Going to My College Reunion

Tomorrow, I’m heading down to Princeton for my 25th year college reunion. It’s a four-day extravaganza, which prompted Moustafa Bayoumi to say to me, “I didn’t know Princeton folk could limit listing their accomplishments to four days only. I admire the restraint.” I’m only going for a day.

I know that writing about one’s reunion has become a literary genre in its own right. But where I was excited to go to my high school reunion, my college reunion doesn’t awaken much in me. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow, but for now I’ve been wondering why.

It’s not that I had better friends in, or memories of, high school. I’ve been lucky in both cases to have had very good friends and very good memories.

It might be that high school was a more intellectually exciting experience for me than was college. High school was the moment of my intellectual awakening, and your first is, well, your first.

Or it might be that despite the fact that Chappaqua, where I grew up, and Princeton were (and are) bastions of privilege, something about the university just wreaks [Benefits of an Ivy League education™] reeks of the breathless aristocracy in a way that Chappaqua never did for me. Or maybe I was just more conscious of that privilege as a young adult in college than I was growing up as a teenager in the suburbs of New York.

But I wonder if there isn’t a more existential reason for it all. High school is a stand-in for me of time passing, time lost. A fair number of my friends from college are academics, writers, neighbors: they’re part of my world today in a way that most of my high school friends are not. Princeton also has a professional valence for me. It stands for the colleagues, fellowships, and conferences that are now part of my academic life.

Though I keep in touch with high school friends via Facebook or the occasional coffee, that world we shared seems so far away from my world. So it makes going back to high school all the more exciting, mysterious, and poignant. Princeton? That’s just another trip on NJ Transit.

I’m getting old.


  1. John Maher May 30, 2014 at 2:28 pm | #

    Ask the alumni affairs office to stop the stupid styrofoam boater hats which endure as pollution.

  2. College does not have the “magic” of high school, it is true — but I don’t think getting old is the culprit behind your feeling regarding your re-visit to Princeton. I have my own diagnosis as to what it may be, since I have a similar sense to yours.

    High school and college are two separate chapters. In the case of high school, your cohorts were almost certainly people you grew up with, and I would suggest that that period of your personal development was likely the most radical in your whole life — you went from being “just a kid” to an adult (and I know that “adult” is a freighted and fraught term, but just go with me on this). Your high school cohorts were witnesses to this, as you were to their transformation; this accounts for that species of romantic intimacy many of us have for our cohorts — including the ones we hated and who hated us. It also explains that wistfully lingering sense of injury or loss that has become a Hollywood staple of middle-aged-dudes’ “dramadies” of recent vintage. However there are (almost?) none for that long lost experience of college. Now, why is that? Why are there far more movies and tv shows that feature high school life and comparatively few that feature life in college?

    When you graduated high school, you came to a terminus that can NEVER be repeated. You can go back to college as a senior citizen, but to return to high school as one (although often an heroic act) is to undertake a remedial project that should whose issues should have been addressed in one’s youth. Not so the elder college student. Like the youth who enters college for the first time, the senior citizen who returns to college is going on a journey. High school is not a journey, it is a ritual of radical personal transformation and you can only do it once and that is because you do it as a kid who becomes an adult. You CAN go back to college again; you CANNOT go back to high school again.

    When you leave high school, you are transitioning out of something; when you leave college — in spite of the commencement speeches’ claims — you have already transitioned INTO something by the time you sign up for your first undergrad classes. When you leave high school, you’ve ended something. In college, you are well on your way to something — indeed, to be on one’s way is to be already “in something” that has only just started. The radical upward curve of your personal development has already begun to level off by the time you crack open that first college textbook that puts you to sleep the evening you read your first assigned chapter. This does not mean that future changes won’t be radical (like meeting new people), or even tragic (like finding out where you came from has a problematic place in social relations) or exhilerating (like that first trip out of your country to study in another) when you are in college. It is just that these changes won’t affect you in the way they could have had they happened when you were fourteen years old, as opposed to twenty-two. Growth in college is a truism, a cliche. But the shock of growth in college is not as earth shaking as it is in high school. Forgive me for being vague, but the language available for this description is limited to a non-professional like yours truly. How’s this: someone on an NPR interview a couple of months back (I think it may have been that author who just released a new book about a punk group called “The Runaways”) said that the songs that affect you in your youth and forever after — and become hits — are the songs you hear when you are innocent. I think that gets near what I am trying to suggest. That also suggests why it is most adults have a pop music cut off point soon after high school and into our early college years, even though some of us try not be “out of touch”.

