What I Learned About Life at My 30th College Reunion
“Every classmate who became a teacher or doctor seemed happy,” and 29 other lessons from seeing my Harvard class of 1988 all grown up
OCT 24, 2018
On the weekend before the opening gavel of what’s being dubbed the Harvard affirmative-action trial, a record-breaking 597 of my fellow members of the class of ’88 and I, along with alumni from other reunion classes, were seated in a large lecture hall, listening to the new president of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, address the issue of diversity in the admissions process. What he said—and I’m paraphrasing, because I didn’t record it—was that he could fill five whole incoming classes with valedictorians who’d received a perfect score on the SAT, but that’s not what Harvard is or will ever be. Harvard tries—and succeeds, to my mind—to fill its limited spots with a diversity not only of race and class but also of geography, politics, interests, intellectual fields of study, and world views.
I loved my four years at Harvard, largely because of the diversity of its student body. I don’t love the fact—now made public through the trial but previously understood by all of us to be true—that the kids whose parents donate buildings are given preferential treatment over those whose parents don’t. But I understand why the development office, which allows the university to give a free ride to any student whose family makes less than $65,000 a year, might encourage such apractice, which is hardly unique to Harvard. I also don’t love the fact that the Harvard fight song is still “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” in a school populated by at least as many women as men, and yet hearing its opening notescan still make me deeply nostalgic. Moreover, I am appalled that all-male final clubs—fraternity-like eating clubs in which the sons of America’s privileged class have traditionally gathered—still exist on campus (albeit with sanctions) without commensurate opportunities, with rare exceptions, for women, minorities, and others, but I also call some of their alumni members my closestfriends.
Intelligence, it has been said, is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still function, and if universities could be said to have one overriding goal as institutions of higher learning, it is to teach its students this critical skill, Harvard no more than others. Seeing the coin from either of its two sides has never been more important, particularly now, in this nuance-lackingera of divisiveness and nationalism. It’s no wonder that in fascist regimes, the intellectuals are always the first to be silenced.
I believe in the benefits of diversity, even if it means choosing an immigrant kid with a lower-than-usual SAT score (for Harvard) but other stellar qualities, like Thang Q. Diep, Harvard class of ’19, whose application has been trotted out by the lawsuit forall to see. And I’m also aware, as a Jew, that Harvard’s diversity initiative was first put into motion as a way to keep the university’s burgeoning Jewish population in check. I can hold both of these truths—diversity is good; the roots of diversity in the admissions process were prejudiced against my own people—and not only still be able to function but also to see that sometimes good results can come from less-than-good intentions.
Because the point of diversity on a college campus, no matter its less-than-honorableroots, is not to count how many brown faces versus how many white and black facesa school has. It is to provide a rainbow of politics and upbringings and thought processes and understandings that might teach us, through our differences, how similar we are.
Though we allwent to the same school, and Harvard’s name likely opened doors for many of us, at the end of the day—or at the end of 30 years since graduation, in this case—what was so fascinating about meeting up with my own richly diverse classduring reunion was that no matter our original background, no matter ourcurrent income or skin color or struggles or religion or health or career pathor family structure, the common threads running through our lives had less todo with Harvard and more with the pressing issues of being human.
Life does this. To everyone. No matter if or where they go to college. At a certain pointmidway on the timeline of one’s finite existence, the differences between people that stood out in youth take a backseat to similarities, with that mother of all universal themes—a sudden coming to grips with mortality—being the most salient. Not that this is an exhaustive list, but here are 30 simple shared truths I discovered at my 30th reunion of Harvard’s class of 1988.
1. Noone’s life turned out exactly as anticipated, not even for the most ardentplanner.
2. Every classmate who became a teacher or doctor seemed happy with the choice ofcareer.
3. Many lawyers seemed either unhappy or itching for a change, with the exception of those who became law professors. (See No. 2 above.)
4. Nearly every single banker or fund manager wanted to find a way to use accrued wealth to give back (some had concrete plans, some didn’t), and many, at this point, seemed to want to leave Wall Street as soon as possible to take up some sort of art.
5. Speaking of art, those who went into it as a career were mostly happy and often successful, but they had all, in some way, struggled financially.
6. They say money can’t buy happiness, but in an online survey of our class just priorto the reunion, those of us with more of it self-reported a higher level of happiness than those with less.
