I am not at my ten-year college reunion this weekend, but these are some things I remember about college, which feels so recent and yet so long ago, it is as if it occurred in a bygone millennium.
On the first day of freshman year, I became infatuated with a boy from Riverside, California who looked just like James Dean. He told me coyotes had eaten his family cat. Growing up in New York, I had never heard of anything so exotic. He spent most of his time playing violent video games with the other boys in the dorm but if I stayed up late enough sometimes I could entice him to make out with me by a hissing radiator.
I was an alternate in every art class I tried to take; an alternate in the introductory theater class, an alternate in the advanced fiction workshop, an alternate in the photography class with the guy from RISD.
I was a terrible actor. The acting teacher was always yelling at me, “STOP WATCHING YOURSELF! STOP OBSERVING! You’ll never be an actor if you’re always watching everyone, including yourself, and taking notes.”
At that exact moment, I realized that all I wanted to do was observe, watch everyone, including myself, and take notes. It took me a while to realize that this inability to act was in fact an ability in and of itself called “writing.”
I knew I couldn’t make things up, but I signed up for the fiction workshop anyway. There was one guy in the class who wore fingerless gloves and wrote stories about rape that gave me nightmares. There was a very pretty girl who printed her stories entirely in italics and is now the proprietor of an alternative bridal salon. The professor, I now realize, was either an alcoholic or suffering from an autoimmune disease. She always spoke as if she had just awakened from a nap. She herself wrote the experimental fiction for which the university’s MFA program was known. When I read it furtively in the campus bookstore, I wondered if I had been wrong about what being a writer, or writing, was.
Most people in the photography class were taking pictures of themselves naked, except for this one girl whose photos of electrical outlets were somehow the best in the class. When I shyly showed some topless prints, my photography professor finally showed a passing interest.
Hoping to take a film history class, I instead ended up taking three prerequisites in what I now know to be semiotics, culminating in a course called “Feminism and Postructuralism.” The university’s film department had been hijacked by semiotics theorists sometime in the eighties, an act later fictionalized in Jeffery Eugenides’s long-awaited third novel.
I now know that my counterparts at supposedly less elite (but actually just less expensive) universities were taking courses in practical matters like how trees grow, or how rivers flow, or how to make things besides observations, while my father’s and grandfather’s years of certified public accounting were paying for me to stay up all night writing papers about what Marx might have thought of an Alfred Hitchcock film, if Marx were a feminist.
A pair of brilliant, disheveled Marxists pursued my friendship aggressively. I wondered why, until they told me that the professor we all idolized had told them to.
“‘At first she seems a little spacey,’” they said he said, “’but if you listen closely, she’s the voice of pure reason.'” I cherished this remark, though it made me self-conscious.
The brilliant Marxists wanted me to be the spokeswoman of their student loan forgiveness movement. I guiltily informed them that due to the success of my family’s accounting business, I did not have any student loans. After the Marxists found this out they would come over and eat all the fancy cheese I bought at Bread & Circus, a.k.a., Bread & Checkbook, the New England natural supermarket chain later gobbled up by Whole Foods, a.k.a. Whole Paycheck.
Then, as now, I kept my room very neat. One of the Marxists looked around my room and said, “This is like an old person’s room.”
I began college thinking I was a liberal, which was the furthest left I had ever heard of in Long Island. I duly took courses in, then later TA’d, then later dated my own former TA in the introductory course in, political liberalism. But sophomore year, I discovered I was an existentialist, by taking a course called, “Religious Existentialism.” I decided to exercise the make-up-your-own major option to create a major called “God and Death,” then go to divinity school to study God, but not practice as a clergyperson. My grandfather got wind of this plan and placed the only direct phone call to me I ever recall receiving from him in our overlapping lifetimes.
“Emily,” he said, “What is this I hear about you going to divinity school? In this family, we do not believe in God.”
I reassured him that I was still an atheist, and I only wanted to go to divinity school to better position myself to prove that God didn’t exist to everyone else who was trying to believe. But by senior year, I had concluded that I did not want to be a professional atheist, nor a liberal, nor a Marxist, nor a feminist, nor a film theorist, nor a Marxist feminist film theorist. I wanted to be a Black radical, like my religious existentialism professor. His courses were all cross-listed in three departments. He referred to himself, accurately, as “the foremost Black existentialist in the world.” My own efforts to become a Black radical were not very successful and led to several scenes of tearful recrimination around a heated seminar table, and, later, during office hours.
Though I failed to become a Black radical, I was deeply satisfied to find out that both liberalism and feminism as I had previously known them were insidiously racist ideologies. The best part of college was finding new ways to question authority, which had always come naturally to me, and, I was thrilled to find out, was an ideology unto itself. My failed Black radicalism eventually gave way to anarchism, which finally stuck. Strangely, I did not find out about anarchism until after college, when it was demonstrated to me first by a punk rock band and later, by rock climbers. Spending time with punk rockers and then rock climbers was what I did instead of attending graduate school.
I made some very nice friends in college and we lived in a big house our senior year, which I spent many hours happily decorating, redecorating, and compulsively cleaning while largely avoiding writing a senior thesis that turned out to be a 150-page treatise against homework. In this thesis, I concluded that Marx, Sartre and Simone Weil, who starved herself to death as an act of protest during World War II at the exact age I now am, would all be against homework.
The 2000 election occurred in the fall of our senior year. We voted by absentee ballot and crowded around the pre-flatscreen television to watch the returns. We fell asleep waiting for the Florida results, and woke up to the stolen election. This moment set the tone for our nascent adulthood in the new millennium.
Soon we were marching on the Rhode Island state house, demanding that the Rhode Island congresspeople and senators not certify the election results. I grabbed the megaphone and climbed the pedestal of a statute of a dead white man, where I was photographed, yelling. What did I yell? I yelled something. My picture appeared in the campus independent.
Then, ten years ago today, we graduated. The night before, we went down to the Main Green and climbed up on the stage before the thousands of empty chairs to perform our own graduation ceremony. The lone campus cop guarding the stage tolerated us for a while before he made us leave.
By the next morning, we had barely slept at all and were dazed and confused. The Commencement ceremonies were beginning to feel like a forced march toward the future. The final graduation was on Monday, but the festivities went on for all of Memorial Day weekend. We had already been marching for several days up and down the hill our college was on, into and out of various Colonial-era buildings enacting the elaborate traditions designed to conclude the four years we had spent yelling into megaphones and around seminar tables, and commence the decades of repayment of the debt those with student loans had accrued.
On the final day of marching was the biggest parade. All of the classes attending “0” or “5” reunions marched in order, four abreast, with us, the new graduates—the class of 2001—at the front. At two points in the parade the lines of four split into twos and the whole parade inverted, so everyone in the parade would march past everyone else in the parade. Because we were marching in order of class year, we were marching in order of age. As the parade went by, life went backwards–from the few, tottering, surviving members of the oldest class–maybe the class of 1926? 1931?–on down the line to the just regular old people to the late middle-aged to the middle-middle-aged to the early-middle-aged to the new parents with their tottering toddlers to the twentysomethings at their five-year reunion to everyone in our own class, going by, two by two, one by one, everyone you had ever met, kissed, or yelled at across a seminar table in the last four years, smiling, waving, crying, hugging.
I remember that as my friends and I marched four abreast, one of us burst into tears as we went through the campus gates, and then another one of us burst into tears during the ceremony in the Colonial-era church, and then another one of us burst into tears during the ceremony on the Main Green, but I forget which of us burst into tears where. In the decade that has passed since then I have been a tearful maid of honor or poetry reader in three weddings of the friends with whom I marched and cried on that day.