Friday, June 03, 2005

Going back

I couldn’t sleep the other night and it wasn’t because of the results of the referendum. I had numbers floating in my brain. “Eighty” first of all. But also “seventy-nine” and “eighty-one”. And “ninety”, “fifty-five” and “eighty-eight”. And “oh-three”, “oh-four” and “oh-five”. The numbers were floating on a sea of orange costumes. Some costumes included sport jackets, some could be mistaken for firefighters’ jackets, some had Chinese calligraphy, some could be worn by race car drivers. But they had one thing in common. They were all sported by graduates of an American university on the occasion of one of its most tradition-steeped events: Princeton Reunions.

Princeton Reunions, four days of partying, reconnecting, recollecting and learning, take place on the Princeton University campus between the end of final exams and graduation. Alumni from every class attend, with the greatest representation coming in the round-number years: the 5th reunion, the 10th, the 15th, and so on. Out of the one thousand or so members of my 25th reunion class, around 500 attended. Of the 680 or so living members of the class of ’55, the 50th reunion, about 350 attended. Each reunion is assigned a courtyard on the campus which becomes its headquarters for four days. There is music and dancing, and the beer flows freely. Elsewhere on campus, there are lectures, conferences, discussion groups, shows put on by undergraduates, and “arch sings” – short concerts given by a capella singing groups under the many acoustically-blessed Gothic archways on campus.

It’s been twenty-five years since I graduated from Princeton University, but when the conductor on the New Jersey Transit shuttle train that brought me into town last Thursday announced that Princeton would be the next and only stop, for a moment I felt like a freshman again, arriving on campus for the first time, apprehensive about what my life would be like for the next four years and more than a little overwhelmed by it all. An hour later I met S., another member of my graduating class, who has been to nearly all of our 25 reunions. For several years, she said, she had “test anxiety” whenever she set foot on the campus.

Five years ago I attended our 20th reunion, having had little contact with the Princeton community over the previous 12 years. That time I was filled with anxiety. Who would I see? Would they remember me? Would my life and career measure up to theirs? Would I want them to remember me as I had been 20 years earlier? Would they want to know me as I am now? But it was a revelation. All the insecurities, the competitiveness, the need to be clever, all melted away and I related to my former classmates on a completely new level. Moreover, I learned that they had been suffering the same anxieties. In fact, some friendships started at that 20th reunion.

This time was an opportunity to extend the “success” of five years ago. Leveraging that experience, before I left, I wrote to some people I hadn’t seen in these 25 years, including T., one of my freshman year roommates. I was hesitant about it, because we hadn’t got on that well with each other that year, and hardly saw each other after that, even while we were undergraduates. I had this lingering sense of guilt that I had never been very polite with him. Maybe he would hold it against me if I wrote to him. So I screwed up my courage and hit “send”.

In fact, seeing T. again was particularly satisfying. We saw each other on the first evening after the Class of ’80 talent show. He is now a jazz musician and has been teaching music at Princeton for the last 16 years. I told him about my anxieties and about how I used to do and say the most outlandish things. He said he was touched by my e-mail. I think he understood my desire to let it all out because he told me exactly the same story I had in mind to tell him.

One winter evening during the 1976-77 school year, I was studying in the common room in our dormitory suite. I was having trouble understanding what I was studying and as often happened then, I started getting hot under the collar about it – literally. So I opened the window wide. The only problem was that it was about eight degrees Fahrenheit outside. T. was also studying in the same room, and he had a cold to boot. Somehow I had trouble understanding that someone else might be cold when I was hot. T. said that L., another of our roommates, also present at our 25th Reunion, virtually had to hold him back. But 25 years later - no, 29 years later - we were both able to laugh about it, and I felt very relieved.

I saw Professor M. for the first time in at least 25 years and we agreed not to let another 25 years go by without any contact. I saw about half of the members of my "Outdoor Action" group, with whom I spent a week canoeing, hiking and spelunking before starting classes freshman year. I saw my cousin from the class of 2003 and learned a few things about Princeton today, ... or in the recent past, anyway.

It was fun to make contact with the other "internationalists". S. was there from Madrid. L., the intervening freshman-year roommate, was there from Norway. P. was there from Geneva. T. was there from Beijing. And P., whom I had never met before, was there from Japan. Many of the contacts I made were facilitated by H., who hosted me and several other classmates. Indeed, I met several classmates I had not seen since graduation or simply never met before and had a great time talking to them. Now if I can only remember what they said to me. Come on, Steve, think. You went to Princeton, you can do this ….



At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Marc Safran said...

Thoughtful and a good portrayal of the activities and emotions of coming back, twenty five years later, to a huge party at the University where we cut our teeth on life and learning.

At 12:49 AM, Anonymous Joe Q. said...

Nicely said. And a reminder that sometimes the best thing about a place isn't the place at all, it's the people you meet there (which doesn't mean you can't wear the school colors now and again).


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