“I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time.” — Harper Lee

August 10, 2010


Planning a high school reunion is not, as Ed Norton might put it, “all beer and skittles.” The process, in which a small group of classmates and I are now engaged, forces a person to confront certain inconvenient truths, including the passage of time and his own age. Our class, the Class of 1960, had 299 members. Organizing a reunion makes us confront the fact that at least 44 of those classmates are dead. It makes us face the fact that the 22 or so we have not been able to locate in these 50 years probably are lost to us forever. And it forces us to accept the fact that many classmates don’t share whatever feelings make other classmates think of themselves as having something more in common than the date and place of our graduation.


None of us believes that a man or woman has an obligation to continue any connection to the class. If anything, it makes sense to us that people have had far more experiences, relationships, successes and problems since high school than they had in the first 17 years of their lives, and that high school has become a relatively unimportant part of a bigger picture. In fact, it has occurred to me, at least, that those of us who persist in keeping this circle intact are driven by emotion and perhaps by an insecurity that makes us reluctant to put behind us the last stage of our lives in which we were not wholly responsible for our own fate. High school, for most of us, is one of the last places, as Robert Frost might have observed, that when you go there, they have to take you in.


Still, there is another factor that must explain why some members of our class or any class turn their backs on the rest of us for good even before the recessional has ended. I started thinking about this last weekend while I was listening to a song called “Crazy Mary” that, it happens, was written by Michael Smith, who graduated from the same high school but in the Class of 1959. Michael, a folk singer who has lived in Chicago for many years, writes lyrics with a poet’s skill, and many of them can reach deeply into the psyche and the soul. “Crazy Mary” — not the Victoria Williams/Pearl Jam song — is about boys who torment a woman who lives in their neighborhood. The boys don’t understand this woman, so — like Scout and Jem Finch — they compensate for their ignorance by inventing explanations that satisfy their morbid, childish curiosity. When they no longer need her to entertain them, they forget her.

As I look through the yearbook, literally or in my mind, I can place my finger on the boys and girls in our class who were not treated well by the rest of us. Some of them suffered cruelty, some of them suffered ridicule, and some of them suffered indifference. Would they want to join us as we reminisce about those days? I remember the mother of one boy confronting a group of teenagers on the street and demanding to know why they had mocked her son. I was an adult and had children of my own before the recollection of that scene broke my heart. I wondered what had become of that boy; I never wondered when we were kids what would become of him.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to high school. Misunderstanding, or choosing not to understand, people who seem to hear drumbeats that elude the rest of us may be an inevitable part of growing up. There was an elderly man in my neighborhood when I was a boy who seemed to be perpetually angry and who would shout and flail at us kids if we came within  a perimeter that only he could see. We, of course, did our best to invade his space just enough to set him off. I wonder what became of him.

In the lamplight burning low
And dimly thru enchanted woods
We think about the sins that we commit
Along the green and golden paths of growing up
We light the fire
And say a prayer for Crazy Mary.

(Copyright, Michael Peter Smith)

The complete lyrics to “Crazy Mary” are at THIS LINK.

Biographical information, lyrics, videos, and touring schedule of Michael Smith can be reached through THIS LINK.

Poster from a previous Michael Smith concert


6 Responses to ““I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time.” — Harper Lee”

  1. bronxboy55 Says:

    Beautiful post, Mr. P. I’ve often thought about those “misfits” from high school, and would be willing to bet they’d be the most interesting people to know now. You’re right, though: It would be hard to get them to show up, because very likely, their high school memories are not pleasant ones. We also had our own Crazy Mary — he was an old man with a small garden and we were just a bunch of kids with a rubber ball. For whatever reason, it was not a good combination.

  2. Shifty Says:

    I fall into that category. I have not gone to any reunions. I still talk to the people who I want to keep in touch with (all ten of them) and am not really interested in seeing the rest of them. Of course half of them are on Facebook now anyway so I could find out if I really wanted to.

    • 刘慧娉 Says:

      I fall into that category too. I didn’t go to HS in U.S. and only came to the States for graduate school. I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow at one of the public universities. I wouldn’t want to relive my HS years.

  3. shoreacres Says:

    One of the most liberating moments of my life came when my mother moved from Iowa to live with her sister in Kansas City. In the process of the sorting and disposing that goes with selling a house, I found my high school annuals. While everyone was otherwise occupied, I threw them in the trash and walked away.

    I had a wonderful childhood, loved grade school and tolerated junior high moderately well. But I’ve excised high school from my life like a cancer. It’s a bit of a mystery, as I was social if not “popular”, and I did well in classes. But there was a disconnect somewhere, and it took a couple of decades to get the wires hooked up properly.

    Funny – I’ve been pondering recently whether I’d go back for my 50th. The answer’s still “no”, but we’ll see.

  4. Hi, what year was Michael Smith born and what port of Chicago. Cook county?

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Michael is about 73 years of age and was born in Orange, New Jersey. I don’t know what section of Chicago he lives in.

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