My college alumni magazine arrived in the mail today with big headlines about the university's 150th birthday. The issue featured photos of a recent reunion where people who had graduated before me locked arms for photos, grinned and looked genuinely thrilled to be there.
All those years and they still feel so connected.
Why don't I?
I loved college.
I had lots of friends in college, some of whom remain my friends even now.
I was always involved on campus as student supervisor for the college catering service, an editor on the student newspaper, a participant in intramural basketball, a sound person (whatever that is) for the college television station and in various other activities.
I even double-majored.
I was part of the community as well, more so than most students. I became a year-round resident the summer after my sophomore year, working in local restaurants and taking summer courses. I interned in the local bureau for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, where I eventually landed a full-time job.
I would love to go back and visit someday, stroll around the campus, see how it's changed and soak in that atmosphere one more time. I have great memories there. I love college campuses in general and, if not for my fear that it would distract me too much from my family and my writing, I would probably be teaching on one right now.
But why don't I feel that pull toward a reunion, the pull that those people in that photo clearly felt?
It had been bothering me all day, but I think I've finally found the answer.
For most people, college is the first taste of independence. It's the first time they've ever lived away from home and that experience in itself is thrilling. Yet, they still know they can afford to make mistakes. Even if they are paying for it themselves, they can always go home again should they fail.
College becomes a place of firsts, firsts without fear.
It becomes romanticized, and that romantic feeling remains even 30 or 40 years later.
For me, college was the most financially and psychologically stressful time of my life.
For reasons I won't go into, I'd been on my own since my senior year of high school, sharing an apartment with one of my best friends. I'd been working full time as a waitress since my junior year and in part-time jobs for years before that.
I'm pretty sure I was the only person in my dorm who arrived with boxes full of baking pans, spatulas and frying pans. I didn't want independence when I got it and I didn't want it in college. I just wanted to survive and get a job, a good job that would pay plenty of money and ease my stress for good,
Of course, that didn't happen.
Those crazy people at SUNY-Oswego persuaded me to pursue my dreams, which didn't pay a heck of a lot. They convinced me to follow my heart and soul instead, and find something called real happiness.
So I think now I understand now how it's possible to think fondly of my days at SUNY-Oswego, to treasure my friends, my experiences and my memories, but to still have no desire to attend a formal reunion. For me, everything about college was real.
Nothing is romanticized.
The faraway smiles in that photo bring back memories I would rather not drag up. They bring with it that tightness in my chest, that feeling of barely keeping my head above water, that fear of drowning in debt and stress with no one to throw me a rope. The feeling that I was somehow different from everyone else even though I was good at pretending that I was the same.
I am sure now, so many years later, that plenty of other almuni struggle with those same feelings, that I wasn't alone even though I thought I was. And I know now, with certainty, that even people who barely knew me would have thrown me a rope anyway if only I had told them I needed it.
Maybe even some of those people in that photo.
I will probably go back someday.
But I will return quietly.
Maybe on my own, maybe for a conference or another kind of celebration.
But not for a reunion.