Things no one tells you about your ten-year college reunion

June 18, 2012

A few weeks ago I was babysitting a dog named Zia while her mom went out of town to celebrate her 10th college reunion. When she returned, author-and-friend Molly Backes seemed a little bedraggled. We commiserated over how much a reunion takes out of you (I went to mine last year) — but for reasons you might not anticipate.

We had a little conversation about the big 1-0, which may help prepare those of you who heading to your own reunions this summer.

You already talk to everybody who is aware of how awesome you've become. Everybody else is uninterested and/or probably doesn't remember you.

MOLLY: For me, the weird thing about going to my reunion right after my book came out is that I felt like I was working for much of the weekend: I did a reading/signing on Friday night and a panel discussion on Saturday. On the one hand, it was a great opportunity to connect with people from all over the country who have been so supportive of my book, but on the other hand, it meant that even late at night, when I just wanted to binge drink like a 21-year-old and yell about random things (as I do), I had to turn off the yelling and try not to sound like an insane person when people wanted to talk about the book. (But still, as my friend Stevie would say — this is a good problem to have!)

CLAIRE: I found that there was no good or graceful way to talk about the cool things I'm doing in my life to people who don't know what I'm up to without sounding really stuck up ("I wrote a book!") or completely obscure ("I blog for WBEZ. That's the Chicago affiliate for NPR. National Public Radio. Y’know, Car Talk?") So instead, you just say generic things like "I'm good" and "I live in Chicago" and maybe "I'm married."

MOLLY: Haha, this is true in general, isn't it? Luckily, my graduating class was so small (about 300 people) that almost everyone I talked to already knew about my book. And when I found myself hanging out with a bunch of people from the classes of 2012-2015, I had no problem yelling "I wrote a book! It's in the bookstore! YOU SHOULD BUY IT!"

Don't sign up for all the events because you will go broke and be sick of seeing everyone but feel guilty about leaving any events early because you already paid for them.

MOLLY: Yes! Most of the events at Grinnell's reunion are free, but note to future reunioning self: Don't pay money to eat in the dining halls. Even though the new dining hall is all fancy and has a million more options than the old days, you'll just wish you could eat your old standards (cereal and soft serve in a juice glass; a quarter-waffle with strawberries and pecans; all the salad) and be grumpy that the Millennials aren't allowed to make their own waffles, which means you'll have to stand in line forever and end up with a whole waffle.

INSTEAD, go to the amazing local breakfast place for the world's most perfect hashbrowns, and then the funky ice cream stand for every other meal, where you can order deep-fried creamed corn and the tiniest, most perfect sundaes ever, and eat them at a picnic table next to the field full of tractors. (I suspect such a place does not exist near Georgetown.)

CLAIRE: I felt pretty good about the way we went about this at my reunion, and it was just because, frankly, we were already broke and couldn't afford to go to all the events, especially since spouses WERE NOT FREE. After airfare and hotel and the one party we paid to go to, we just couldn't add on anything else. So that left us with more time to go back to our favorite Georgetown restaurants which was a good deal anyway, plus that let me catch up one-on-one with a few out-of-town friends. But I have a friend who did sign up for more stuff and seemed to be a little tired of seeing the same people by her third event.

Now that you are old, you will feel crabby about the way some of the events are run.

CLAIRE: Like seriously, cabs at the Georgetown gates, there couldn't have been more of you to take us back to our hotels?

MOLLY: At Grinnell, we stay in the DORMS. Sleeping in a dorm bed ten years out of college is not unlike camping in your 30s — you remember it as being totally comfortable and peaceful in your youth, but now you just wake up in the middle of the night feeling completely certain that your back is actually paralyzed and you may never walk again.

Next time? Bring an air mattress.

You cannot party as hard as you used to.

MOLLY: Girl, I danced for three and a half hours in four inch heels, which seemed like an awesome idea until I woke up the next morning and couldn't move my legs. Still, there is nowhere else in the universe where you can dirty dance so shamelessly with so many people without worrying about being roofied than a Harris Party at Grinnell College.

CLAIRE: I guess my problem was, and always has been, that I blew my party wad too early. The afternoon before the night of the BIG PARTY, my friends and I went to Cactus Cantina, one of our old favorite haunts, and gorged on chips and margaritas and tacos. Well, guess who felt like a giant slow-moving hot air balloon by the time the party rolled around? I didn't want to put on the dress I had worked out so much to look good in (yes, I admit it!), I didn't want to drink, I didn't want to STAND. I feel like college-age me could have rebounded a lot faster.

MOLLY: I remember grabbing someone I was dancing with and sexily whispering (or yelling, let's be real) "I don't remember wishing I had glucosamine for my knees when we used to dance in college!" Age is not just a number, friends.

Eventually you end up sitting in a circle with the people you keep in touch with already

MOLLY: One weird thing about reunions in general — and this was true of my 10 year high school reunion as well as my college reunion — is that you spend an hour or so hugging people and yelling "HOW ARE YOU??" (or hiding from exes, whatevs), but eventually you end up siting in a circle with the people you keep in touch with already. For me, though, this group is spread across a bunch of states, and we've mostly seen each other at weddings in the last few years. So reunion just ends up being an excuse for all of us to get together in the same geographic location, one with cheap beer and good ice cream.