    And I don’t mean to suggest that a certain overlap of high school and college does not exist and/or is not very long and lingering.

    The life chapter of college is of an entirely different character: in college you are already an adult. I wish desparately to be able to return to college (I am 53 years old, physically fit, married and I shave my head) because I miss that journey, and I want to pick up where I left off: graduate school at NYU in Cinema Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts. I know that in many respects my experience there would likely be very much like my time there in the 1990’s. The only real difference is that most of the other students would be younger than me if I could return. But a few would be my age, and older. And I would feel some sense of continued exploration and bafflement (reading post-structuralist critiques did that to me then) and adventure that I got when I first attended college.

    Now THAT stuff never gets old, even when do.

    So, anyway.

    Tell us how the reunion turns out! Enjoy!!

    I hope they have cookies….

    • Corey Robin May 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm | #

      What you say makes a lot of sense. You articulate here something I was groping for but didn’t quite get. Thanks!

      On Fri, May 30, 2014 at 3:44 PM, Corey Robin wrote:


      • Erstwhile Anthropologist June 12, 2014 at 12:50 am | #

        I think these comments are very race-, class-, and gender-specific. I went to one if your alma matters and also went to college in the 90s, but I have a very different perspective as a dark-skinned Black woman who–literally–spent every day of high school being bullied by a group of White male classmates who calmed themselves PWS (Power to White Supremacy). I came from a modest background, immigrant family and due not grow up in a sophisticated and affluent suburb like Chappaqua (now home to the Clintons, so I need not say more), so, coming from small-town CT, college was a welcome respite and intellectual and personal awakening. Many of the claims of ‘adulthood’ did not and do not apply to my experience of high school. You could not pay me money to go to my high school reunion; the fondness you seem to have for high school I have/had for college. Could say more but don’t know that it’s worth it in this context, except perhaps to underscore how cultural/social capital as obtained from pre-college life (high school included) directs later life outcomes and one’s ability to get the most out of certain elite college experiences. Anyway, I would ask that the specificity of subject position in determining enjoyment of college not be overlooked. Some of us were happy to get as far away from high school as possible–and realize that if more people truly understood why (and not as sociopaths looking to exploit past suffering), the world really could be a much kinder and better place.

      • s. wallerstein June 12, 2014 at 10:11 am | #

        Erstwhile Anthropologist

        I hated high school too. I’ve never gone back to a reunion. I don’t even answer the form letters they send me from time to time.

        For me it was a liberation to leave high school, to leave behind constant sports, people “into cars”, bullying and a climate of enforced intellectual mediocry,

        Still, wherever he started out in life, Corey seems to have dedicated most of his life to making life more decent for kids like you or like me, to fighting for a society where people like you or like me
        (we were bullied and excluded for different reasons in high school) have less nightmarish high school years, because mine were black.

      • s. wallerstein June 12, 2014 at 10:32 am | #

        To avoid misunderstandings, when I say that my high school years were black, I refer not to a color, but to them being gloomy, drear, dismal, tenebrous, etc.

    • s. wallerstein May 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm | #

      Don Pruden,

      Very true what you say. I doubt that anyone looking at me at age 15 could imagine my adult political opinions or lifestyle options in general, while anyone with a good eye looking at me at age 17 and certainly at age 18 could foresee my adult political opinions, ethical values and even most of my literary tastes.

