"You Haven't Changed a Bit"
Why we worry about reunions
It’s an odd ritual involving thousands of people, thousands of dollars, and thousands of miles. Pictures are dug out of wallets, names dug out of nowhere, and partners and offspring paraded for approval. Business cards fly as fast as you can say, “Of course I remember you!” It’s that great American tradition: the reunion.
In the wildly if often deservedly self-important universe that is Harvard--the mindset, the assumptions, the attitude, the mantle some of us wear and some of us bear--the reunion is a major milestone. It is a way to frame the passage of time above and beyond the births and deaths, changes in health, relationships, jobs and geography, religious revelations, intimations of mortality, and other coming-of-age markers. Perhaps that's why, in the anonymous twenty-fifth reunion survey, one of my classmates was impelled to ask, "Can anyone explain why I'm nervous to go to reunion?"
But here's the truth: everyone is nervous. Everyone I talked to--whether in their twenties or their eighties--doctors, lawyers, heads of hedge funds, best-selling authors, deans, diplomats, tenured professors, top executives alike--confessed to me the same fears about coming back. We worry about what to wear and what we look like, about expanding waistlines and receding hairlines. We worry about running into old flames, old friends with whom we've lost touch, old enemies. We fear being the one who doesn't know where to stand, who has no one to sit with, the wandering minstrel hovering alone at the periphery of a tent. We worry that no one will understand what we're going through or what we've been through. We all worry.
"I would never go back to a reunion," says a successful ER doctor who attended his father's Harvard twenty-fifth but not his own Ivy League reunion. "Why be reminded of the social impotence I've spent the rest of my life trying to overcome?" Even my own roommate, Amy Remensnyder '83, was reluctant. For years I tried to convince her to return. She did come to the field Day at the tenth and saw a few friends. "After that I wandered around and I hated it," she says. So the twenty-fifth held little allure. Not even an invitation from our class's reunion committee to moderate a symposium tempted her.
I was certainly going; I was on the reunion committee and had been planning it for more than a year. But I had my own issues to contend with. I gave up on the "freshman 10" I'd been meaning to lose since 1979 and settled for getting rid of the gray. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be singing a duet at the talent show with Grammy Award-winning classmate Dan Wilson, and helped behind the scenes instead.
My psychological strategy was to exorcise some of my demons before we hit campus. I joined our reunion Facebook group and, through the safety of cyberspace, reached out to an old friend with whom I'd had a falling out and invited him to a pre-reunion event to clear the air. I begged the committee not to put our senior yearbook pictures on the nametags the way they did at our twentieth. And I tried not to focus on the stupid things I said or did when I was less than half the age I am now. "Please forget the 19-year-old version of me!" one classmate wrote in our survey. "If there's something you did at Harvard that WAS truly embarrassing or you regret, let it go. Meet your classmates as you are now and enjoy getting back together with a fascinating group of people."
"We want everyone to come back," says Courtney Shurtleff, director of the College alumni programs at the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA). But "people engage in different ways, and it's not always on a reunion cycle." Some simply can't be bothered: Harvard is not on their radar; it does not play a part in their lives, whether or not they enjoyed their time here. It is a filling station on their road of life: they stopped, got what they needed, paid, and left. In 1998, Harvard Magazine published a dispatch on "Why I'm Not Coming Back" by Claudia Cummins '88. "Maybe by the time our fifteenth or twentieth comes around, I'll be wise enough to remember that words and titles and addresses can never capture a life well-lived," she wrote.
But Cummins didn't return for her fifteenth or twentieth, nor does she plan to attend her twenty-fifth. When I asked her about this, she wrote: "At Commencement, Reverend Gomes urged us to 'Remember Lot's wife' and not look back...My life feels so busy and so full right now that I just don't feel inclined to catch up with people and reminisce about events from decades past....I would much rather spend the time and resources getting together with the [Harvard] friends I'm already in contact with and care deeply about...I no longer worry so much about how my life looks from the outside. I suppose that's one of the gifts of growing up. While I'm forever thankful for my Harvard experience and the opportunities and adventures it offered me, I just don't feel pulled back in any strong way."
Some people feel pulled back out of a sense of connection and loyalty to friends or to their College days, and the twenty-fifth provides a great excuse to renew those ties--but that may be it. One attendee is not sure he'll be back again--despite a seven-figure gift to Harvard. "The twenty-fifth is unique. I loved the undergraduate experience and I made great friends; it was important to me and my life. My general code is that you support the things that are important to you," he says. "But people go to relive their College days and I don't have that desire."
Victoria Drake '83 came from Chicago to join her core group of friends, but didn't find the twenty-fifth "the Cadillac of reunions" that she'd anticipated. Discovering at the Radcliffe memorial service that her freshman roommate had died was an unforeseen shock that cast a pall over the entire experience. And she felt "disappointed in the quality of the food, the panels, and the lack of smaller venues within which to connect authentically with fellow classmates." Yet overall, "It was wonderful to reconnect with my close friends," she acknowledges. "We spent the afternoon in Café Pamplona, with friends drifting in and out, and went back to our House-the high points were those unexpected moments on an intimate scale." As is often the case, her most meaningful reunion experiences happened outside the mega-events that people like me spend more than a year planning in order to lure people back.
Sterling Darling '01, cochair of his fifth reunion and former chair of the HAA recent graduates committee, says, "There are three things that keep people away: cost (always a concern); where they are in their lives (they're busy, have a new family or job); and the notion that reunion will be some kind of competition. 'What have you been doing for the past five years?' is not the sort of thing they want to answer-they don't want to wander into Kirkland Courtyard and be thrown into the Serengeti."
