Last month I traveled back to Northern Virginia (“NoVA”) for the 25-year reunion of my Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (TJHSST) class of 1997. It was an incredible trip down memory lane and a wonderful chance to reconnect with lifelong friends for the first time since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
I arrived Thursday, a day early, so that I could take care of a few things before the reunion activities became all-consuming. This was my first time back in NoVA in three years, so I had a lot of catching up to do! After checking into the reunion hotel block in Arlington, I had a quick business meeting and then met some Lake Braddock friends for dinner, which was a wonderful experience.
Friday morning I woke up early to go for a run along the Potomac. I needed to compete in a virtual 10k race and I thought running it at sea level after training at elevation would be fun! This was the longest “race” since my surgery so I took it easy and focused more on consistency / completion than on performance. As I ran along the GW Parkway, I had to keep stopping to take pictures, so, even if I had been in better race shape, I wouldn’t have run a great time. I also discovered and explored Roosevelt Island while I was running – was this always here??
After nearly an hour of running in the cool, gray weather (which felt very appropriate for how I remember DC-area autumn), I showered up and took a Lyft to my old neighborhood in Springfield. There I spent an hour and a half doing a literal walk down memory lane. I walked to my old house, the houses of my family and friends, the trails through the woods that we used to take as shortcuts to visit each other, my old bus stops, and everything in between. It was very nostalgic and I was encouraged to see that there was an entirely new generation of families with young kids growing up there – I hope the neighborhood is as good to them as it was to me!
My friend, Nick, who incidentally helps me edit this blog (You can thank him for improved comma placement and removal of broken links!), picked me up and chauffeured me on a driving nostalgia tour. We drove around South Run, Burke, Lake Braddock (where we both attended intermediate school), Keene Mill (where I attended elementary school), and the Springfield Youth Club sports fields. Fortunately no one called the police on a couple of creepy old dudes driving around school parking lots!
Our driving tour culminated with lunch at Springfield Mall, where I spent just about every weekend of my youth. It has been renovated and redeveloped a bit, but its “bones” are still the same and it was easy to remember which favorite stores used to be where. The food court was in a different place and offered different fare, but the experience of eating there with a friend for the first time in 20ish years was sublime.
Nick dropped me off back in Arlington, where I met up with some of the other TJ football captains. We found a park in which to throw the football around and spent an hour just tossing the pigskin, catching up, and telling stories about our glory days. It was a lot of fun and, crucially, no one got injured!
I returned to the hotel where others were starting to arrive. My dear friends, Danielle and Ashley, came by to say hi, which was euphoric. I missed them so much during the five years since the previous reunion and hadn’t had a chance to see them in person due to limiting travel during COVID. These mini-reunions got me very energized for the rest of the weekend!
The first official reunion event was the TJ home football game. I threw on my jersey from senior year and my letter jacket then hopped into a car with Dan (who used to give me rides to school!) and we made our way to the school. Due to Hurricane Ian, the weather wasn’t great (cold and rainy) so only a few of us alumni showed up. Embarrassingly, though, there were more of us than “regular” fans as the stands were empty! No students or band were there (apparently because the SATs were the following morning) and all the parents of players seemed to be in their cars on their phones. Very sad! At least the cheerleaders were out in full force!
After the game, we joined the rest of the class at Bronson Bierhall. We had a private [covered!] outdoor area and a few of my classmates joined in the nostalgia cheese by sporting their TJ apparel of yore. It was a fun, late night reconnecting with dear friends from more than half our lives ago.
Saturday morning was open so Ashley and I drove to nearby Arlington National Cemetary to pay our respects to departed loved ones. The gray drizzle was the perfect backdrop for a somber, reflective visit.
Many of us gathered at the school in the afternoon for a tour. TJ has been extensively remodeled since we were there, so it was great to see the lush new facilities that support new generations of students. The tech labs – ranging from nanomaterials to DNA biotech to satellite launch – really blew me away! Amazingly, I even bumped into some of my former teachers who are still at it!
Saturday evening was the main event, held at Arlington Rooftop Bar & Grill. We had about 150 (including a few +1s) out of our class of 400 show up and it was just so rad! Everyone was looking great and we picked up exactly where we left off five years ago without missing a beat.
At one point, I was asked to say a few words so I grabbed a mic, hopped up on a table, and made a few toasts, something to the effect of:
What’s up, TJ Class of 1997! We don’t have any formal program tonight but, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll make three quick toasts.
First, we have many classmates who couldn’t make it to this reunion. Whether because of COVID, family or work conflicts, or other reasons, they are still a part of this special class, and we miss them – here’s to them!
Second, we have some classmates who can’t be with us because they’ve moved on from this mortal world. Before our 5th reunion we lost Bonnie, before our 10th we lost Dick, and most recently we lost Richard. They were part of the special experience we all had 25 years ago and they will always be with us – here’s to them!
Finally, indeed it was a special experience we all went through together, as demonstrated by so many of us coming from all corners of the world to be here together tonight. When we graduated 25 years ago, we were all full of dreams. Some of us may have achieved those dreams already. Some of us may not yet have achieved those dreams. And some of us may have found ourselves adapting our dreams to the lives we find ourselves living. And that’s all OK. I hope tonight we can leave all that behind, drop the personas, and just be present in the moment. The last few years have been difficult, so tonight let’s get back to rebuilding these lifelong relationships that will carry us through the next 25 years – and beyond. And so, TJ Class of 1997, here’s . . . to us.
I guess I really leaned into the imposter syndrome that tends to hold people back from our reunions but it seemed to be well received. There was an incredible energy all night and people seemed to enjoy the event thoroughly. We repaired to the hotel after the bar closed down and kept the party going until the wee hours of the morning.
Later in the morning we reconvened in the breakfast room and compared notes about hangovers, lost voices, and great memories. Slowly, one-by-one, people began departing for the airport. Ashley, Jeff (one of my best football buddies), and I grabbed brunch nearby and then I too had to head to the airport.
After three full days of nostalgia and personal connection, being alone at the airport felt like a liminal space, as if I were re-emerging from the land of faerie. That time period – and those people – were so crucial to my development into the person I am today. It was wonderful to spend such a dense period in places and with people who mean so much to me – I can’t wait for the next one!