CCHS, COVID-19 and campfires: The Class of 2000 reunites

Prairie Wind Elementary art teacher Cody Smith points out the tube socks he painted on the Camel in front of Campbell County High School while friend and class of 2000 classmate Steve Ness videos for the Zoom call during the Virtual Campfire class reunion online July 17. (Photo by Mike Moore, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — Living room sofas, backyard porch decks, a golf course, a San Diego beach, Amsterdam (at 3 a.m) and in front of the camel on Campbell County High School’s campus.

These are just some of the locations from which about 25 CCHS Class of 2000 graduates joined each other for a virtual class reunion via Zoom on a recent Friday evening.

It’s been 20 years since they graduated high school, just five months after the hype and relatively nonexistent Y2K crisis. As high school reunions go, the 20th seems to be the sweet spot, just long enough for true curiosity and nostalgia to take hold and wonder what classmates are now doing with their lives.

Of course, a stickler could say that technically they didn’t have a reunion. But then they’re no strangers to sticklers, since they weren’t technically the first class of the millennium anyway.

According to the Gregorian calendar, first developed back in 1582 A.D., there was no Year Zero when years crossed over from B.C. to A.D. This means that the new millennium began just after midnight on Jan. 1, 2001.

But it just doesn’t have the same ring as 2000. Sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe knew this instinctively when they gave the name Millennials to the generation that began with the kids born in in the early 1980s and would graduate as the world entered a new millennium.

It’s the same principle that makes an odometer rolling over from 99,999 to 100,000 miles a profound and noteworthy event, while the rolling over from 100,999 to 101,000 miles is hardly worth mentioning.

Reunions work in much the same way, which is why you rarely, if ever, hear of an 11- or 17-year high school reunion.

Unlike a debate over when the new millennium started, sticklers can’t quibble over the world that the Class of 2000 inherited. Y2K, Sept. 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession all helped define the decades after graduation.

Now the class of 2000, like the rest of the world, faces the COVID-19 pandemic.

If any group is well-situated for the pandemic’s push to living lives online, it should be Millennials, a generation known more for its negative stereotypes than anything else.

Some of the greatest stereotypical hits include extreme narcissism exemplified by social media selfies, deep-seated laziness, an inflated sense of self from to a lifetime of participation trophies, a fondness for Harry Potter and avocado toast and an unhealthy addiction to screens.

And online life is near the top of the list.

Instead of calling 2020 a wasted year, a dedicated group of CCHS grads — led by Chris Sanders, Maj. Cory Wallace and Hendrik Gerrits — decided to salvage the remains and lean into the Millennials’ love for screens by hosting a virtual campfire on Zoom.

“It sort of opens the doors to some of the people who otherwise wouldn’t come in person anyway because they’re so far away, or their schedules are really tough to juggle and families and everything else that comes with being 38,” Sanders said.

The virtual campfire included 1990s pub trivia, class superlatives — Mr. and Mrs. Dorian Gray for the two classmates who’d changed the least physically; Mr. and Mrs. Wyoming for the two who most exemplify the state; and Mr. and Mrs. Nobel Gillette for the two who’ve accomplished the most — and a livestream of the CCHS camel being painted by classmate and Prairie Wind Elementary art teacher Cody Smith.

“There’s a lot of time the camel is painted on the fly and not a lot of artistic whatever goes into it,” Smith said. “But I’m going to make this kind of pop a little bit, give it a bit of a street art look. I’ve got a ton of stencils and a ton of different colors.”

Sanders said the planning group, which numbered about 15, planned out an in-person 20th reunion and simply bumped the dates back to June 25-27, 2021.

“If people come early, there will be an opportunity to mingle Friday night,” Sanders said. “Saturday is the big day with a picnic in the afternoon at Fishing Lake.

“This will be more family oriented, so people are going to have their kids, wives, husbands for a buffet-style barbecue. That evening, we’ve reserved some space at Boot Hill ... and Sunday, there will be a golf tournament at Bell Nob.”

Rather than be discouraged by not having it this year because of the coronavirus, Sanders has maintained relentless positivity and optimism.

“Pushing to next year is just going to make it that much better,” he said. “I don’t view it as a redo; I kind of see this as an additive.”

Sanders said his class knows how to roll with the punches and make the most out of a situation.

“We’re weathering anything that life throws at us. Y2K or COVID, this is the new normal, and I think we’re all getting used to the unknown and unexpected,” he said. “This is just part of that, an exciting part of that.

“We’re able to adapt and flip and look at things in a positive light. I think that’s really representative of our class.”

Smith voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t think most classes would put in the work to make this happen,” he said.

In 2011, The New York Times published a story that questioned whether social media had robbed high school reunions of their allure.

It’s not hard to see that being the case, since social media exists to keep your closest friends up-to-date on your comings and goings. As people get older that means jobs, weddings, kids, divorces and all the little moments of life in between (aka the stuff people couldn’t wait to hear about when reconnecting for the first time in 20 years at a high school reunion).

Facebook was born in a Harvard dorm room four years after the CCHS Class of 2000 donned their caps and gowns and walked across the stage at Cam-Plex Central Pavilion to receive their diplomas from Principal Boyd Brown.