      However, while I could literally go back to the university and get a second degree or another graduate degree, I could never do it with the same innocence, the same faith in book-learning and in the wisdom of my professors. For better or for worse, I’ve lived through too much (I’m 68) and have become much much more skeptical.

      Have a great reunion, Corey.

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist June 12, 2014 at 11:28 pm | #

        S. Wallerstein: Not to worry, no misunderstanding. Appreciated your comment, very much.

        Corey: apologies if you thought I was attacking you (say with the Chappaqua comment). The point was not to attack, but to point out that subject position, among other factors, greatly affects one’s experience of high school, and then college (and life beyond).

        Yes, I am now a former anthropologist, but it is worth pointing out *why* my undergraduate experience of anthropology inclined me toward pursuing anthropology as a career (until I realized its “white public space problems”, as acknowledged by the AAA itself): the idea that empathy is crucial to understanding human behavior and analyzing social relations. For those of us who were relentlessly bullied (because of subject position, for example), high school was a very different experience. For me the issue is never bashing people, just wondering about the perspective which informs and produces commentary, always perspectival as it is.

        At any rate, I somehow accidentally managed to hit paste while typing this comment such that the following link is appended (from an entirely different conversation), yet it somehow seems relevant to my larger point so I won’t delete it. Especially as it seems relevant in relation to how the effects and affects of high school bullying may linger far longer than many are willing to acknowledge, and may affect life chances more than is often acknowledged.


  3. Aaron Lercher May 30, 2014 at 5:41 pm | #

    You meant to say that Princeton “reeks,” not that Princeton “wreaks.”
    Honestly, I have nothing against Princetonians.

    • Corey Robin May 30, 2014 at 5:47 pm | #

      Oops! Benefits of an Ivy League education!

      On Fri, May 30, 2014 at 5:41 PM, Corey Robin wrote:


  4. jonnybutter May 30, 2014 at 11:50 pm | #

    It is just that these changes won’t affect you in the way they could have had they happened when you were fourteen years old, as opposed to twenty-two.

    I hear what Donald is saying, and I also think children are just very bright around those ages – from around 11 to early teens. I am a teacher, but not mostly in a regular classroom, so my students are many ages; in my experience, a bright 11 or 12 year old is sharp in some kind of extraordinary way. I know that’s before HS, but it’s the same sort of position as early HS years. You are getting intellectually sophisticated even though you are officially still a ‘kid’. With a few exceptions, even kids that age who aren’t particularly bright are bright. There’s something about those years….

  5. Steve Mentz June 1, 2014 at 11:40 am | #

    Sorry to have missed you at the 25th, Corey, after reading your blog for a while & hearing of you through our mutual friend Karl Steel. Plenty of ambivalence going back to that temple of opulence, esp in the new-old Whitman College courtyard. Interesting that you think of PU as connected to your academic life: my old college buddies include almost no academics. Many techies from SF! But I had a good weekend & enjoyed the madness.

    • Corey Robin June 1, 2014 at 5:46 pm | #

      Wow, it seems like you and I had virtually the identical education. And graduation years. How did we never meet?

  6. Thanks, you guys, for the kind replies.

    Oh, oh – bad grammar alert. I will take only one. What I meant to write was “Now THAT stuff never gets old, even when I do.”

    But I know you guys already understood that.

    Ah, the benefits of a post-graduate education at an elite American university!

    Maybe my grammar will improve once I pay off my college loans (insert Edna Krabappel’s mocking *HA* here)

  7. Roquentin June 11, 2014 at 11:13 pm | #

    I’m late to this entry, but if I had to guess I’d wager that the privilege associated with Princeton has a lot to do with it. Just based on your writings and your politics, I can’t imagine a lot of your sensibilities would be too popular with the standard Princeton grad. Then again, what do I know? Maybe I’m projecting some of my own life onto yours though. My childhood was an upward trajectory from my parents being poor to doing pretty well and my early socialization was among poorer kids. Late in high school I went to a school in a wealthy suburb and it didn’t go well. I’ve never really felt comfortable in a room with too much privilege.

