By Sue Dickman ’89
I will admit it: I am a reunion crasher. I don’t sign up, and then I appear. It comes of living locally and working two blocks from the college. But it also comes of belonging to two classes. I started at Amherst with the Class of 1988 and finished with the Class of 1989. And there lies my reunion dilemma. Do I attend the reunion of the class I started with or the one I graduated with? The one where I know more people or the one where I found my lasting friends?
I can never decide and so always make a fleeting appearance at each. While the Class of 1989 gets (a tiny bit of) my money, I can’t quite leave the Class of 1988 behind. And when I look around the 1989 tent, I mostly see strangers—well-meaning and friendly strangers, but strangers nonetheless.
At those moments, I’m reminded of a composition student I once had. He was a bit of a smart aleck, frequently asking if we could watch The Jerry Springer Show in class. But one day, he sat down at his desk with a heavy sigh, looking dejected. I asked what was wrong. “Man,” he said, his head in his hands, “I am one lost freshman.” The students around him clucked sympathetically. We all knew what he meant.
I had a party trick, my first year at Amherst, with which I entertained my roommates: my excellent memory—and the amount of time I’d spent studying the freshman facebook—meant that I knew the middle names of most of the people in our class. My roommates would quiz me. “Nadia on the third floor,” one would say. “Madelaine,” I would reply, and they’d look it up and squeal. The next year, when one of them had a new boyfriend, one of the first things she asked was whether I knew his middle name. I did. (John.) In the Class of 1989, the only people whose middle names I know are those whose weddings I attended. It’s not the same at all.
The bond of being lost freshmen together is not one to take lightly. Still, after two years at Amherst, I had to go. I’d become weepy and miserable, feeling like Amherst was wrong or I was wrong or some combination of us was just wrong. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way in the complicated decade after coeducation. I figured out later that of the 21 women who lived on the second floor of James in 1984–85, nine of us took time off or transferred—almost 43 percent.
My year off did not begin auspiciously, as the day before I was to begin my summer job in a mountain hut in New Hampshire, I fell while running down a trail and broke my leg. My year’s plans had to be rearranged. After a summer on crutches, I’d spend a compensatory stint as fall caretaker at another hut, followed by several months in Europe and a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School, which cured me of the desire ever to go winter camping again and which taught me that there were worse places than Amherst to be a feminist.
I also visited, applied to and was accepted at Oberlin. I could see myself so clearly there. I knew which co-op I would join, which classes I would take. My Oberlin future waited happily before me. And yet. And yet. When the time came to make the final decision, I chose to return to Amherst. At Amherst, I would no longer be a lost freshman, and at Oberlin, I might have been.
It was the right decision. I returned, I found my place, and everything changed. I started to write seriously. I met the people who would become my lifelong friends. I began to become the person I am now.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be betwixt and between, but it confuses me every five years, when I ponder whose reunion to crash. How to decide between the person who chose Amherst in a heady rush of 17-year-old certainty and the one who returned several years later with deliberation and intent? I know that the story’s ending is happier than the beginning. But it’s hard not to feel attached, in some fundamental way, to all the people whose middle names I still remember (Kimball, Edwin, Simone, Allen, Eve), the people who knew me before I really knew myself.
In early June 2013, 25 years after I didn’t graduate, you’ll find me wandering toward a reunion tent. I won’t stay long—I never do. But I’ll revel in the familiar faces of other 40-somethings, all of us decades away from the lost freshmen we once were. And when I walk away, I’ll be as sure as ever that leaving the Class of 1988 remains one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Dickman’s essays have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and other publications. She blogs at www.lifedivided.blogspot.com.
Illustration © Brian Stauffer c/o theispot.com