This weekend I'm attending my 40th reunion at Wellesley College. That one has always been a landmark because the college development/fundraising office figured that by then we'd have made our fortunes and be ready to come up with a Really Big Gift.
Well, not so much. Through no fault of the college's I've wandered through five careers. Or maybe that was partly the college's fault, because they convinced us all that we could be whatever we wanted to be. I guess my problem was that I was never quite sure what I wanted to be, so I tried a lot of different things, like art historian, investment banker, and professional genealogist. In any case, no fortune to donate, save for gratitude.
I avoided my first few reunions, in part because I lived on the opposite coast and couldn't afford the airfare, and also because I didn't think I had anything to say. I think the first one I attended was my 20th reunion. It's always both fun and depressing to go back and see many classmates all at once, and try to fit the faces in front of you with the shiny-bright 22-year-old faces you remember. Yes, we all got older—except in our memories.
One thing that has always saddened me about these reunions is the people who are not there. That's the downside of attending a prestigious and renowned college: people have expectations of you. Your parents, your professors, even you yourself, expect you to go out and conquer the world.
You have to remember I attended college during one of those optimistic feminist waves. If I recall accurately, about 3% of female college graduates nationwide attended a professional school (law, medicine) after graduation. Now it's more like 50%, so I guess there have been some positive changes. But I daresay that Wellesley's average was higher, and I do remember the fierce competitiveness among biology majors fighting for those few slots in medical schools (which has something to do with why I changed my major from biology to art history).
But I have heard too often that the graduates who choose not to attend reunions stay home because they feel they simply aren't successful enough. They aren't CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; they don't run government agencies; they haven't saved any small countries lately. They have merely lived simple productive lives: married (we did that in those days), raised a family, held a job, volunteered for community organizations, taken care of ageing parents, often all at the same time. And still they feel that they don't measure up against their college peers. That saddens me.
I feel extraordinarily lucky to be where I am today: a published writer. Maybe I heard the college message, that if you want it enough, and work hard enough, you can succeed—but I know that doesn't hold true for a lot of people. I can now look back on my varied careers and say, all of it goes into my writing. I've learned from everything I've ever done. I choose to count that as success.
Which still doesn't mean that I can catch up with the sister graduates, such as Katherine Hall Page and Diane Mott Davidson. Maybe by my 45th reunion?
P.S. Recently our class reunion coordinator put out a call, saying, "We want to invite each of you to share something special about yourselves in the form of a picture or item that we can display." What would you choose that summarizes your past five years, or where you are now in your life? Not an easy choice!