Finding Her Place
Attending her 25th college reunion, Paula Krebs writes about finally learning to be an alum.
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.
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