7. Our strongest desire, in that same pre-reunion class survey—over more sex and more money—was to get more sleep.
8. “Burning Down the House,” our class’s favorite song, by the Talking Heads, is still as good and as relevant in 2018 as it was blasting out of our freshman dorms.
9. Manyof our class’s shyest freshmen have now become our alumni class leaders, helping to organize this reunion and others.
10. Those who chose to get divorced seemed happier, post-divorce.
11. Those who got an unwanted divorce seemed unhappier, post-divorce.
12. Many classmates who are in long-lasting marriages said they experienced a turning point, when their early marriage suddenly transformed into a mature relationship. “I’m doing the best I can!” one classmate told me she said to her husband in the middle of a particularly stressful couples’-therapy session. From that moment on, she said, he understood: Her imperfections were not an insult to him, and her actions were not an extension of him. She was her own person, and her imperfections were what made her her. Sometimes people forget this, in the thick of marriage.
13. Nearly all the alumni said they were embarrassed by their younger selves, particularly by how judgmental they used to be.
14. We have all become far more generous with our I love you’s. They flew freely at the reunion. We don’t ration them out to only our intimates now, it seems; we have expanded our understanding of what love is, making room for long-lost friends.
15. No matter what my classmates grew up tobe—a congressman, like Jim Himes; a Tony Award–winning director, like Diane Paulus; an astronaut, like Stephanie Wilson—at the end of the day, most of our conversations at the various parties and panel discussions throughout the weekend centered on a desire for love, comfort, intellectual stimulation, decent leaders, a sustainable environment, friendship, and stability.
16. Nearly all the alumni with kids seemed pleased with their decision to have had them. Some without kids had happily chosen that route; others mourned not having them.
17. Drinks at a bar you used to go to withyour freshman roommate are more fun 30 years later with that same freshman roommate.
18. Staying at the house of an old friend, whenever possible, is preferable to spending a night in a hotel. Unless you’re trolling for a new spouse or a one-night stand, as some of my classmates seemed to have been doing, in which case: hotel, hotel, hotel.
19. Nearly all the attendees who had spouseshad, by the 30th reunion, left theirs at home.
20. Most of our knees, hips, and shoulders have taken a beating over time.
21. A life spent drinking too much alcohol shows up, 30 years later, on the face.
22. For the most part, the women fared much better than the men in the looks department.
23. For the most part, the men fared much better than the women—surprise, surprise—in the earning-potential-and-leadership department.
24. A lack of affordable child care and paid maternity leave had far-reaching implications for many of our classmates, mostof them female: careers derailed, compromises made, money lost.
25. When the bell atop Memorial Church tolled 27 times to mark the passing of 27 classmates since graduation, we all understood, on a visceral level, that these tolls will increase exponentially over the next 30 years.
26. It is possible to put together a memorial-service chorus of former alumni, none of whom have ever practiced with one another, andmake it sound as if they’d been practicing together for weeks. Even whileperforming a new and original piece by the choral conductor.
27. In our early 50s, people seem to feel apressing need to speak truths and give thanks and kindness to one another before it’s too late to do so. One of my freshman roommates thanked me forsomething that happened in 1984. A classmate who was heretofore a stranger, butwho had read my entry in the red book, our quinquennial alumni report—in whichI recounted having taken an Uber Pool to the emergency room—offered to pay formy ambulance next time, even going so far as to yank a large pile of bills outof his pocket. “That’s okay,” I told him, laughing. “I don’t plan to return tothe emergency room anytime soon. ”
28. Those who’d lost a child had learned akind of resilience and gratitude that was instructive to all of us. “Don’t grieve over the years she didn’t get to live,” said one of our classmates, at amemorial service for her daughter, Harvard class of 2019, who died last summer. “Rather, feel grateful for the 21 years she was able to shine her light.”
29. Those of us who’d experienced the trauma of near death—or who are still facing it—seemed the most elated to be atreunion. “We’re still here!” I said to my friend, who used to run a health company and had a part of the side of his face removed when his cancer, out of nowhere, went haywire. We were giggling, giddy as toddlers, practically bouncing on our toes, unable to stop hugging each other and smiling as were counted the gruesome particulars of our near misses.
30. Love is not all you need, but as one classmate told me, “it definitely helps.”
DEBORAH COPAKEN is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. She is the author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe.