ESSAY; A Reunion? Relax. You're Invisible.


By Debra A. Klein

July 26, 2001

FEW months ago I was overcome with nostalgia and self-pity. A former classmate e-mailed me a link to my past. ''Click here,'' he invited.

I did and was instantly transported back two and a half decades, and light-years in self-esteem. Smiling up at me was my unflattering 1976 graduation picture -- my sixth grade graduation picture -- posted on the World Wide Web.

How did my yearbook photo find its way out from under the Snoopy bank in my parents' attic and into the public domain? What would I find next? My Dynamite magazine, Op Sail T-shirt, stockpile of Shrinky Dink art? My mind raced.

Looking for answers, I clicked on Back and stumbled into a time warp: more bucktoothed preteenagers with ''One Day at a Time'' hairdos. Faces I hadn't thought of in more than 20 years grinned out from atop giant striped collars. Scribbled ink mustaches obscured one or two.

My curiosity morphed to paranoia. My mental Mood Ring turned from green to black. An anonymous e-mail message popped into my In box. ''Any chance you can make it?'' teased a stranger, offering an Internet address. I took the bait.

An elementary school classmate I could not recall and who I swear must have added himself digitally to our class pictures had created a Web page to organize a reunion of our entire sixth grade. Sometime last year that classmate, Sergio Caplan, now a software entrepreneur, had reconnected in cyberspace with boys I recall mostly as terrors of blacktop dodge ball. One had suggested a get-together in the flesh.

Sergio had turned to the Web to disseminate details about the gathering quickly, but in doing so changed the nature of the event. Had I been invited personally to a private party whose hosts (in my mind) still thought girls had ''cooties,'' I would have declined politely. This cyber-invitation was socially neutral, like a school-sponsored event.

In less than two months the Davis Reunion Web site ( /davis.html) grew from a simple text page into an interactive portal leading to the pale green tiled halls of our youth. One alumna heard about it and scanned in the yearbook photos. Sergio used these as lures.

It was ingenious marketing. Phone calls would have gone unreturned and print invitations unread. But a mysterious e-mail message leading to a customized slice of your own childhood -- that was impossible to ignore. Like Magic Rocks, his initial tiny database of three or four e-mail addresses grew tenfold, seemingly overnight. Like the enthusiasts in that old Fabergé shampoo ad, everyone, it seemed, had told two friends.

By the time I logged on to the site two weeks before the party, it was chugging with clickable sections for chatting, leaving messages and seeing who, among the 100 or so alumni, was planning to attend. Noting the large number of people who had already been told of the reunion, I tried not to take it personally that as in the old days of kickball, I seemed to have been notified close to last.

The chat room hummed with exchanges between unlikely gossips; only in cyberspace, I thought, would shy students vent over soap opera plots. The real drama for me, though, came in a private online connection. Using newly acquired e-mail addresses, I was at last able to express condolences to my best friends from kindergarten on the tragic death of their little brother last summer. Although 10 years had passed since we had last spoken, the Internet helped us gracefully sew a gap of a decade and hundreds of miles.

As the reunion date approached, rapid-fire e-mail messages multiplied like Wacky Packages on a denim loose-leaf binder as we all busily recounted 25 years in short bursts. News came in of classmates whom I last remember seeing in parrot skirts and crepe-soled buffalo sandals at graduation.

Sergio, who was not exactly a social butterfly (from what everyone else remembers), was suddenly the Steve Rubell of our exclusive cyber-Studio 54. He let in nerds and popular kids to mingle electronically, flouting the social laws of the jungle gym. In cyberspace, we quickly learned, no one could catch you being uncool.

Despite the huge gap of time, we seemed to be drawn to one another like long-lost siblings because of our intimate shared pasts. And as with siblings, the formalities governing most adult exchanges melted quickly. Our e-mail content spiraled from polite queries to the sort of mischievous missives we passed in class.

For those like me who had moved far from New York and missed the actual night of reunion carousing, the Web page offered intoxicating fun. A classmate posted pictures (with much-needed labels) of unlikely pairings at an East Side bar.

The photos of smiling classmates, beer bottles in hand, revealed a sobering truth. It is easier to exchange light and friendly e-mail banter than it is to converse toe to toe (or in the case of many photos, hip to hip).

Attending a reunion virtually has distinct advantages. There is no need for special hair and makeup, rapid weight loss or figure-flattering jeans. In fact, clothing is optional. As is answering back. You can be buttonholed at a reunion, but in cyberspace you can let unwanted e-mail simply wither online.

There are no sticky name tags, or sticky social situations. No moments of panic when you realize you just can't place that face. You can be as verbose as your thesaurus allows, yet never fumble and say the wrong thing. After the party there is no one nearby to eavesdrop on unkind comments (although there is that worry that in cyberspace deleted correspondence can always be retrieved). But there is also no laughter, or clink of glasses or handshakes or hugs, no matter how insincere.

Many of us have since used the Internet to maintain renewed friendships, plan mini-reunions and make business connections online. One sixth-grade friend and I now send each other e-mail incessantly, without teachers to interrupt the free flow of ideas.

Still, there is one classmate with whom I almost never exchange e-mail, and post-reunion that will not change. The one who first sent me the link to our past has been my friend since we sat cross-legged watching ''Sesame Street.'' When we need to connect we turn to a different era's cutting-edge technology: we pick up the phone for the warmth that eludes us in cyberspace.