CLAIRE: Yes, this. One part of my reunion party that was poorly planned was that the music was SO LOUD that it was impossible to talk to anyone. But perhaps this was actually a mixed blessing: banal small talk is already not that great, but you don't even feel like trying if you're screaming the whole time. Out of the couple hundred people at the party who I didn't already talk to on a very regular basis there were three or four people maximum I was really excited to see and catch up with who were worth losing my voice over.

That one person who you want to see because you loved/hated them and want closure/to recapture the magic/have them see how awesome you are? They won't be there. So just get over it.

MOLLY: And if they ARE, they're probably married and a little fat and selling insurance in Indianapolis and perfectly polite and reasonable and possibly haven't actually been obsessing over you in the way you've been obsessing over them. (Not that you have been, of course. You're way too mature and awesome for that.)  

CLAIRE: Yeah, one lesson I’ve been trying to force myself to learn in life is that you can’t always get closure or satisfaction from all the relationships in your past and if you try to, it’ll most likely backfire. Like, part of the reason I was excited to go to my five-year reunion was that after a time working through some eating issues, I had lost weight and was psyched to debut my more confident self. Most people were really nice about it (or, see above, didn’t say anything) but this one guy who I was really looking forward to seeing and maybe putting some water under the bridge with (who was drunk, and apologized later), announced “Oh, Claire finally lost weight.” So it’s just better for your brain and heart in the long run to try to move past all that stuff on your own time than to think you’re going to have an amazing moment of social victory at the reunion.

You look better than you used to (but so does most everybody else).

MOLLY: The good thing about having gone to college in the '90s is that none of us knew how to dress ourselves — literally everything I own from college is like, size 3X — so there's nowhere to go but up. In the weeks leading up to my reunion, I started worrying about what I look like now, but then I remembered that I wore men's overalls every day for like two years straight and didn't have a decent haircut until long after I left Iowa. Compared to that? I'm basically a super model.

CLAIRE: Well see, I was excited about starting college because I heard that you could wear your pajamas to class there. Well, not at my school, where labels and tightness were en vogue so I actually felt like a big schlub in college compared to a lot of other girls. I worked pretty hard on looking good for my reunion, if that isn't too lame to admit, but that doesn't mean I was the only one. So, if you do that, you need to make sure you do it for you, because nobody is likely to come up to you and say "Wow, you look like a butterfly that just emerged from a cocoon but by the way I always thought your cocoon was pretty cool the whole time anyway."

MOLLY: Plus, everyone's too worried about their own dimply thighs or matronly arms or weird facial hair or growing bald spot to notice your body things. At least that's what I tell myself.  

The older classes’ parties are going to look a lot more fun than yours. 

MOLLY: Judging by my years working Grinnell's reunion as a student, as well as by the reunions I've attended as an alum, the ten-year group is almost always the lamest party. My theory is that the ten-year reunion class spends the majority of their reunion confronting the fact that they're not in their twenties anymore, so they spend most of their reunion complaining about how old they are (see also: the rest of this blog entry), whereas the older groups have reconciled that already, and are just there to party.

Anecdotal evidence: 1) at our ten-year reunion, our party was super lame until tiny children from the classes of 2012-2015 showed up to drink our expensive beer. The classes from the '80s, '70s, and '60s, however, were not only still partying at 2 a.m., but had started some kind of impromptu jugband jam on the sidewalk outside their party. 2) When I worked reunion as a student, the ten-year class mostly stood around making droll comments and complaining about how bad our taste in music was. The 15-, 20-, and 25-year clusters, on the other hand, were doing blow in the bathroom and gave my roommate something that caused her to spend half the night running across campus being chased by Ranger Rick and his woodland creature friends, until finally she broke into a dorm computer lab and passed out on the couch.

CLAIRE: I totally agree. I think the ten-year suffers a bit from the same issues as the five-year (only the five-year is worse) is that we're caught up at a time where we're kind of older but are still also semi-caught up in a college type of mentality, only with a bit more perspective and money, so folks are maybe still a little busy being cool instead of being really excited to see everyone. Also, I'm being semi-facetious, but when you're 32, traveling and boozing with your old friends perhaps isn't as special as when you're 42 or 52 or whatever when you either are more often required to travel for family or business or, as we get even older, the classmates start to (gulp) die off, so I imagine you really start appreciating the people who made the trip. We young whippersnappers don't really know how to have fun in the right way yet.

But don't let any of this stop you. 

MOLLY: But still, you should go! I don't want to sound like I'm regretting going to my ten-year reunion — not at all! Next time, I'll just start a training program of dancing and drinking several months in advance, and be sure to pack some sort of extra bedding and a camp chair for sitting outside without actually having to lounge around on the grass. In fact, I'm already looking forward to my next reunion, in 2016. (Training regimen to begin sometime in late 2015.)

CLAIRE: I agree, I don't regret it at all. I love going back to Georgetown, so that's never a waste. At the time of the reunion, the friends with whom I'm already in regular touch discussed just taking our own trips back to campus, separately, but then I would miss out on seeing those few people who I don't talk to on a regular basis, those few with whom I can transport right back to the year 2000 without much to-do, and that's really what it's all about.