, it pains me how large male adoration loomed for me, but perhaps it was because I grew up during not only a cinematic explosion of iconic romantic comedies—like Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Wedding Planner (2001), and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)—but also a boom of ones specifically set in high school—10 Things I Hate About You (1999), She’s All That (1999), A Walk to Remember (2002), and be still my ballet dancer heart, Save the Last Dance (2001). Unlike Kat or Laney or Jamie or Sara, I was asked on one date in all four years of high school, an occasion so notable that even my teachers gossiped about it. And after one fun evening, that boy socially ghosted me in real life, before ghosting was even a popularly-used term.

Needless to say, I graduated deeply disappointed by how sharply my experience diverged from the American high school mythology. Being a textbook overachiever may have caused my social problems, but it was my authentic self. Think of Anne Hathaway co-hosting the Oscars in 2011: puppy-dog eager, over-exuberant, vulnerably earnest, trying so damn hard, but also genuinely talented. That’s me, then and now. In high school, I studied long and hard, and trained in classical ballet even longer and harder. It set the course for who I am two decades later: a tenured professor of media studies, working to untangle the narratives threaded through our consumer culture that shape our identities, who we are and desire to be, how we wish to be seen and understood. My high school self knew who she was, but the prospect of a high school reunion still would’ve filled her with anxiety and dread.

Film and TV shows offer examples of what happens at high school reunions, but it’s not always pretty. Attendees feel pressured to invent more prestigious careers and affluent lifestyles, like inventing Post-Its in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), one of the most beloved of this movie subgenre. People try to seduce or reconnect with former crushes with varying results, as in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008). Folks connect with old friends and unveil new identities, like Dwayne Johnson’s transformation in Central Intelligence (2016) from a high school “nerd” into a muscular CIA agent, or they honestly share their struggles with a few laughs along the way, as in American Reunion (2012). On streaming TV, a high school reunion sets the stage for late-night antics that turn into a murder mystery, notably in The Afterparty (2022).

Two women in pink embrace with one foot raised in the air.
The theatrical release poster for Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

What if we ditch the tropes and reimagine what a high school reunion can be? Too often these gatherings are conceived (and represented in films and TV shows) as moments to repeat and restore our high school experiences and social arrangements. I have zero interest in that. And some of my classmates bear far deeper scars than I do; attending a traditional high school reunion is the last thing they’d subject themselves to.

What if we chose to gather as a group of peers? As an academic, I often think of that word within the context of peer review, that is, scholars in my field who share the same expertise. But peers are also people who share a similar life expertise. What if we gathered as peers who just want to know, understand, and support one another? The older we get, the harder it is to make new friends. What if we didn’t have to?

I’d go to a high school reunion where no one was competitive about our jobs or houses or cars, where no one worried about the weight we’ve gained, the hair we’ve lost, or the gray hairs and wrinkles we’ve sprouted.

I’d go to a high school reunion where we didn’t just circle up with whoever our friends were from before to the exclusion of everyone else.

I’d go to a high school reunion where we genuinely wanted to engage with each other. Our generation doesn’t need small talk or more surface level interactions. We’ve had Facebook since college for that. For many of us, social media has fully replaced what used to comprise the bulk of high school reunions, a checklist of social questions: Who’d you marry? What’s your job? How’s your family? Gosh, are any of us famous? We don’t need that anymore. We’ve already exchanged pleasantries. If we’re going to gather in person, we should do something more than that.

We could do something more than that.

What if we show up and celebrate who we are today and the strange wonderfulness that is the ties that bind us? Not who we were in high school, but the fact that we were there together, and that we’ve journeyed through time—decades of it!—linked as a group ever since.

We could be real, honest, genuine, and vulnerable with one another. We could be all the things we were perhaps too afraid to feel and do in high school. We could be and share beyond the curated selves that social media invites and rewards.

No matter what happens in the movies, no matter who we appear to be on Facebook or Instagram, no matter what we experienced or remember from high school, we can write our reunion story differently and better, charting a path of mutual support into the years to come.

* * * * * * * * *

For once, I want to read the comments on my essay, so hello, dear readers. Here are my questions for you. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and about your experiences.

If you’ve already hit a big High School Reunion milestone, did you go to yours? Were you glad that you did? Had enough years passed that folks were open and interesting, or did the cliques just circle up? If it wasn’t a good time, what do you wish had been different about your reunion?

If you had a great high school experience, how have those memories (and, ha, maybe actual friends!) helped you throughout your adult life?

