I just got back from my 30th college reunion -- the anniversary of an event that seems like a lifetime ago, if only because so many of my classmates now have children sleeping in the same dorms we once shared.
Right off the bat, I'll break the cardinal rule and admit that I'm talking about Harvard, but only because it's relevant to what I'm about to tell you. Quick rule of thumb: When someone tells you he went to college in Boston, he means Harvard. Anyone who'd attended Tufts, BU, or any of the 60 or so other campuses in the metropolitan area, would have the good sense to name the school. This odd caginess is the typical Harvardian's sole attempt at humility.
But 30 years out of college, old habits fall more easily by the wayside. Frankly, these days everything is beginning to get a little creaky. Even memories of college.
I guess that's what reunions are for. Walking through Harvard Yard again alongside people who once had more spring in their step and more attitude in their demeanor, I found myself questioning a lot of the assumptions I'd held for years, both during college and since. All weekend, the way I had seen myself and my classmates on the cusp of young adulthood was doing constant battle with the way I now saw us all, through the jaded, bifocal-clad eyes of a 51-year-old.
I learned a lot in college, but the chief thing I've learned since (something that the arrogance of youth is loath to accept) is that you never stop learning. And the lessons to be gained from a midlife confrontation with the past range from the profound to the sadly obvious (or are those the same thing?):
1. Youth really is wasted on the young. Harvard offers everything an 18-year-old could want, both academic and extracurricular. The choices are overwhelming and many of us chose unwisely, or not at all. I could have used those four years to explore new things -- join a chorus or a sports team (swimming, maybe; nothing requiring a helmet or the ability to catch a ball), go to parties, figure out my sexuality. Instead, I turned down social invitations in order to study, and I waited until senior year to write for the newspaper. As a result, I spent most of my twenties developing the social skills most kids have before they can drink.
2. It really doesn't matter who the cool kids are. Navigating the social strata at Harvard took a toll on my self-esteem and my stomach juices. The most anxiety-inducing moment of the day was emerging into the dining hall with a tray full of food, praying for a friendly face -- the right friendly face -- to invite me to sit. But now, with a crashing Duh, I discover that, for every person I thought was too "cool" to be my friend, there was another who thought the same of me. We were all wrong.
3. If you want to know who you are, just ask yourself. I wasted much of my freshman year in science classes I hated, just because I was fantasizing about being pre-med. When the time came to declare a major, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I dismissed the dream of being a doctor (my father's dream more than my own) and realized (Duh again) that English literature was the obvious choice, the one I'd been practically destined for at birth. Now, I can't fathom how I ever thought otherwise.
4. Nobody remembers that incident when you made a fool of yourself. ... No, really.
5. Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time. Thirty years ago it was all about where you prepped and how rich your parents were. You show up at a reunion prepared to see nothing but success stories that dwarf your own. And then you meet people who are struggling just as hard as you, some even more so. Unfulfilled dreams, broken homes, all the usual stuff that makes up a life -- the stuff that none of us, no matter how privileged we look on the outside, ever escape.
6. Money isn't everything, even at Harvard. Sure, Harvard graduates often rise to the top of the food chain. My classmates include the usual suspects: doctors and federal judges, Congressmen and CEOs, the occasional Grammy winner. But sprinkled among them are people of humbler ambitions and just as happy lives. In our class survey, 30% of respondents indicated that they didn't work on Wall Street but at nonprofits -- three times the national average. So much for stereotypes about Harvard snobbery.
7. Contrary to popular belief, the Admissions Office doesn't make mistakes. It's a surprisingly common phenomenon in the college years: listening to a friend explain Keynesian economics or explicate James Joyce over meatloaf in the dining hall, and wondering how on earth you got here. But now, without the baggage of youthful insecurity, it's easier to see the simple fact that we all took turns being the smart one at the table, because we were all smart about different things. The diversity was part of the Admissions Office's devious plan: everyone was there for a reason, and that reason was to enhance one another's education.
8. Differences are relative. Thirty years ago we came to college with surprisingly little in common -- from every state in the union, every socioeconomic level, private school and public. And, for a while, all we could notice were the differences -- race, gender, class. (For me, it was always class: the one thing I had in common with Ronald Reagan was his oft-repeated quote, "We didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks, but we lived so close to them we could hear the whistle.") But now, with the magic of middle age, someone calls my name across the Yard, someone I didn't think even knew my name 30 years ago, and we chat about our common history. What matters, all these years later, isn't the differences that divided us then, but the one thing we have in common now, and we're standing in the middle of it.
In the center of Harvard Yard sits the Statue of the Three Lies, a bronze figure above the inscription, "John Harvard - Founder - 1638." As every freshman knows, it's not John Harvard (a student posed for the sculptor), he didn't found the college (only donated £780 and a collection of books), and the date is wrong (the college actually was founded in 1636). But great people and great times in one's life often take on a mythology of their own. That's the origin of nostalgia. It's the reason we look back so fondly upon a time in our lives that was often fraught with anxiety, or look back on it with dread even though it was also full of excitement and joy. It's the reason the Harvard imposter's bronze foot is shiny gold from being rubbed for luck.
And sometimes the past, through rose-colored glasses or not, is all we have. Many people chose not to attend this reunion, but there are several others -- 41 at last count -- whom we've lost forever. Among them is one of the first people I ever met at Harvard -- a friend from my freshman dorm, felled by HIV just nine years out of college, a reminder that we entered adulthood in the middle of a plague. One of my most vivid memories from college is of running up the steps of Widener Library with that brilliant, energetic young man one night during freshman week -- running up the steps and bouncing around at the top like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. We were young and gifted, and at one of the most awe-inspiring places in the world. We were champions.