College reunions are designed to trigger reflection, nostalgia and insights into the winding, baffling life journey that connects who you were at 20 and who you are now. And maybe, for cynics, how much you owe your college, how impressive are your life achievements, and how good you look compared to your college boyfriend’s wife.
I recently spent five days at my 25th college reunion. To explain the experience, I need to identify the school. Harvard. Not to brag. It’s just I’m not sure my reactions would make sense if I’d gone to any other school. It’s the kind of place that, even when I say the word in my head, it comes out in all caps: HARVARD!
Going to my reunion felt like four years of college condensed into a Thursday through Sunday in late May.
First, the dread beforehand. I wanted to go to the 25th reunion, to experience the milestone. I felt honored that I could go - that I earned a degree from an internationally prestigious college.
However, part of me desperately wanted to stay home.
Exactly the way I felt at 18 when Harvard accepted my application and the world made clear I would be a fool not to attend. I knew I’d thrive more at a smaller, less impressive school where I could shine and receive more individual attention. I went with the world’s decision.
Then came the sheer intimidation of being at Harvard again. Stunningly terrifying. As soon as I set foot on campus, I felt like a six-year-old rather than a 46-year-old. It was primal. I had been transported back in time.
And, oh what a different time it was. Back in the days before helicopter parents, before high schools held “separation” meetings for senior parents and colleges were forced to set a deadline for freshman parents to leave campus. Back in September 1983, my mother drove me north in our old station wagon and dropped me at my new dorm. She stayed for 45 minutes, max, looking around my shabby L-shaped room as if she was certainly glad she wasn’t going to spend the next year staring at those four hospital-green walls.
What makes her quick departure even more astonishing is what a psychological jellyfish I was. I had developed anorexia my senior year - it seemed a logical reaction to my terror of growing up and guilt at abandoning my younger siblings to our dysfunctional home. When my mother dropped me off at Harvard, I weighed 97 pounds (which, for comparison, is 60 pounds fewer than today). I was also grappling with the disintegration of my nuclear family (my parents had been miserable for years and would separate soon) and the undeniable rampage of alcoholism and drug abuse that had torn through my family (myself included) for generations.