|The Underachiever Speaks|
This magazine is not, I suspect, intended as an instrument of torture. It is supposed to link us to our alma mater, to reconnect us with folks we last saw in the bathrooms of Emery-Wooley, to let us share in our classmates’ accomplishments and support them in their misfortunes. But in the decade since my graduation, I’ve somehow developed the bad habit of using the BAM—particularly the class notes—as an emotional and professional yardstick. And it’s a yardstick that always manages to make me feel about two centimeters tall.
After all, since leaving Providence I haven’t married anyone in a marvelously original ceremony attended by dozens of alumni and clergy of multiple faiths. I haven’t produced or adopted any children. I haven’t started my own company, appeared on Broadway, published a novel, or won any of those cool fellowships with hyphenated names. I haven’t cured a single genetic disorder, and I’ve yet to find a really ingenious way of inspiring urban middle-schoolers to strive for academic excellence.
Neither have many others, I tell myself every two months, when the BAM shows up in my mailbox. Rarely do more than ten of my classmates write in to a given issue; in a year, that’s more than 1,500 of us whose names do not appear in bold.
But statistics don’t stem the tide of insecurity, especially since the further I get from college, the less “news” I have to report. In school, life broke neatly into little units of progress: we rose from freshmen to sophomores, doubles to singles, Keeney Quad to off-campus apartments. Missing those milestones in my early twenties, I went for lateral change instead, swapping roommates and career plans more regularly than I changed the oil in my car. I was always hunting for the perfect thing—job, city, person—to make all the other pieces fall into place, so I could write to BAM that Alison Lobron ’97 has found fame, fortune, and a handsome-smart-witty-feminist husband, and that little Charlie and Ella are the most self-actualized kids in their progressive day-care center.
I never found that perfect thing, but some other parts of my life fell into place without my notice. Now, when I run into old friends, I’m embarrassed how often the word “still” escapes my lips. After seven years, I’m still teaching high school English; in fact, I’m still teaching the Odyssey. I’m still writing, but Random House still hasn’t discovered me. I’m still living in Boston. I’m still not married.
I walk away from these encounters wondering why a life that rarely feels dull, in the living, is so devoid of headlines. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Increasingly, my friends are still doing what they were three or four years ago. Yet if pressed, I bet they’d say their interests and relationships are deepening and their sense of self grows more solid each year.
Not long ago, I was flipping through another college’s alumni magazine and read a note from a 1922 graduate. She offered four pieces of information: she’s alive, she would like to hear from other classmates who are similarly alive, she keeps a phone by her bed, and she’s most alert between 2 and 6 p.m. I was at once humbled and inspired by her straightforward simplicity.
I hope someday I can so fully dispense with pretension and reduce my life to its essentials. I hope it happens before life reduces me to them. In the meantime, each issue of the BAM still serves as a measure of just how far I’ve come—and how far I have to go.