The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What I learned at my 40th college reunion

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Nancy Gibbs is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Time turned slushy through two years of pandemic, the days and weeks melting to the point that I’m never sure when things actually happened after March 2020. Covid erased so many timestamps that reentry into civilization tests muscles long unused. Then, my college reunion happened, and the clocks really started spinning.

We came together in great clumps of classes; so many reunions had been canceled these past few years that universities doubled down this month on catching up. These get-togethers each have their themes: Five years out, we barely know up from down; at 10, the weddings are coming, if not the babies; at numbers 15 and 20, amid the peak juggling years, you’ve got reason to skip them altogether.

By the 40th, it’s mostly about hip replacements and wedding plans — only the kids’ this time. As Hemingway said about going bankrupt, we seem to age very slowly and then all at once. Some classmates look indistinguishable from their 21-year-old selves; some have already become their grandparents. Some who survived on nothing but pizza and weed are now the soul of fitness; others have been brutally tackled by conditions that modern medicine can’t combat. And when we fall silent to hear the names of classmates who have died since we last assembled, we envision them at 18, vibrant newcomers to adulthood, and time collapses altogether.

That was about the only time we shut up. Because, God, from the first hour, the noise, so much talking, so many stories to share, so little time. People gabbed like they were on a deadline, talked in the tents, walked and talked, skipped the programs to talk some more, talked again through drinks and dinner and over the efforts of reunion chairs to call us to attention. I wondered if this was partly post-pandemic longing for normal, all of us in close quarters breathing all over one another and laughing as though nothing had really changed.

Watching couples who have somehow stayed together since freshman year, I could see there might be a marital advantage in growing up together. But then everything about a college reunion is a reminder of privilege: of having had the chance to attend in the first place, to explore and experiment and be foolish together, and then periodically reunite to forgive and forget. Such is the power of mercy over time that friends can go silent for years and then pick up in mid-sentence, being ourselves only more so.

Listening to classmates catch up on life’s plot twists — no one, however fortunate, can buy off sorrow forever — provided abundant evidence that we had an auspicious window. We graduated in the ’80s, watched the wall fall and the Cold War end, saw the genome decoded and every scrap of information ever created delivered into the palms of our hands. Those decades were defined by abundance and expansion, when civil rights and all manner of freedoms could advance without the brutal, zero-sum resentments of those left behind. We embraced the illusion of perpetual progress because history had ended and technology had so picked the locks of power that we believed anyone could become anything they wanted.

But they couldn’t. Maybe because many of our kids are now the age we once were, we see what their far-more-punishing world looks like, the barriers and battlefields, the institutions discredited and dismantled everywhere you look. Reunion panels divided between discussing the miraculous — biomedical engineering, green hydrogen, fighting cancer with the immune system — and the malign: what will become of free speech, reproductive rights, democracy itself.

You could come away believing that our generation has much to answer for, from the plight of the planet to the poison of our politics, and a hard-to-shake sense that we are reaching the age where our greatest contribution to solving problems may be to just get out of the way.

But the deepest impact of a weekend of intense conversation was profoundly intimate. Reunions are a form of time travel, when who we are now gets acquainted with who we were then. You discover that conversations you forgot long ago were unforgettable turning points for the friend who lived down the hall. Sometimes the people who touched you most deeply have no memory of that chapter at all. You dance to the old songs, and even as you sing along you realize hmmm, those lyrics were really problematic. Classmates who scared you then seem tame; everyone’s scars are more visible, and the iron hierarchies of late adolescence have given way to the equality of actual experience.

By the end, we didn’t need the large-print nametags. We could wander into the tent just like on any Sunday morning after a late Saturday night, caress a paper coffee cup and share amiable silence, secure in the knowledge that, as every alma mater promises, time and change cannot break these friendships. Even if we’ve forgotten just about everything else we learned, at least we will remember that.

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