The social media company paved the way for an unprecedented level of interconnectivity the likes of which the Class of 2000 couldn’t have envisioned when they graduated.

Nikki (Stroppel) Shaw described how vital Facebook has been for her post-high school years.

Shortly after graduation, she was diagnosed with Susac syndrome, a rare condition that attacks the central nervous system.

“I lost my memory, my eyesight and my hearing,” Shaw said.

Memories have returned, she said, but remembering things about high school is tough for her.

“What I most remember is they built a second campus,” she said. “It was supposed to be a second high school, but we used it as a second campus and it was a pain to commute to classes because I had classes in both buildings.”

Social media has helped her gain back some of the memories and connections that Susac syndrome had taken from her.

“When Facebook first came about, it was great for me because I could start reaching out and reconnecting with people,” Shaw said.

She was excited for a reunion in person since she didn’t attend her class’s first reunion. She said it still felt a bit early for a reunion after only 10 years, but “by the 20 year (mark) people have added a little more to their stories.”

While she was disappointed with the turn of events because of COVID-19, her excitement for the virtual campfire (and next year’s in-person events) couldn’t be tamped down.

“At the end of the day, put a smile on your face; we’re all going to get through it,” she said. “Technology will help us through it. We didn’t let it get us down, we just changed the way we were doing it to fit the times.”

Smith also said that the Zoom call was an improvement to the static nature of social media.

“Just to see people, where they’re at now, not through Facebook, not vicariously through Facebook but in real time,” he said.

The story of a high school reunion cannot be a single person’s to tell, and certainly not when a class is more than 400 people strong. But there is an argument to be made that the peculiarities of a given reunion can be encapsulated by a single person.

It would be hard to argue for a more compelling on than Hendrik Gerrits’.

Gerrits, who lives in New York City, was credited by Sanders with getting the reunion off the ground.

Gerrits said he’d been wondering about a date and hadn’t really intended to help plan anything. But then Wallace, who was the class vice-president in 2000, got involved.

“Suddenly I had an Army major bossing me around,” Gerrits said with a laugh. “I was in deep before I knew it.”

The planning committee that assembled around Sanders, Wallace and Gerrits had weekly telephone calls Sunday nights, and it was on one of those calls in early April that Gerrits first noticed he had developed a cough.

Then he noticed a difference to the start of his day.

“It started with my morning coffee,” Gerrits said. “I think I’d completely lost my sense of smell and taste the second day. I couldn’t smell my coffee, and then it tasted like nothing.”

Gerrits had COVID-19.

“Having COVID was one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “Part of what made it most scary is I was sick at the top of the peak, when it was not altogether certain that if I needed to go to the ER that there would be room for me.”

He is a living, breathing representation of why the reunion was forced online this year.

“I felt completely disoriented, completely exhausted, body aches, 101-degree temperature, short of breath but no lung or chest pain,” he said.

It was 14 days from the onset of fever until it subsided, and then the fatigue lingered for weeks after that.

Gerrits still has not fully recovered. He is an avid runner, able to run at a 6-minute-mile pace before the coronavirus struck. He said it took him more than two months to be able to run a mile without stopping to walk.

“I still can’t smell my daughter’s poopy diapers,” he said.

Another CCHS classmate who worked on the front lines against COVID-19 in Gillette tested positive for it at the same time as Gerrits. They found out about each other’s condition as a result of the planning committee for the reunion.

“In the middle of the night when I was terrified, I was messaging her saying, ‘How are you doing?’” Gerrits said.

She was the only person he knew who had the coronavirus at the same time he did, which made for a surreal connection.

As a part of the social media campaign to promote the virtual reunion, Gerrits had begun celebrating CCHS Class of 2000 graduates who were on the front lines fighting against COVID-19 in various capacities.

“I was doing some of the posts while I was recovering from COVID, and it was just so nice to honor and celebrate classmates who I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with, but to deeply appreciate the work they do, just the shared humanity in that was wonderful,” he said. “It was really one of the more positive experiences I’ve had in the past five months.”

What’s the virtue of a reunion in the time of social media, this time of over-sharing and extreme connectivity? What’s the point of catching up with long-lost friends when they were never lost based on the technology of the world we live in now?

Perhaps this is the definition of a Millennial problem, as the generation that came of age alongside this technology to the extent that it ceases to be amazing. It’s always been there, it’s an integral feature and not a luxurious add-on.

The CCHS Class of 2000 has defied expectations. Despite continued connections made possible by social media, those 400 members of the class sought something more, something deeper.

Smiles were etched on the faces of those in the Zoom reunion, and it seemed involuntary as if just the sight of the others called up fond memories. They could not help themselves. They were happy to be with long-lost friends, however that manifested itself. Social media, it turns out, wasn’t enough after all.

This was exemplified by Gerrits as he described nominating classmates for the class superlatives.

“It’s been really fun and gratifying and nice actually to have a reason to acknowledge people that you’re just seeing what they’re up to on Facebook,” he said. “I found myself nominating just the people who’d been in on the planning calls because I realized I’d really reconnected with them and had a deep appreciation for all the lives we’d all lived.”