Vassar College: Reunions R Us

by Thomas Beller

06/03/2006

10 E 39th St, NY, NY 10016

Neighborhood: Midtown

A letter came in the mail not long ago, informing me that it was time to make a pilgrimage back to my old college for my tenth year reunion. The letter has sat on my desk ever since, sometimes under a pile, and sometimes, after a vigorous purge of junk, all by itself, unabashedly requesting my attention. There are several attachments to this letter explaining activities and costs and housing arrangements, but I haven’t been able to consider them because I still get so worked up whenever I look at the cover letter.

The closing sentence reads as follows: “I know you ‘R’ looking forward to this unique opportunity to Recapture memories, Renew friendships, Reacquaint yourself with Vassar, Rekindle school pride, and Re-establish ties.”

This from an institution of higher learning. I’m sure Vassar is not alone in this sort of thing; smart, respectable schools across the land have no doubt inflicted similar sentences on their graduates. There is something about alumni correspondence that inspires inanity. Perhaps all those school quarterlies and mailings take on such an insistently cheery, exclamation point strewn tone because they are really about raising money, and fund raising and irony don’t mix well.

Perhaps there were other reasons. Maybe the school assumed that the class of ’87 is now involved in bringing up babies and exists in a sleepless whirl of Pampers and Gerber’s, making them especially receptive to the syntax of Toys R Us. Or maybe this was a clever bit of reverse psychology–such a sentence is sure to bring to the fore all the worldly, hard bitten, and cynical emotions one possesses and, once exposed, the persistent tug of nostalgia and curiosity can work their special magic. Like taxes, I bet most of the checks for reunion weekend arrive on the last possible day.

It turned out this letter was kicking around on a number of other desks as well. Soon the phone began to ring with calls from classmates near and far. “Are you going?” they said.

The human capacity for inflection is an amazing thing. The phrase “Are you going?” can be fashioned into about ten different meanings, ranging from disdain to enthusiasm, but usually dwelling in the murky middle ground. Buttressed by these other voices, I concluded that my emphasis on this ridiculous sentence–which I indignantly read back to all my callers–was just a cover for my fear of the event itself. And everyone seemed to share it. Even the most enthusiastic renuionists had an air of reluctance in their voice, as if it were a familial obligation they were grudgingly attending. What is there is to be afraid of?

Well, there is the ordeal, acutely remembered from freshman year, of somehow explaining yourself, your essence, your whole being, in a minute or less. There is the possibility that having gained stature, respectability, prosperity, and even a few muscles at the gym, one will instantly revert back to one’s freshman year condition when put back in the same surroundings.

And there is something annoying in the sheer statistical adamance of the number ten. I have no trouble getting older, I just want to take my time about it. Then someone throws a number like ten in my face. Wait a second, you want to say, I’ll get to ten when I’m ready!

And speaking of time, this reunion takes place over a weekend. In Philip Roth’s new novel, American Pastoral, the narrator attends his forty-fifth high school reunion; it lasts an afternoon. Granted that the generation in question, the one that built up America after World War Two, is notoriously more industrious that my own, but that they should catch up on forty-five years in an afternoon while it takes us two nights, two days, and two box lunches to catch up on a mere ten years seems excessive.

And yet. Almost everyone I know is capitulating. The essential logic seems to be: I don’t want to go, but I don’t want to miss it. Curiosity and nostalgia seize the day. As well they should! The checks R in the mail. Mine is among them. Poughkeepsie, here I come.

June, 1997

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