    Ironically, in high school I was a hardcore reactionary. I liked to smoke a lot of weed, so I feel into the trap of libertarian politics. In short, I was a middle class white cliche. My opinions from those days fill me with such a degree of shame I still have difficulty confronting it.

    • s. wallerstein June 12, 2014 at 10:04 am | #


      Why feel shame about your libertarian past?

      As teenagers, we’re all products of our upbringing and environment and in general, we’ve witnessed little of the world by then. The real merit, if merit exists, seems to be in the roads one takes in life, not in the starting-point.

      • Roquentin June 12, 2014 at 8:08 pm | #

        Perhaps I am being too hard on myself. I do genuinely regret it though. It’s funny that my political life has been the reverse journey usually people get more conservative as they get older, but I’ve only gone further to the left.

        I actually went to two separate high schools. My dad got a different job halfway through. I hated the second high school. All these kids had built up cliques since kindergarten and as a newcomer I was perpetually the odd man out. I made a handful of friends, but I do not look back on those years as a good time. I worked 30 hours a week cooking in a chain restaurant and as much or more of my social life revolved around that. I’ve never worked in a kitchen where people weren’t high all the time. It went with the territory. So many people got stoned on the clock that when they caught someone they just threw an air freshener in the bathroom and pretended they didn’t notice. I heard far worse, much crazier stories about other restaurants in the town.

        I spent the first half of high school and the greater part of my childhood in a small, mostly blue collar, famously racist town in Illinois called Pekin. The quaint visions people have of small town life in NYC amuse me to no end. It was a terrible place to be a teenager. It was full of a lot of union guys with big paychecks and nothing to do with it except buy drugs. Chicago and St. Louis were a mere 3 hours away. I grew up thinking it was completely ordinary.

        Now that I’m really rambling, Vice had this documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7qliVpGEk0) a while back about the people who were behind manufacturing most of the acid in the Midwest (they had a plan to start the largest ever operation in an old missile silo in Kansas). I’ve heard it said that the availability of acid dropped by 90% when they were busted. I obviously can’t know if they had anything to do with what I was supplied with, but it was like seeing this lost part of my childhood thrown back at me.

  8. I agree with Erstwhile a billion percent. The specificity of race/class/gender (identity)/orientation/faith/non-faith operates at the same time as the general experience of going to high school – although the particular high school one attends has its own (politically situated) specificities as well. There is whole lotta intersectionality goin’ on.

    I, too, don’t have the fondest recollection of my high-school years. I remember receiving a call from a woman who graduated from my high school the same time as I. I knew her since third grade, which was the first time I attended the schools of suburban Long Island. She wished to advise me of a coming re-union. Her name was Pam, she was Black (like yours truly) and quite the beauty (very much unlike yours truly) and brainy as all get-out (I was a very smart kid, but I had mediocre grades; I preferred my mother’s science books over the books that were assigned in school – Mom attended SUNY at Farmingdale while she worked). In high school, I was in love in Pam. As you can guess, it was not mutual. I never let on, by the way.

    Anyway, she called me for our tenth anniversary (I graduated in 1979) and she was nice as always. Ten years out, high school was still fresh in my mind. I very politely informed her that I did not enjoy high school for all the bullying and rejection I experienced at the time and that the last thing I wanted was to see the people who made my life miserable when I was there.

    (Are you sniffling at my self-pity yet?)

    She was actually sympathetic and understanding, and I tried to convey by my delivery that my refusal to attend was not a rejection of her (good God, it wasn’t, believe you me!). She may have even remembered a little of my crappy treatment, as it sometimes happened in her presence.

