Beginning in late summer (I think, but can’t be sure about the dates—I deleted the e-mails from my in-box before deleting them from my trash, working as thoroughly as if they had been electronic vampires), and then with increasing desperation throughout the fall, our class secretary e-mailed asking for my contribution to the Harvard College Class of 2005 Fifth Anniversary Report. One of my girlfriends—formerly my freshman, sophomore, and senior-year roommate—forwarded the message she’d received with a yelp of incredulity: “Is this for real?” It later emerged that a third roommate had managed to land on 2005’s misplaced-persons list; she threatened violence to anyone revealing her whereabouts to the class committee. None of my five senior-year suitemates, my closest friends from college, submitted a report. Or at least no one has admitted it to the rest of us.
Our reasons were various. Least originally, the Fifth Anniversary Report served as an unpleasant reminder that we were five years removed from college, and thus five years closer to the end of our reproductive lives, our go-out-to-a-show-on-a-work-night lives, our working lives, our life-lives, what did we have to show for it? Et cetera.
Because “dutiful” is my defining characteristic, I had read the instructions and the helpfully linked-to Harvard Magazine article (“Red Books, Raw Gems,” May-June 2007) before deleting the e-mails, and so was daunted by the demanding genre of the reports themselves. The correct response, I could tell, would be more London Review of Books personal ad (“I am not as high maintenance as my impeccably arranged collection of porcelain cats suggests, but if you touch them I will kill you. F, 36”) than New York Review of Books personal ad (“Berkshires resident who loves New York. Tall, slender, sensuous with authentic spirit and aesthetic eye….”), but “wittily self-deprecating, with concision” comes much less naturally to me than does “dutiful.”
Finally, and this is what I think prompted my non-misplaced roommate’s reaction, her appalled disbelief, the ritual—the submission, the reunion itself—seemed so very Harvard. And Harvard-ness is something we members of an irony-steeped generation (or my irony-steeped friends; it’s probably not fair to generalize) have always struggled with. In college, we went to formals, but in thrift-store fancy dress; at graduation we drank “Harvards” (Angostura bitters, brandy, grenadine for the crimson, sweet vermouth, lemon juice—thanks, Playboy Bar Book!) with the same kind of winking observance and defiance of ritual. It was only subtly different than actually observing the ritual, and perhaps the distinction was discernable only to us; but it felt, still feels, like an important one. No, we weren’t really being the elite, there in our dark-paneled, Oriental rug-ed library, there in our common room before our fireplace with its plug-in log. Instead, we were rolling our eyes at the notion of being that elite. I understand better now than I did then how grating our refusal to own up to the privileges we’d been granted may have been to an outsider, but it was how we defined ourselves then: we were of Harvard but not, you know, of of it. And that distinction seemed impossible to establish in the context of the reunion. By registering, by attending, you forwent any kind of insouciance. You would be caught trying, for real.
And yet. In the years since college, two of my funny, brilliant, eye-rolling suitemates have gotten married to their respective long-term Harvard boyfriends, enacting a ritual that is about as traditional as they come. (Well, perhaps not entirely—they were gay weddings—but bear with me.) When planning the second of the two weddings, which took place this March in the Faculty Club, the grooms-to-be told me that they were hoping to keep the event irony-free. I pretended to be affronted, but knew what they meant. Sometimes the underlying meaning of a ritual, even one as fraught and commercialized as a twenty-first-century wedding, transcends all of its trappings, all of the registered-for flatware and the RSVP’d-for entrées, to convey something so important that it can be expressed only through ritual.
That’s how we felt, my sarcastic friends and I, when we went to the earlier wedding, in July 2008. When the sweet judge officiating referred to George Eliot, on second reference, as “he,” the table ringed by the members of the Harvard class of 2005 fractured into a chorus of poorly muffled guffaws. But you can’t see that eye-rolling in the pictures. In the pictures, everyone is beatific, and increasingly disheveled from a combination of dancing and an open bar, and so palpably happy that looking at the pictures two years later I’m taken aback by it. The enormity of the event, the irradiating happiness of two people who had loved each other for years promising to love each other for all the years to come, overcame whatever portentousness we were eager to laugh at in the trappings. In the pictures, you can tell that we’ve stopped trying to find things to make fun of. Our joy at being with each other, suffused with such happiness, is evident.
So what I am saying is that maybe some rituals are unavoidable, desirable even, no matter how earnest or hidebound they seem at the outset. That sometimes they overcome their apparent hokeyness in a way that only the participants, and to a lesser extent observers later clicking through tagged pictures on Facebook, can appreciate. That maybe the five-year reunion, and subsequent reunions, anniversary reports and all, have an importance that overrides their eye-roll-inducing trappings; that maybe the underlying value of reconnecting with someone who knew you when you were 20 and mostly insufferable, but who nevertheless remembers you fondly, or of returning to a place that made you the less-insufferable adult you are today, justifies the indignity of wearing a laminated nametag. That maybe wearing a laminated nametag is even somehow necessary to the rest of it.
What I am saying, Class of 2005, is that I hope you go to the reunion, and that I suspect if you do, overcoming your misgivings, you will have a wonderful time. But I’m not sure I’ll see you there. My boyfriend of four years and I, who would marry each other if we weren’t terrified of weddings, have just bought our first place, and I’m pretty sure I can rationalize only one major life event at a time.