A Modest Proposal

By Aaron Britt '03

Great new job? Best-selling novel? In that class note about your latest feat, please mention your failed romance, too, and kindly own up to a little self-doubt.

I love the class notes. I also hate them. They’re the first thing I turn to when Amherst magazine arrives, and also the most common cause for me tossing it aside in disgust. As one for whom Amherst still looms large, and whose intimates are largely other alumni, I feel a strong connection to the college. I genuinely want to know what my classmates are doing. That said, if I read one more note from a fellow ’03 who’s finished some Harvard graduate program “a year ahead of schedule ;-)” or about the hedge-fund-hopping histrionics of a New Yorker who can’t possibly get by in the East Village with fewer than 1,200 square feet, I’ll send my kid to Swarthmore.

I’m not arguing that we should banish good news from the notes, but that, in the updates, we seek to present a more balanced view of our lives.
Believe me, I’m truly happy for my classmates and their accomplishments, but it seems like that’s all I read about: accomplishments. Thrilling as it may be to have just completed your doctorate at the Sorbonne or to have made junior partner in a tony law firm, I want to know the whole story: give me a failed romance, an ignominious dismissal, an admission of self-doubt.

At times it feels as if class notes, at least for us ambitious young things, are more about posturing and bragging than actually reporting on our lives; or perhaps we feel the only element of our lives worth reporting is the triumphs. Maybe there’s no way to write about your new novel without sounding self-important, but for heaven’s sake don’t fail to mention your balky left knee or your Guantanamo-bound cousin. Surely there must be one ’03 still living on Mom and Pop’s dime—or in their basement. To that alum, I ask: Where are you? Please keep us abreast of your travails and TV schedule. Are the high-fliers scaring you off? Can we coax you out from behind the air-hockey table to give us an update?

In that spirit, I’ll go first: I recently moved from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, with Drew Himmelstein ’03, with no real job prospects and no sense of what I’d do. San Francisco is a lovely city, but I miss Washington for its grand vistas, intense work ethic and lousy sense of fashion. I’ve been working as a freelance writer, and while I was prepared to continue with the professional nervousness that comes from patchy work, sleeping late and the occasional stay in debtor’s prison, I have just won a job as an editor at Dwell magazine. I’m excited to work for such a hip mag, but as this will be the first 9-to-5 job of my life, I’m a bit apprehensive about losing the freedom that my previously feckless lifestyle afforded. I often see Amber Bravo ’03 and lose at tennis to Dan King ’02 and Athmeya Jayaram ’04.

Class notes allow the alumni body to connect—and to pore over the latest scuttlebutt. The notes owe something to the gossip rags in both tone and content, and it might be that people read the notes for the same reasons they pick up People or US Weekly. (I can picture it now: Andrew Doss ’03 Decks Paparazzi; Bump Watch: Cristina Septien ’01. Of course, gentlemanly Andrew’s and childless Cristina’s press people are far too savvy to let this sort of thing appear.)

Perhaps the class notes are more like the society pages, but with cotillions and coming-outs swapped for Homecoming, and designed less for mass consumption than for the insular society itself. Amherst alums belong to an elite club, and while simply attending Amherst might impress your neighbors, or even your boss, it’s no great shakes to other alumni. The class notes are a place to shine in already accomplished company. And for that they doubly run the risk of smug boastfulness, as if to say, “If you thought getting through this posh school was tough, wait ’til you see my next trick.”

For me it’s the showiness that irks. I seem to be in the minority that hasn’t gone to grad school or won a fellowship, and I don’t feel bad that I haven’t done those things. Though I suppose I do measure my career and general happiness against what appears in the notes, and with the raft of blinding successes I routinely read about, how could I reasonably measure up?

The first issue of the Amherst Student, on February 1, 1868, included a section called Personals that featured news of alumni and current students. The publication was the first at the college to print class-notes-style news on a regular basis, says Mariah Sakrejda-Leavitt, an assistant in Archives and Special Collections at the Frost Library. She says the Personals section was a fixture in the newspaper for many years.

At its inception, Personals was not nearly as florid or informative as our current incarnation of alumni news. Each alum was afforded no more than one line of the most basic information. We learn in the inaugural issue, for example, that W. C. Peckham, Class of 1867, “is principal of the Leicester (Mass.) Academy; and married” (poor soul), and that the Reverend John M. Greene, Class of 1853, of Hatfield, Mass., “has been called to the church in South Hadley.” Fifteen years after the Student first rolled off the presses, Swarthmore started to run alumni updates in its student newspaper; Williams followed suit in 1907, at the inception of its alumni magazine.

At Amherst, class notes have gotten wordier over the years, and the burden of spinning updates now falls on volunteer secretaries who cull and streamline submissions from their classmates. I spoke to my class secretary, Ryan Roman ’03, to get the scoop.

