I always wanted to be the girl I was last Saturday night.
It was my 25th college reunion, and I said to a friend, “This is awesome. We’ve all finally gotten comfortable with who we are.”
This reunion, I brought my older son to tour the Northwestern campus. I brought both boys to the Northwestern-Penn State Game. I brought my husband. And, this time around, I actually brought my real self.
I was present. I stayed present with the emotions that welled up in me as I encountered people who taught me about relationships and about myself. This time, I thought not about any loneliness or rejections. I thought overwhelmingly of the love.
I thought of how things might be even better for my kids in college, how they might come even sooner to comfort with themselves. There was talk on the tour of emotional well-being, of finding a good balance between academics and fun. They told us about a “Marriage 101” class that has been talked about in the media.
Such an evolution cheers me. There should be more programs and classes in place to talk about the importance of self-expression and relationships more openly than we did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It thrills me to think we’re waking up to the fact that figuring oneself and one’s place in the world vis-à-vis other people is tricky, and bears looking at — a lot.
As we embark on the college search for my eldest, I am so glad to have had this reunion of mine at the beginning. I need to remember what is most important about this time. Is it the course work, the place, the teachers? Sure, but of course, it is also so much about the people and finding an environment placing great importance on helping young adults connect with themselves and others. This is what seems most valuable in the wake of a weekend spent connecting with the kids I met on a lawn 25 years ago, people I am still thrilled to see, to speak to, and to dance crazily with late into the night like we never left that place.
I can feel it in my heart: college is a place to learn how to connect. It is a time to tune in to yourself, to drum up ideas about who you are apart from those people who brought you into the world. College is a time to find people you admire and want to emulate, people from very different places who nonetheless value what you value, and who can see great possibilities for their lives, and yours.
A quarter-century later, the Class of 1992 has more hard-won wisdom. There have been many disappointments like dashed career dreams, messy divorces, and difficulties with our delightful progeny. But as I left the stadium parking lot alone and set out on a long contemplative walk in the rain, I thought about it. What was it that had helped us all get through our days, and that allowed us to gather now, with overwhelming gratitude?
The rain pelted at the hood of my jacket, loud and hard against my right ear. I laughed. It was resilience. Not just against the harsh elements — which there were plenty of along Sheridan Road and that lakeside campus — but against rejections and rebuffs, against any harsh words or rude looks or people who chose others over you. Those people who gathered now, 25 years later, have chosen to look back with fondness, to look forward with hope.
There was a student coming toward me along Sheridan, the only other soul around caught in the squall. He was equally soaked but walking slowly, resigned with his situation. I smiled.
“This is kinda awesome, huh?” I said. He laughed.
“Well, that’s choosing to look at the glass half full…” he said.
“What else can you do?” I said. “Here we are.”
It was on this same soil so many years before, waking on winter mornings to freezing windchill and snowy blizzards, walking through blustery conditions to class, that I’d cemented some of that sunny resilience.
What else can we do but face what we face, and learn to connect with the other brave souls who face the same?
These are the lessons I hope my kids will learn in college.
Like I did.