Going Home To College, 25 Years Later

About a year after my graduation, in a moment of alcohol-lubricated honesty, a close college friend said that she sometimes felt like she didn’t know me because our friendship primarily was based on my helping her sort out the things that impacted her life and she never got to return the favor. Because I was so protective of my heart, she pointed out, I rarely let anybody, not even my closest friends, know much about what really made me tick. Or fall apart.

By now, she’s probably long forgotten that moment in time, but I haven’t. Her comment was an arrow that tore through any protection and embedded itself deep in my heart’s chambers, miraculously allowing for normal blood flow to continue. As much as I’d like to say that she was overdramatizing the situation, I knew as soon as the words left her lips that she had hit the bullseye. For years, I had been using my skills as an amateur therapist to avoid ever having to reveal my true self to others. Shockingly, it worked. Almost all of the time.

Over the 25 years since my college graduation, I have opened myself up a lot more to people, perhaps because my friend brought the issue to my attention or because I finally was ready for it, but still, my close friends of today will tell you that I am not likely to reveal myself unless pushed or plied with wine and chocolate. Some of them might say that until I started this blog, they had no idea of what goes on in my head on a normal day. Writing about myself has always been easier than talking about myself.

It was as my husband and I drove the two and a half hours to our 25th college reunion this past weekend that I was struck by the fact that of the 650 people who graduated from Wesleyan University with me in May of 1987, only a handful knew me well enough to invite me home over vacation or share a meal on my birthday or stumble home from a frat party with me in the wee hours of the morning. A much larger group of people were acquaintances, people who may or may not have waved to me as we walked across campus or sat beside me during a class lecture or in the crowded dining hall. And then there were those who might’ve heard my name through a friend of a friend or seen my picture in the freshman facebook (the artifact that ultimately led to “Facebook”) or watched me recite my poetry that one time I dared to expose myself during those years. And then there were the others, a fairly large group that probably didn’t have an inkling of my existence, despite living within a mile or two of me for four years.

It goes both ways. I only know well a few from my graduating class. I have acquaintances and some whose name or face I know from a single incident 25 years ago or from the news of their successes post-college (there are an unbelievably lot of those). And I’m sure there are many whom I would not recognize by name or face if they stood in front of me and let me search my memory for an hour.

So, as my husband watched the road and listened to the radio, I closed my eyes and thought about how I was going to make the most out of my reunion experience. I was a little bit nervous. None of the people I have kept up with since college were able to make the event, which as I thought about it, was probably a good thing. But in a moment of insecurity, I began to question why I was going to put myself through this obviously uncomfortable experience. What if I only THINK I have acquaintances that will remember me? What if not a single person is pleased to see me or to acknowledge my existence?

How can I be so confident in some ways and such a basketcase in others?

In my brief attempt to create order out of the unknown chaos that is called reunion, I realized that I am better off just going to reunion and being myself. The only caveat I made was that I had to force the shy part of me to say hello to anybody I saw who I thought I recognized, as vague as the recognition may be. That way I might make a connection that didn’t exist before and get to know better somebody who lived through four years with me at the same institution.

It didn’t start off well. We checked in at registration and as we were leaving the building, I saw two people whom I recognized. One looked up and I shyly waved and said hello. They looked right through me and walked on. Maybe I am invisible?

But it got better. I sat in on a seminar and the woman beside me stood to leave in the middle, so she could get to a dance performance, and when we looked at each other glancingly, she stopped and said my name. I said hers, we said hi, we’ll catch up later, and she rushed off to the performance. Somebody knew my name. An acquaintance who I barely saw after freshman year.

As the day went on, I saw more and more people and said something to everybody I recognized. Surprise. Surprise. They all said hi and either moved on or stopped and checked in with me. Everybody was friendly. I had conversations with people I’d never had conversations with before. I relaxed. I looked around and remembered what it felt like to be 18, 19, 20 and live among these same (albeit older) faces. I looked around from my place in the middle of the football field and saw college row and Olin library and Clark hall and the athletic center.

That night, at a reception for our class, I went as far as reaching out to somebody I never knew to tell him that the father of my daughter’s friend asked me if I knew him. We chatted for twenty minutes or so. I smiled and laughed so much during the reception that my cheeks hurt. Really. And after, we stopped by a campus dance party and went to visit an old friend who was staying at one of the fraternities. It was there that I was reminded of what college smells like. Stale beer and mustiness with a hint of pot smoke. And like that, I was twenty years old.

I didn’t get to talk to everyone I saw during my 36 hours at Wesleyan. Some were across the room, and while I intended to get to them later,  I never saw them again. The old hallmate (Darya, if you’re reading this send me a private note and we can catchup) who said my name on her way to the dance performance never crossed my path again, although I did see her at all the same places where I was in the pictures that are being posted in our class’ Facebook page.

I wasn’t a fixture at my college. I wasn’t somebody that people talked about, bad or good. I wasn’t the most talented writer or actor or musician. I wasn’t somebody whose work received high accolades or who got called to the Dean’s Office for scoring a bad grade (except that one time in Freshman year when I zoned out through economics class). But as a regular person, I was somebody who made up a tiny part of the patchwork that is Wesleyan’s Class of 1987.

Returning to a place where I learned so much about myself and about the world among others going through similar experiences at a very defined and important time in our lives, I felt not like I had returned simply to reconnect with people I once knew. Instead, I felt like I’d come home.

And when it was time to leave, I felt a deep sadness.

One of our classmates wrote on our Facebook page of her experience at the reunion and said it was “sweetly tragic or tragically sweet.” I know exactly what she means.




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5 thoughts on “Going Home To College, 25 Years Later

  1. I would have had the same feelings about going to a reunion that you had. How courageous of you to put yourself out there like you did! Bravo! I was cheering for you as I read this and am so happy that it was an enjoyable weekend for you.

    1. Thanks Tami. I’m always amazed at how easy it is to regress but also how much easier it is than it used to be to pull out of that regression. Maturity has it’s benefits.

  2. Sara, what an emotional post– I’m sitting here at JFK, waiting to board a plane back home… ruminating about all my own feelings, expectations and now memories of the reunion and my years at Wes… so sorry we didn’t get a chance to catch up–I only got 10 minutes with Shi Young sadly. Oops gotta board now –more later!

    1. I’m glad you read this. I was sorry not to get a chance to talk to you (so funny that you were sitting next to me all that time and we hadn’t looked at each other). I hope you’re well and would love to catch up at some point. I did get some time with Shi Young and was happy to find her well. It was a great weekend. 🙂

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