June 2nd, 2002


Thoughts on Princeton 1987's Fifteenth Reunion

Why do we do this every five years? Is it just to recapture lost youth, or does it serve its own purpose? If all we wanted was to recapture our youth, we'd come down when school is in session, sit in on a few classes, hang at the club, get to know some undergrads -- in short, pretend to be what we used to be. Education is wasted on the young, they say, so now that we appreciate what we had, we could go back and do it again.

That's all very well if we want the educational experience - and many do go back for a second bachelor's, a career change. Even as a social experience, though, the reunion does capture some of the sense of end-of-term lassitude, wandering the campus aimlessly, chatting with friends who we're not going to see again for a very long time, trying to hold onto some of what we have shared the past four years. But there is always the jarring note, that we are only guests here, that our time has come and gone, that the layout of the campus continues to change, jarring our perceptions out of the desired illusion.

So why do we come back? The reasons change, but they develop and grow with time.

The fifth works for the "lost-youth" model - because school is in memory yet green, we've been coming back for the intervening years, we still have our friends, often we've been coming down for major social events during the school year, so we get to know some of the later undergrads.

The tenth, well, we're really getting established in life, many of us are married, starting to have kids, finding our place in work and community and faith. I went around having a hundred superficial "where are you, what do you do, are you married?" catch-up talks, hoping for, and finding, the three or four really serious talks with old friends, friends with whom we may not have stayed in direct contact, talking about where we are and where we're going. The eating club has changed personality, the old social link that you thought would tie you to campus social life forever is severed. The professors are still there, and the buildings. You wonder if reuning is worth it, just for those few talks.

The fifteenth, well, it continues to happen, but more so. Many things are becoming clearer. The reunion works on its own terms. The college tie is lessening - it has become nostalgia, rather than focal point of desire. We are more and more settled in life, with more and more experience of life in the real world - kids, job, church/synagogue. Fifteen years is a long time, longer than any previous experience - even if we stayed in the same school from elementary through high school, that's still 12-14 years.

But the conversations become more intense, as we realize that these people really care about us, and we care about them, even if we don't see each other but once in five years. We resolve to stay in closer touch. And we'll see what happens. The point of the reunion has really become the conversation, the ongoing development of life, based in our common college experience. The college itself is more an accessory to the reunion experience, a locus of interaction. The band becomes less relevant, as we drift off to sleep earlier and earlier. And we discover we aren't alone any more.

Right after school, everyone is ambitious, going to law school, med school, business school, getting ready to make the big mark on the world. And sure enough, some do make the big mark, founding Ebay (Meg Whitman '77), Amazon (Jeff Bezos '86), continuing a life in acting (Brooke Shields '87). But the famous ones don't come back for reunions.

Who comes back? We do. People who are increasingly either content in life, or who realize that contentment need not correspond to tremendous success. "Who is wealthy? He who is content with his lot." (Chapters of First Principles). We are the lawyers, the doctors, the businessmen, the programmers and web designers and editors. But first and foremost we are people, with families and communities. We are social animals. Not in the Darwinian sense, but in the sense of needing to be with people. "Life is with people." I am not the only one who finds his success coming outside the work world - in the family, in the synagogue, in the church, in community advocacy and support work. Realizing that others are in the same place is tremendously validating, especially when one doesn't always value oneself, perhaps because of unreal or outdated expectations.

And we need to support each other in this realization. As we grow out of the old mold of work success as the only road to success, we need to see each other grow in the larger world, to know that we are becoming whole, that there are many roads to Oz.

It's not the music - that we can get on the radio or the CD player.
It's not the youth culture - that we can never get back.
It's not just seeing old faces, feeling nostalgic - it's more than that.

It's growing together, realizing that as a community of sharers of a formative experience, we can help each other grow into the best we can possibly be - whole people with whole, happy lives.

Jonathan Baker '87