There’s nothing like a class reunion for putting you in your proper place.
Last weekend I went to my first one – the 25th anniversary of my graduation from college. In years gone by, it never seemed like a good time to go back to my alma mater, La Salle University. First I wasn’t making much money. Then I didn’t have a kid, own a house, or have tenure. My classmates, to judge by the alumni publications, were all well into six-figure incomes and had at least three kids each by the time of our 10th or 15th anniversary gathering. I couldn’t bear to go.
But this year I ran out of excuses. I’d published a fair amount, including a book; I’d served as department chair; I’d been promoted to full professor. I had little or nothing, professionally or personally, to be embarrassed about anymore. I could hold my head high amongst my peers from the class of 1980.
So I set off for the five-hour ride south on I-95 to Philadelphia. I planned to stay at my mother’s house, to arrive two hours early, shower, fix my hair, and change into the fabulous new outfit I’d bought for the occasion -- the first new clothes I’d bought in ages. Five hours later I was still two hours away from my college, listening to a Harry Potter book for the fourth or ninth time and cursing myself for not having gone to the public library for a new book on tape.
The reception I’d been looking forward to, the one where I’d see all my old friends from the school newspaper, was fast approaching, and I was not. There was no time to drive to my mom’s to shower and change. I would have to go straight to the college in my jeans and sneakers and change in a bathroom.
But then it hit me. I work at a college; I know the way alums are treated. So I called the alumni office and explained my plight. No problem, they assured me. They had a spare townhouse in which I could shower and change and still make it to the reception on time. I did so and arrived at the reception, clean, before any of my friends who actually live in Philadelphia.
I’d never been an alum before, not in person. It was all new to me -- the open-bar parties, the crab-cake hors d’oeuvres, the alumni office staff treating me like visiting royalty. I guess they never know who has money and who doesn’t, so they’re nice to everyone.
I had a great time at the reception, which honored one of my favorite teachers, the economics professor who runs the college’s honors program. It was great to see him and to see him praised. In his speech, he even singled me out, which seemed to me to be patently unfair to the arguably much more successful alums in the room, including the many lawyers, one of whom is a state representative. They were old news, as they’d all been back before. I was the prodigal, back after 25 years.
The dynamics among my friends, the college newspaper set, had not changed a bit. One old sports editor still made fun of the counterculture choices and left-wing politics of another former sports editor; my old roommate laughed at both of them and did her best to keep the peace. The old photo editor, now a corporate lawyer, retained his photographer’s distance from the action, fond of all parties and unwilling to take sides. The state representative drifted in and out; I wondered whether she was saving me from the awkwardness sure to arise if we ended up in a political conversation.
The photo editor and I went off to tour the college’s excellent art museum, and I found myself in a different kind of conversation, one much more familiar in recent years. The museum’s curator, it turns out, is an alum of the institution where I teach. She and I talked about the college, its new president, the new strategic planning committee, and what the campus was like when she attended. Now I was on safe ground, representing the life I currently lead without having to explain it. This was a persona I found easy to inhabit, and it was a bit of a relief after negotiating how to talk to people I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.
The next night was the class of 1980 dinner. I’d looked at the RSVP list and had known almost no one except my roommate, so a lot was hinging on whether we could sustain a conversation through an entire dinner. We’d already exchanged photos of our children the night before; what if we had nothing left to say to each other?
As I approached the student union building tentatively, not sure where the dinner was, I stopped to chat with some dining services staff who were taking a break outside in the late-afternoon sunshine. One of them admired my new outfit, and I told her how excited I’d been to find it, in a little import shop not far from my house. We talked about the price (not bad at all, they commented) and the various accessories, and they envied me the little shop. I confessed to wanting to look good in front of a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. They told me not to worry: “You got it going on, girl!” I hoped they were right.
After chatting with the college’s president over drinks -- how much easier it is to talk to a college president now -- I sat with my old roommate at dinner and was relieved to find that we liked each other still, or was it again? She was working for a charitable foundation after years at big accounting firms, and I was amused to see the new schmoozing skills she’d acquired in her fund-raising work. I’d seen those skills before, in our own development office staff.
At yet another party after the dinner, I stopped to talk to an elderly woman who’d been at our class dinner but whom I didn’t remember from any of my classes. She told me that when the college first went coed, in the 1970s, some of the male students had suggested to her, a 55-year-old worker in the cafeteria, that she take some classes. She enrolled in the evening division, tuition free for college employees, and finished up the year I did, with a degree in sociology. The college helped her get work at a women’s shelter, and she worked there until she retired 10 years later. She was so grateful to the college, she said: “They were the best years of my life, when I was taking those classes.”
