A magical reunion

More than 50 years later, members of Class 215 at Garrison Junior High School get back together to honor their beloved teacher and look back

June 09, 2008|By Roberto Loiederman

The e-mail was short and to the point: Several members of my 1952-1954 class at Garrison Junior High in Northwest Baltimore - Class 215 - were organizing a reunion. The e-mail asked if I would be willing to come from California, where I live.

The inducement was that our much-admired homeroom and English teacher, Milton "Manny" Velder, now 80, would be the honored guest.

I had no doubt it would be wonderful to spend time with Mr. Velder again, as well as all these classmates, most of whom I hadn't seen in more than 50 years.

But it also felt dicey. Would I have to rehash my life, with its strange, circuitous routes? Would I be repeating stories about the meandering path that took me from San Francisco in the 1960s to Vietnam-bound ammo ships, from yoga ashrams in India to being a kibbutz cook in Israel, from a puppet show in Rio to writing soap operas in Hollywood?

Looked at from my current vantage point - a comfortable suburban life filled with friends, family and dependable rituals - my earlier years now seem as if they were lived by someone else. Would I be able to avoid answering questions about my youthful adventures? Did I really want to avoid telling those stories?

Still full of doubt, I decided to go.

I was excited and nervous as I walked into the reunion. Shakily, I put on a name tag and looked around. Twenty-five people out of 40 showed up. Some had died; others could not be reached. Some were unable to make the trip. (The only spouse of a classmate present was the hostess.)

The late 60s is a strange age: At this stage, some look tired and worn-out, like a ball team going through the motions at the end of a losing season. But those at the reunion seemed vibrant and full of energy. Maybe it was the eyes through which I looked that made them appear that way. Perhaps it was what I wanted to see.

At one point, we gathered for a photo shoot. Arms around each other, some of us spoke about what Manny Velder meant to us.

Mark Laken, a real estate developer, recalled a "rainy afternoon when Mr. Velder offered me a ride home. We'd had a long and stimulating discussion in English class that day about Jack London's The Call of the Wild, with great participation. ... Mr. Velder said that it was during that give-and-take that he realized how special teaching can be."

SaraKay Smullens, a social worker and family therapist, recalled that during a discussion about World War II - an event then in the recent past - Mr. Velder suggested that we consider the point of view of those who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the atomic bombs fell. "I began seeing the world differently," SaraKay said. "That's when my true education began."

As we spoke about him, Manny Velder shed a tear or two, and former students on either side of him squeezed his hand.

In the end, what I'd feared - or secretly hoped for - didn't happen. We spoke about children and grandchildren, but hardly anyone talked about accomplishments or professions. There was almost no mention of the adventures we'd had as adults.

Instead, we ate coddies and recalled the early 1950s, when a coddie (like life itself) was greasier, smaller, cost less - and seemed more satisfying. We talked about Knocko's poolroom, the clothes we wore, hairstyles, social groupings, playing punchball at Garrison.

And we talked about the yearbook.

On a table were several copies of that yearbook, which we literally pasted together in the spring of 1954: Some of the photos, which had been glued on one by one, had since come loose, but some were still attached to the frayed and yellowed pages.

The foreword reads that the yearbook was compiled to "preserve the memories of two wonderful years which can be looked upon with pride in later life."

Yes, we did look at the yearbook with pride. As free of cynicism as the reunion itself, that innocent document seemed to require something beyond comparing life paths.

In subsequent days, in smaller, more intimate gatherings, we would talk about ourselves: what we had done and what we had become. But not at this magical reunion of Class 215. After 54 years, it was enough to hug, chat and remember the taste of coddies.

Roberto Loiederman is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles. His e-mail is loiederman@ sbcglobal.net.

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