Brand building through storytelling

Rejoining my hometown tribe

I didn’t admit to an attack of nerves the week before my school reunion in Durham, New Hampshire. But there had to be a reason why I lay awake night after night, my brain on high alert.

I’d been asked to emcee the dinner. It’s not as if I’m new to this kind of thing: I’ve stood up in front of a thousand people and held their attention. I’ve had laughs—and standing ovations–from jaded corporate types who sigh at the thought of dressing to the nines for yet another shindig in a hotel ballroom. I’d be meeting a happy crowd in my hometown, and I’d be speaking at a hearthside in a famously welcoming house that radiates New England charm. Just what was so intimidating about 60-odd midlifers so keen to be together, some were making the trek to Durham from as far as California, Florida and Texas?

There’s something about my hometown that awakens the anxious child in me. Durham is the place where my hand-me-down socks wouldn’t stay up like other girls’, where the Valentines and birthday party invitations mostly went to others, where in high school no boy ever asked me to a movie, much less the prom.

Now the far-flung children of Durham had asked me to do the honours at a gathering of our tribe. The tribe has a name and a website: Durham Friends. The call had gone out not just to my class but to everyone who’d ever gone to school in my town. It reverberated on Facebook and on Classmates.com. Days before the reunion, some of us were e-mailing pals we hadn’t seen in 40 years to say, “I’ve just heard! Count me in.”

It was idle curiosity that lured me to Durham Friends last year. I figured I would lurk just long enough to catch up catch up on decades-old gossip. When I thought of Durham, I didn’t think of friendship. I thought of isolation, of never quite fitting in. I knew plenty of schoolmates with spirit and talent and humour. I liked them and they liked me. But they didn’t fit my blinkered adolescent notion of what a friend should read (Dylan Thomas, Ferlinghetti), wear (buffalo-hide sandals that laced around the ankles, Biblical style) and watch at the movies (I favoured black and white, with subtitles). The people who hung out with me in high school seemed a warmup for the bold and brilliant soulmates I’d find in the wide world beyond Durham. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in “My Little Town,” I was “dreaming of glory/ Twitching like a finger/ On the trigger of a gun.”

Weren’t we all!

In high school every kid is wondering, “Where do I belong? Where is my tribe?” Every kid is afflicted, at some time or other, by an enveloping sense of difference. You think you’re the only one who’s cursed by acne, shamed by an alcoholic parent, scorned by a love object or hobbled by a learning disability. But when you tell your story, other people answer, “Me, too.” That’s what happened on the Durham Friends site as memory echoed memory across generations.

No matter when we lived in Durham, we skated on the same pond. We swam in the same oversize pool, with a real sand beach for building castles. We signed out our first books from a temple of reading, the University of New Hampshire library, where the lavishly stocked children’s room held more titles than many libraries do in their entire collections. Like tribes in every time and place, we have our legends. At the heart of that shared history stand teachers who challenged and inspired us.

In my remarks I would recognize two: Eleanor and Frank Milliken, who for decades embodied what teaching should be. I aced Frank’s course (Latin). I daydreamed my way through Eleanor’s (general science). On the big night she exclaimed to me, beaming, “You were one of my favourite students! But there wasn’t a car passing outside my classroom window that you didn’t see.”

I’d have liked heart-to-hearts with a couple of former classmates but the unrelenting hubbub made short work of my hopes. I should have realized that the point of a reunion is tribal celebration, not intimate connection. By taking the trouble to show up, you prove that what you’ve shared deserves to be remembered. You can always meet up on your travels with someone you want to know better, and I’m already planning to do just that.

In the meantime, I got what I’d come to Durham for. I stood on the hearthstone and said, “Tonight we are all where we belong, where we took the first steps toward becoming our more or less grownup selves.” I could tell from the faces in the room that absolutely everyone believed this. What stunned me is that I believed it myself. I’d like to think this newfound awareness qualifies me as a grownup. But I’m not counting on it.

Watch for another post or two about my mind-stretching weekend in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, check out this post on a related theme: “Friends no matter what.” 

Posted by Rona

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