I think I eventually figured out where I fit in that funny anthropological experiment that was the reunion. Somewhere between the cafeteria workers who liked my outfit and the lawyers and corporate vice-presidents with whom I got re-acquainted at the parties, I found myself as an alum. No need to compete in terms of social class or income when you have a Ph.D. and an academic job. No need to be embarrassed (or proud) about driving the little Ford or not sending my daughter to private school. The class position of the academic had social capital enough, for better or worse, to pull me through. Talking to the curator, the athletics administrator, the college president -- there I was in familiar territory. Hearing from that retired alum about what her bachelor’s degree had meant to her -- the story was different from the ones I hear at my current institution’s reunions, but the genre was the same.
That’s why my old professor was pleased to see me -- I had staked my claim in the same place he had, in higher education. He remembered me as a working-class kid from the suburbs, and he was happy to have helped me see my way to a career in academe. I’m happy about it to, and I’m glad I gave the reunion a chance. Maybe I’ll do it again in another 25 years.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
At U of All People, we want to attract the caliber of students who apply to Yale or Harvard. But let’s face it: Situated in Left-Middle, Nowhere, with a junior-sized faculty, no football team, and degrees in animal husbandry, we haven’t had a shot at anyone with SATs over 1000 -- that is, we didn’t until our top alum, Bobby “Buzz” Martin, CEO of Amalgamated, Inc., kicked in with an unrestricted donation of $500 million.
Now we’ve got the wherewithal to launch the biggest recruitment campaign around, as soon as we finish building the Buzz basketball stadium and facilities, refurnish the chancellor’s house, and pay off some of those bad loans incurred during the tenure of our last financial officer, D. Fal Cates.
But after that, here’s what we’ll do:
1. Send out a mass mailing to every single high school senior in the United States with a GPA of 3.5 or above and SAT scores over 1250. The packet will include a letter from our newly renovated chancellor, a lottery ticket with a chance to win $100,000 and a drawing date of February 15 (our application deadline), a free UAP cell phone that connects directly to our admissions office, and a CD with photos of our new residence halls and a voice-over by the rap star 50 Cent.
2. Establish 100 UAP scholarships of $100,000 each for deserving applicants who can tell us in 100 words “Why I’m a U of All People Kind of Guy/Gal.” Essayettes will be judged on originality and SAT scores.
3. Promise luxurious accommodations and meals at our new UAP residence halls, which boast DSL connections and video games in every room, not to mention hot tubs and massage chairs for those late-night study sessions. Our food plan from 2006 on will be overseen by the celebrity chef Emeril, who will cook for the students one Thursday a month.
4. Solicit 50 basketball stars to join our renowned team, the Bees, and play in our Buzz stadium. We’ll be culling the top from high schools where we’ve sent our recruiters with lucrative contracts. Athletes will be housed in “the Cave,” our brand-new dormitory that features mink bedding, built-in beer coolers, and selected access to UAP cheerleaders. Go, Bees!
5. Build a new student center, the Buzz-y Bee, with 24/7 service and the Bzzz Discotheque, with guest appearances by Eminem and Beyoncé. Other highlights include a 500-person screening room for first-run films, a casino, and a skinny-dipping pool.
6. Set up a Chancellor-for-the-Day program, in which one lucky student is selected to control the university for 24 hours, from grant oversight to special-events planning.
7. Guarantee employment for 50 percent of our graduating class, with our links to the newly created financial firm of UAP & Co., the law firm of AUP, Ltd., and our entertainment division, PAU Ltd.
8. Overhaul the grounds, including a 36-hole golf course, a ski run, and an artificial beach.
9. Investigate whether we should increase faculty salaries. Note: This item has been shelved for fiscal 2006-7.
We also have plenty of other programs in the works, from Free Money Days in Econ 101 classes to book contracts associated with PAU Ltd. for the students in our creative writing workshops. Or how about our Nobel Dance Program, where we invite Nobel prize winners from all over the globe to visit UAP and show us how they can hoof it at our Bzzz Discotheque? Or our Junior Year Abroad, with snowboard academies in the Swiss and Italian Alps and surfing school in St. Croix?
Gosh, we’ve got so many ideas, generated by the Manhattan-based PR firm of Skule & Dine, we hardly know what to do with them! Our national advertising campaign is set to hit the airways in late August, with a video by the same folks who did those cool iPod commercials, and music written by Coldplay.
U of all People: We’ll steal your heart -- or buy it!
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).