By Rachel ToorThe Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, July 2, 2004
In the fall of 1980, multicolored leg warmers pulled over Chic jeans, long Farrah Fawcett hair blow-dried into wings, I had sauntered onto the campus of a fancy New England college. It could have been any one of a number of ivy-encumbered, self-satisfied universities; it just happened to be the one that admitted me. I arrived to the strains of the Clash, the Ramones, and Blondie blasting from leaded-glass windows cranked wide. I came trailing a faint scent of Windsong, along with a top-note of bravado and insecurity.
I had left my rural public high school, a place where football players were gods, to go to a college where the big men on campus sang in a cappella groups. My world opened and expanded in ways that would have shocked —and thrilled—my high-school self. Talking about the vagaries of Gnosticism would have been unthinkable with the kids in my 12th-grade homeroom; less than a year later I was in a late-night dorm huddle, discussing with glee the “ineluctable modality of the visible” and sharing a collective fantasy of turning Paradise Lost into a Saturday-morning cartoon. To be in a place where you recognize others of your ilk is a gift.
In college you have a chance to log long hours getting to know your friends. At no other time are you so intimately involved in the lives of the people you meet: you live, work, play, eat, drink, and sleep together. Without the responsibilities and obligations that come later in adult life, you have the capital to invest in friendship. Your friends’ stories become your stories; in the act of telling you get to know each other and yourself.
At the end of the spring term, however, our conversations were invariably interrupted by intruders. We watched as they tromped around campus in their business suits, plastic wine glasses in hand, chomping on cigars. They wanted to come into our rooms—their rooms, they said—and commented on how much the place had changed. They seemed vaguely pathetic, inelegantly throwing Frisbees on our lawns, showing up to eat pizza and swig beer at our off-campus haunts.
Twenty years later I looked around at men in business suits, plastic glasses in hand, chomping on cigars, and I adjusted my name tag and took another sip of wine. I hadn’t been back before. I had decided to come to this reunion because a few of my closest friends were going to be there. Walking around freshly manicured grounds, the campus felt both strange and eerily familiar. Same thing for talking with my classmates.
Psychiatrist friends have pointed out that while people can change, personalities rarely do. What surprised me most was that even after 20 years, I still sort of knew the people I’d been to school with. We had all changed and had all remained recognizably the same. What people did for work was not surprising: There was a preponderance of doctors, lawyers, bankers. We had graduated, after all, in the middle of the decade of greed; most of the kids I knew went straight from undergrad life to either professional schools or high-paying careers.
Now people were giving back. Without financial aid I wouldn’t have been able to attend this fancy place. Now, two decades later, I received financial aid to attend its reunion. All I had to do was ask, and then tell how much I could afford. When I thanked the woman at alumni affairs who made the arrangements, she told me to thank my classmates. It was their doing. There was a big push to get as many people as possible to come back.
How come? Why are reunions important? What purpose do they serve?
As I skimmed through the packet of materials, I wondered: How do you manufacture nostalgia? The alumni office put together a roster of classes, tours, and events designed to show us the finest, most memorable aspects of our old place. Beloved professors who taught back in the day were dusted off to lecture again. Opting to stay in the dorms brought with it a quaint reminder of bureaucracy long forgotten: You could request a particular roommate but could not be assured of getting your first choice. And, of course, the big draw: the promise of turning back the clock.
As a result, when we got to the campus, it really did feel like our place. Housing and registration were handled by current students, smiling, friendly, tolerant. No one told us where to go or what to do. No one from the administration made more than a token appearance. We were the grown-ups now.
While there were many things I had loved about my experience in college, it had never felt like my place. It had been as much a relief to leave as it had been an affirmation to be admitted. In college, while I was happy to drink and dance with the hale-fellows, I believed that we had little to say to each other. That sentiment was no doubt as much about me as about where I was, and with whom. When I made plans to return, a prodigal daughter, with no fancy job title, little money, and an unconventional lifestyle, I looked forward to seeing some of those other liminal people with whom I’d had late-night conversations —the scientists, the future academics, the artists, the insane—and finding out how they had made their ways through the real world.
When I glanced around at the reunion, they were nowhere to be found. What I saw was a bunch of smart, thoughtful, successful, highly cultured, and, for the most part, professional people. When I noted that there seemed to be very little posturing, a fellow who had been to every reunion said: “That because it’s 20. At 5, everything was still pretty much the same. At 10, people were all about their careers. At 15, everyone whipped out the photos of the kids. Now, we’re all more comfortable with who and what we are.”
It was indeed a comfortable group. A survey of the class revealed that (of those who responded) 79 percent had given money to the school. A mere 7 percent had been divorced. We were all, indeed, who we were. My financially aided, divorced self slunk along the periphery and got another glass of wine. It can’t be, I reasoned, that there aren’t more people like me. It can’t be that everyone else who graduated in 1984 is married, kidded, and rich.
It can’t be that everyone else knows all the words to the alma mater, a song that ends by pledging allegiance to God, country, and our school. It felt that way, though, at the reunion. Those who never fit the mold, I know, are not likely to age into it. Those people do not tend to attend reunions.
Is it because they don’t care, don’t feel a sense of belonging? Or because they are afraid of being judged by once-intimidating peers? That they’ve kept in touch anyway with the friends they had? They don’t want to spend the money? They’ve lost too much hair and gained too much weight? Or is it that their lives are full and rich and varied and that college was only a steppingstone to better things? That they are looking forward rather than back?
Creating a sense of nostalgia for a place where people spent a little bit of time a long time ago seems a good way to get them to open their hearts and wallets. I couldn’t figure out how explicit and strong the link was between the alumni and development functions of the reunion, or of the university, but I’ve been around enough campus blocks to know that it wasn’t trivial. Our reunion was a success: $4-million raised.
Having been back, will I be more likely to give money? Will I learn the words to the alma mater and sing it, hand on heart, white handkerchief waving? Unlikely. While at college I yearned to feel connected, to be a part of something larger, something that involved more than bricks and mortarboards. I never managed it. Now, two decades later, I felt a familiar ambivalence. Those bright college years are so influential, so much a part of who we become, that revisiting them brings up a host of conflicting, tumultuous emotions. Going back stirs the pot. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe in the complacency of daily life, it’s important to remember who you were before you were so much yourself.
It’s easier to return to the past when you are happy with the present.
Now, finally, I was able to navigate through this pale palette (most of us were white, wealthy, and drunk with the haze of memory). I walked around, as Wallace Stevens had it, an ordinary evening in New Haven, and thought about an old professor, recently accused in lurid prose by a classmate who claimed he had plopped his “boneless hand” on her fleshy thigh. Whatever. Sure, he was interpersonally icky, but from him I’d learned to love Stevens. Lines of poetry ran through my head as I wandered among vaulted arches and pointy towers:
I was the world in which I walked,
and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but
And there I found myself more
truly and more strange.