    The school I attended was located in a very affluent burg called Brookhaven. I lived in “North Bellport”, to be distinguished from very, very affluent “Bellport Village”. “North” later became a code for “Black”; when I arrived there in the year 1968 (in May, on a Thursday) it was still a mostly White part of town. “North” had likely operated, prior to our arrival, as a code for “working class”. I was informed by a fellow graduate of our high school during a ride on the Long Island Rail Road where we ran into each other accidentally, that White families have had howling fights over the “correct” name of their residence: Bellport Village. She should know. It happened in her house. She was White. She foolishly called the whole area “Bellport” – defiantly and repeatedly – to her parents who nearly tossed her out of their home. “We share the same zip code”, she reasoned. No matter.

    By 1980, North Bellport had become nearly all Black. An older White couple that lived next door to us on Walker Avenue was the last White family to move out, if I recall. They certainly were the last White family on our street. We liked them and they were very kind to us.

    As it happened, except for two White boys (one of whom became a close friend of mine) all of the bullying I experienced was at the hands of fellow Black kids. I learned to fight as I got older and carefully cultivated an image of the quiet but dangerous twerp. I pointed an unloaded rifle out the door of my house to disperse bullies that gathered on our lawn; I walked around with a bent piece of iron railing from a fence over my shoulder to discourage attack; I put it on the pavement in front any store I walked into to purchase candy (Charms Pops were a favorite of mine) and walked out to find my iron railing right where I left it.

    My experience of suburbia was not as politically fraught as Erstwhile’s likely because I did not get out much. Mom forbade us to go out while she worked until we got older. Or maybe I was just fortunate. (Maybe one day I will tell the story of how Mom pushed a man out of a second story window in Bedford Stuyvesant, before we moved to Bellport, when he decided that a little domestic violence would bring her to her senses.)

    My high school years finally found a happy time when I volunteered to paint sets for a high school stage musical version of “Cinderella”. The performance was played for laughs, and I got great reviews on my painting of stone imagery on a two-dimensional surface, and for the “aura” I gave the horizon in my painting of the sky for “exteriors”. I must confess that another painter was much better than me; he was a bit off and not very reliable and I was. Those months working on the sets while watching the rehearsals were the best days I had in twelve years in school. In spite of my not so great years in high school, I remain an ardent defender of the public school system and of desegregation.

    The racial tensions of the times that identify the Blacks’ move into the location where I lived were mere background noise that I had the good fortune not to have rudely placed directly into my life – I did not have to run from screaming, epithet hurling, bottle tossing, suburban segregationists (anybody remember Rosedale, Queens?). However, we did have Whites drive through our streets threatening to burn down our houses.

    The elementary schools I attended responded to the influx of Black and Latino families by creating “split sessions”, with a full school day equaling a morning attendance and one equaling afternoon attendance. The school authorities claimed that numerical population was the reason; the truth was that fights would break out, many of them encouraged by the families of Whites to assault the Blacks. If space could not be segregated, maybe time could. A kid had to be on the look out for getting “jumped”. Worse, the authorities would punish the Black children harsher and more often than the Whites. One could enter a school (as reported in the local press) and find only Black kids sitting in isolation as punishment for interracial fights and other infractions, but no White kids. Only Black kids got arrested.

    In college I studied cinema and ventured into filmmaking as a lifelong passion – and as a sideline as I had to get a real job – and was later introduced to the late Betty Puleston who, with Lynn Jackson, produced this film: http://www.der.org/films/race-or-reason.html

    I had a hand in helping to getting it made because I had access to the copy and binding machines in the basement of the NYU Law School. I photocopied and bound the transcripts to all of the interviews in that film in order to make the editing of the film easier. My name is listed in the “Thank you” credits. If you visit the site this link provides, you will understand why I mention it here.

    It took me a long time to get out of North Bellport, now a suburban ghetto of sorts – I was there during college and all of my employed years. What finally allowed me to leave was landing a union job with the State. I am only eight minutes from Mom, who is now retired and on Social Security, living in a house that is wholly hers with the mortgage all paid up. Her street is quiet and green, and cleaner than some of the other streets in North Bellport. Looking at it now, you’d never really guess at the tensions that plagued it decades ago, such as you might in other parts of this country.