“The nature of the class notes isn’t to be an atlas or some kind of historical record,” Roman says. “People will announce what’s going on in their lives, or friends will announce for them. If I talk to you, I feel free to update on what you’re doing. Right out of the gate we had lots of people submitting but not a lot of information from them. And now we have even less contribution.”

Today, alumni don’t even have to wait for the magazine to arrive to read class notes. They can go to www.amherst.edu/alumni to post and read updated notes.

“Class notes track the pulse of the class,” Roman believes. His observation is trenchant: one can chart the course of a class through the notes. Just as we alums of the ’00 years tend to be in some stage of grad school, wedding bells are pealing in the notes of the ’90s, where more than one baby is also on the way. Members of the classes of the ’70s update their peers with news of mid-career happenings—books published and promotions wrangled—and report on their college-aged children. The notes of the ’50s and ’60s classes are filled with stories of typically sunny retirements.
Chris Kuipers ’01, assistant director in the Office of Alumni and Parent Programs, is quick to chastise me for making such sweeping generalizations. (All right, maybe every ’03 isn’t an uber-competitive busybody). “I’ve read plenty of older notes,” Kuipers says, “that strike me as competitive in their own way—fancy trips, grandchildren’s accomplishments. And younger notes often take a lighthearted perspective.”

Individual personalities will vary: gracious ’04s will commingle with 60-something braggarts. It’s true that in a recent issue of the magazine, one ’03 admits to a romantic setback: “The latest great idea over here is to send me speed-dating and see what happens. I have been looking for speed-dating events in New Jersey, but most of them I am too young for. It seems I am the only desperate 24-year-old in the whole state. A sorry confluence of events.”

But that note is the exception; few young alumni seem willing to reveal their troubles in print. Generally speaking, as classes get older the notes seem to mellow. A general maturing sets in as notes turn to family and retirement. And fewer alumni submit news. In a recent issue of the magazine, the Class of ’02 easily filled a page of notes and spilled onto the next, while the Class of ’56 needed just half a page for its update. Gradually, and sadly, the notes of older classes fill with news of illness and death.

George Bria ’38 is a former journalist and current class secretary. The notes he writes are warm, elegant and, often, humorous. “We are at death’s door,” he told me recently, “and the class secretary writes more obits than notes. In the six years I’ve been secretary, 33 of my classmates have died. But there’s still élan vital among us.”

It shows in the notes. In a recent Bria installment, a classmate exults, “By George, I made it!” upon reaching the age of 90. Another entry finds a classmate who’d shortened his daily walk to one and a half miles and “now walks on the street instead of the glorious woods to ensure that someone can find me more promptly.” Yet another classmate reports that he and his wife “see a total of 23 medical people … but we are happy to celebrate our 60th on Dec. 1.”

Bria organized his Winter 2006 notes, to great comic effect, around how many pills each respondent takes on a daily basis. Bria writes: “Our impromptu survey of pill ingestion among age-battered ’38ers uncovered a Class phenom, one who takes ‘NO drugs, legal or otherwise,’ and he’s a doctor. ‘Medicare D into the circular file’ (i.e., wastebasket), says Bob Alexander, who adds he’s ‘going blind and deaf, but still enjoying life.’ ” (As for Bria, he takes “an average of about 11 pills daily.”)

Bria is not above a good-natured ribbing of his peers, but he’s also forthright about the challenges they face. In the Summer/Fall 2006 issue he confides that he and his wife were in a car crash when she fell asleep at the wheel. He polled his classmates on their increasingly limited driving habits: one had stopped driving “by family decision”; another is “still driving when my wife allows.” The responses stand in stark contrast to the rambunctious energy that dominates the later notes.

“Curiosity is what empowers the notes,” Bria muses. “Over the decades, the notes are what I always have looked at first in the quarterly and, as time went on, the In Memory section took second place. In the first years, career successes and happenings predominated. But we mellowed as time went on. By our 50th reunion, there was little, if any, upstaging. Good fellowship prevailed.”

I am struck by the warmth and camaraderie in the notes of our oldest alums. There I find updates that show a fondness for Amherst, and for one another, with little posturing. Perhaps once we youngsters stop charging around in all our ambitious glory, we too will mature into the graceful and funny men and women that populate the elder classes.

Why wait for old age, when we might emulate Bria and his peers right now? The notes of older alumni provide an antidote, or at least a palliative, for my chafing against the ballyhoo of the recent classes. The members of the Class of ’38 are a spirited lot who seem to use the class notes with the least pretense. They are reporting on their lives with accuracy, warmth and, beyond that, no apparent agenda.

Aaron Britt, an associate editor at Dwell magazine, last wrote for Amherst about the quarterlife crisis.

Illustration: Catherine Lepage