If you had a less than great high school experience, have you healed from that hurt? What steps helped you?

In this essay, I pondered how film and TV represent high school (particularly high school romance) and high school reunions, and how they shaped my hopes and fears for what actually happens. What media examples shaped yours?


    1. William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (Harper Collins, 1991).
    2. We don’t hold hands with our Gen X siblings often enough, but they bear this weight, too.

Featured image caption: Photo by Inga Seliverstova (Courtesy Pexels)

Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.

10 thoughts on “It’s Not Like the Movies or Social Media: Let’s Reimagine High School Reunions

    • Author gravatar

      Emily, I so agree and love your take. I’ve been debating if I wanted to go to our reunion too! Like you I had no interest in the 10 year reunion. Call it nostalgia or maybe the thought that this might be my last chance to go, my plan is to book plane tickets this week. If you decide to go, I’d be excited for a genuine peer connection. 🙂

    • Author gravatar

      I love this essay!

      I went to my 20 year reunion and it was healing. We were able to share how awkward, scared, and misfit we each felt in high school. We shattered the myths and became human and vulnerable with each other. There was self and other compassion. New friendships were formed from the old.

    • Author gravatar

      I vote for a different reunion experience, but cannot visualize it. I went to my 40th reunion in April, an underwhelming event. A few good conversations, a few surprises, mostly cliques & feeling anxious again like I did back then!

      There were 604 graduates in my diverse class, and about 100 from the white & popular group showed up, plus a few of us nerds. I’d loved to have seen more people, more representation, a setting that encouraged connecting outside of your 16-year-old circle of friends.

      Love your reimagining proposition!

    • Author gravatar

      I, for one, would love to attend a 20 year like the one you described (in the end of course)!

    • Author gravatar

      I so agree and love your take. I’ve been debating if I wanted to go to our reunion too! Like you I had no interest in the 10 year reunion. Call it nostalgia or maybe the thought that this might be my last chance to go, my plan is to book plane tickets this week. If you decide to go, I’d be excited for a genuine peer connection.

    • Author gravatar

      I’m excited for our reunion and would love for it to be like the one you described. I enjoyed high school, but had some struggles and maybe sometimes over compensated to feel cool with my group of friends, a lot of whom I’m still close with. Lots of growing up has gone on in the last 20 years for (hopefully) most of us, and it would be fun to listen to everyone’s stories of where life has taken them.

      • Author gravatar

        I also have been debating on our reunion. I did not attend the 10 year and was perfectly fine with that. I would love it to be like your vision, however evwrytime I think of it I get a knot in my throat thinking about how it will likely be divided to the same groups it was then

    • Author gravatar

      I am still debating if I want to go to our 20 year reunion. I went to the 10 year on a last minute whim. There was still some of the cliques only socializing with themselves, but I was genuinely surprised by the interactions I had with others. Being able to share life experiences with people who took the road less traveled was refreshing. If I do decide to go I hope the event is more like your description and less like the movies.

    • Author gravatar

      I want to go to a high school reunion where, in my particular case, classmates reflect on major events that influenced our (Baby Boomer) generation, starting with Vietnam, and to unravel or air the controversies that separated us and perhaps even separate us more today. I’d like to honor our classmates who died in Vietnam, not just names on a wall, but young men we knew, dated, flirted with, had dreams about — and others scarred for life — all of us in different ways. To be honest about such events, rather than mouthing platitudes and seeking nostaglia. To name the ways these big events affected us personally. And to honor the nerds, the invisible kids; to name the racism and sexism and other -isms that swirled around us.

    • Author gravatar

      Finally some great writing about something real! I went to my 30th: I told my students that the same people who were annoying back in 77 were still annoying now; the same untouchable pretty ones reveled in their beauty still, but with wine in a business suit, instead of a joint in Levi jackets; the tanned football fellas spoke of cheap land deals in Honduras. As for those lost in Vietnam, because I’m Canadian I’m spared the burden, but I know now not to bring it up at BBQs by lakes in Washington (The State of). At my reunion people were more interested in a drunken stumble down Memory Lane than listening to one of the speakers who was reporting on his work for the UN…… while at a hospital on the other side of town a classmate was dying of breast cancer. As for Vietnam well, my reading of military history suggests that armies never go where there’s nothing and they never move without an incident. And that needs to be understood.

      I think that my reunion reminded me that the search to find people to love, and people that will love ya back can be tricky, and that if you play your cards right, and
      do no harm, and with a little luck, one can have a good ride.

      I think I’ll skip my 40th.

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