    Lotta memories you guys triggered!

    • s. wallerstein June 12, 2014 at 5:05 pm | #


      Your comments are very insightful and perceptive. Thanks.

      I don’t think that teenagers should be blamed for self-pity because unless their parents are very very understanding (and mine were not), they see no alternative to what they perceive around them. At age 16 I imagined that life was one big gym class where I was always going to be picked last for the team and ridiculed because I fumbled the ball or one endless school hallway where I had to bang another boy’s head against the wall to get the bullies to respect me.

      I had no idea that one day I’d meet people who shared my way of questioning things or whomy critical spirit. valued

      • This last one picked — yeah, me too! — thanks you for your kind words. Maybe us ‘last ones picked’ should form a club! And I can see a screenwriter’s “high concept” sales pitch in a Hollywood studio office: “It’s a story of middle aged men nursing their wounds from high school getting their revenge against the ‘first ones picked’ in a fund raiser to save a school lunch program whose budget has been cut by those ‘first ones picked’.”

        The Bad News Bears meets Caddyshack meets Dodgeball meets that movie where whose pitch line is “its slobs versus the snobs”! I’d likely get picked last, for being the slobbiest of the slobs! After all, even slobs have standards!!!

  9. s. wallerstein June 12, 2014 at 6:41 pm | #


    I guess the experience being chosen last could be a first step towards siding with the oppressed or those who are left out.

    On the other hand, it could also turn one into a resentful, envious, ultra-competitive

    I’m not sure why I took the first road.

  10. On an entirely different and very sad subject, I think I should mention this.

    If you live in the “tri-state area” around New York City, you may have been seeing the local news broadcasts reporting on the mysterious disappearance of a young woman named Sarah Goode. She was last seen last Friday (from the date of this entry) and was not heard from since. Her car was found by a roadside in Medford, Long Isand, New York earlier this week. Police and civilians combed the woods and the surrounding area near the car and did not find her for days. Helicopter buzzed overhead. Although Ms. Goode is estranged from her boyfriend who is also the father of her 4 year old child, as of last night he is reported as not yet regarded as a “person of interest”. On Thursday, June 12th, a woman’s body was recovered in the woods some distance from the car, and reports of the finding suggest that a struggle took place at the site of abandoned vehicle. As of this moment, no one has reported that the body that has been found is that of Ms. Goode, although it has been reported that an identification of the body by the family of Ms. Goode is to happen today or sometime very soon.

    I report this story to you because I live in one of the nicest areas of suburbia, a new developement whose homes could be labled “mini-McMansions”. Ms. Goode, a resident of Shirley, attended one of the best public schools in the nation, Longwood High School. That is the same school my step-daughter attended.

    As I mentioned, the wooded area where the body of the woman was found is located in Medford. I live in Medford. The street you will see in the news reports is my street. I mean that literally — reporters were on my street, with video tripods set up. I can see the yellow police tape from my front yard; it is only a few doors from my driveway. The family next door has WPIX, WCBS, and News 12 vans parked in front their home. I live less than a half-mile from the woods in question. I only learned of the woman’s disappearance on the evening that the body was found, from the nurse who cares for my diabled step-daughter, while hearing the helicopters above causing my house to vibrate. Police were everywhere, and anyone who stepped outside faced east, towards the police tape that stood between us and the woods beyond where the street continued on.

    I apologize for conveying this news — and this sort of news — on this site, but I did not feel right not mentioning this when I learned of it last night, given the gravity of what is being reported and of the particular location of where the body was found.

    I feel like I am the only person who is not shocked by the level of violence that could reach a place such as the one where I live.

    • s. wallerstein June 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm | #


      Thanks for letting us know.

      I don’t even live in your country, but you write so well that I can see the scenes you describe.

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