Fear of the "Serengeti Effect," in which survival of the fittest prevails, is both the most common and the most insidious factor keeping people away from reunions. Claudia Cummins calls this a fear of "not living up to her Crimson-coated potential." Some non-attendees perceive that the only people who show up for reunions are happy and highly successful, those who are content and appear confident. These are not necessarily the people you want to party with if you don't feel the same way, or are shy, or if your recent dance partners have been death, divorce, depression, or disillusionment. Asked in the class survey about her greatest achievement, one classmate wrote: "My kids and friends. Other than that I'm disappointed in how little I've achieved."
It can be hard not to measure yourself against the ever-present Harvard "Yardstick." In the mainstream media environment I inhabit, I can't turn on the television or radio, watch a movie, or open a newspaper or magazine without seeing the name and face of someone I recognize from Harvard. The warped reality in the Harvard community is this: if you win a Pulitzer, someone else won a Nobel; if you make a billion dollars, someone else made two billion. One Wall Street banker with two Harvard degrees notes, "Among Harvardians--at least with respect to measuring their own achievements in a do-I-go-to-the-reunion-or-not context--the glass is half empty rather than half full. Nearly 45 years after graduation, I still remember thinking in September of my freshman year that I wasn't bright enough to be at Harvard, and part of me still feels that way! This is a dumb way to go through life, but there it is!" And the bar seems only to get higher. Even a White House job is nothing special; now you have to be the president, and a barrier-breaking one at that.
We can't all be international prize-winners and captains of industry, as classmates on some of the reunion symposia are likely to be; but thank goodness someone is discovering a possible cure for lymphoma, making AIDS policy, and yes, even the Harry Potter movies--as my classmates have done. This leaves the rest of life's noble if not Nobel achievements for the rest of us, and the list in my class was humbling: staying sober for 16 years; succeeding professionally as an openly gay man; caring for a dying parent; creating a great relationship with a teenage daughter; praying for seriously ill people, and having them recover; living with a serious health condition; helping a son grow past the impairments of autism into an impressive kid. Several were striking in their enormity and simplicity: "I have learned to love"; "I grew up"; and "I achieved contentment." Why are these achievements seen as "less than"? Why aren't these the things people fear not achieving in life?
Because it always looks different from the outside. Remensnyder, my roommate, is now tenured at Brown. Since college, she has won numerous academic prizes and fellowships, published books, bought a house, found love, and traveled the world. Why not come back? "I was sure it would be all perfect straight couples with perfect kids and perfect dogs," she says. She came out to our class in the twenty-fifth report, and Brian Sands '83 contacted her about the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) cocktail party and annual Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus dinner. One of the dorms was designated for GLBT classmates and friends. "I was worried that I wouldn't know anyone, but there was a whole group of people like me," Remensnyder says. "To be at dinner in Lowell House, so mainline Harvard, hosted by House master Diana Eck and co-master Dorothy Austin, a Harvard lesbian couple, part of the elite power structure, was amazing. Everyone was gay. It was a mix of tradition and radicalism, a feeling of acceptance, to be out and accepted. I felt a deeper sense of connection to Harvard than I'd ever had." She ended up staying an extra day and now tells anyone who will listen that reunions are a great experience, and not to be missed.
When people realize that there are "people like me" at a reunion, they are more likely to come back. Thanks to the class report, pre-reunion events, and 27 SIGs (Shared Interest Groups, the fastest-growing segment of the HAA), more and more people are feeling welcome. There have been Black Alumni Reunions, GLBT Reunions, and SIG mini-reunions around the time of Commencement. (See www.post.harvard.edu/harvard/clubs/html/SIGdir.shtml for a complete list of SIGs.) There is also an Alumnae and Friends of Radcliffe SIG. (Some early Radcliffe classes opt for separate reunions, but increasingly, alumnae are planning joint activities with their Harvard counterparts and integrating their class reports.)
As for those who are still reluctant, I wish they could all drink the reunion Kool-Aid: many of my classmates succumbed to an endorphin high that has lasted all year. Everyone was infused with a warmth I had not felt to such a degree either as an undergraduate or at any other reunion--a warmth bred of maturity and self-acceptance (and perhaps the many open bars) that caused us, literally, to reach out and embrace each other.
If only all classmates could come back with the carefree attitudes of the spouses and partners who show up and just have a good time. Perhaps the lessons of reunion are best learned from these "outsiders": "I loved my husband's twenty-fifth reunion," says Sylvia Gerson, Ph.D. '75. "There was nothing at stake for me; we met wonderful people and enjoyed all the hoopla." Glenn Strachan, partner of Holley Stewart '83, volunteered this perspective: "I didn't have to concern myself with whether I had met the expectations that one must feel as a graduate of Harvard. Many of you came to Harvard with exceedingly high expectations of yourself, and over the past 25 years learned what was truly important in life-family, health and happiness....The twenty-fifth reunion is much less about 'impressing' people than it is about the renewal of long-lost friendships and trying to reconnect with those people who were most important to you. You were the 'best and brightest' when you all descended upon the Harvard campus in the last days of summer in 1979. You still are."
If only everyone could feel this way.
Teacher, writer, and editor Ellen Gordon Reeves '83, Ed. M. '86, has served on every reunion committee for her College class since she graduated. Her book, Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview? A Crash Course in Finding, Landing, and Keeping Your First Real Job, appears this month from Workman Publishing.
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