Would You Go to Your Reunion?

By Naomi Marcus | August 22nd, 2023

A Boomer reader muses on graduate classes, classmates, and changes

an old college portico with four rocking chairs and large old photo. CREDIT Josephthomas. Boomer reader Naomi Marcus knows hesitated to go to her reunion. She recalls her challenges attending Columbia University Journalism School. She knows very valid reasons not to go to a reunion. But she went.

Boomer reader Naomi Marcus knows hesitated to go to her reunion. She recalls her challenges attending Columbia University Journalism School. She knows very valid reasons not to go to a reunion. But she went.

Here is an odd but true distinction: I graduated from Columbia University Journalism School in 1983, in the last class to use typewriters.

The sweet cacophony of the newsroom:
Clickety Clickety Clack Clack Clack.
Clickety Clickety Clack Clack Clack.
Sticky keys, coffee spills, paper stacks. Mimeographs!
The most sophisticated among us had Correct-O-Ball Electric typewriters.
We used maps, which I never could fold up neatly.
We called in our stories from phone booths.
We looked things up in the “morgue file” of yellowed, brittle clippings.
It was a terrible year in my life.
Two months after I got to NY, my UC San Francisco medical student boyfriend broke up with me in a letter (that came in an envelope!).
My hair began falling out copiously.
I often sobbed.
I was eating huge amounts in campus dining halls and Greek diners and weighed over 200 pounds.

Jimmy Breslin when he lectured at the school, Sept ’83. CREDIT: Theresa Maggio.

OK, New York was cool, I admit. I covered the United Nations, and refugee asylum trials, and local Community Boards. Mario Cuomo ‘s gubernatorial win.
Our first day: A Circle Line cruise around Manhattan with Walter Cronkite.
Our first week: guest lecturer Jimmy Breslin delivered an unforgettable talk, “YOU NEED TO USE GOOD VERBS!”, he thundered.
Fred Friendly, President of CBS News (and my father’s college roommate at Brown University) paced as he lectured/growled at us, during his weekly required course: Law and Ethics.
Prowled the podium and called on people like the law professor played by John Houseman in Paper Chase. Terrified he’d call on me, I scrunched down in the last row.
Dad urged me in letters (that came in envelopes), “Go up to Fred and tell him you’re my daughter!”
NO, that wasn’t gonna happen.

I typed and I cried. I cried and I typed.
I did the work.
I wrote features about a Jewish matchmaker, and a fortress-like Soviet school for diplomats’ kids in the Bronx. I profiled a UN simultaneous interpreter as he worked from his booth during the General Assembly. I followed a young ex-convict building a castle in an abandoned lot in Spanish Harlem with scavenged lumber – turrets and spires and all.

Note: it was not Columbia that made me feel like shit, it was me. Everyone was lovely to me at school. Columbia simply coincided with a very bad time in my life.

At the end of the year I was a mess, but I graduated, and the faculty even voted me an award, the Correspondents Fund Prize: $3,000 to travel and write.

I made many wonderful lifetime friends who didn’t mind that I was sad and fat.
But I did not attend my graduation.
I am not in the class photo.
I did not work as a journalist.

If you were me, would you go to your 40th reunion?

Really, what the hell are reunions good for?
As a cranky person I was skeptical about the whole reunion concept.
If you feel a failure in life, that’s a no go.
If you feel a success, really, also, why go?
If you fall somewhere in between, like most of us, like me,
are you setting yourself up if you go?

But I went because it was May in New York, and beloved J-school friends/classmates said I should come and stay in their homey Brooklyn brownstone, and we’d attend the reunion together.

We had a robust turnout for a class of 160; about 40 members of the last typewriter class showed up.
Alas, the professors, (several wore bowties!) who’d mentored and encouraged me were dead or retired.
However, since graduating, I’ve remained in touch with a dozen or more classmates: visiting them, hosting them, sharing life events like weddings, births, parents’ deaths, and book publication triumphs. These friends were coming in from France, from Toronto, from Oregon, from Washington DC, from Boston, Wisconsin. Emails were exchanged strongly suggesting I show up.

So I went.

The weekend alumni seminar offerings were heady:

Longform narrative: Turning journalism into Books
Afternoon Tea with the Alumni Board
Reporting on Trauma, Conflict and Tragedy
ChatGPT in the Newsroom
The Intersection of Journalism and Podcasting

But I wasn’t there for that. I attended one official event, the alumni awards ceremony, to watch a classmate receive a well-deserved achievement award.
When we walked up the J-school steps, past the statue of Thomas Jefferson, I did not cry, unlike the last two visits I made to Columbia.

Glad to report the bathrooms were still in the same place. On alternating floors. Noted the addition of gender non-conforming bathrooms.

But the grungy bagel shop in the basement of adjacent Furnald Hall was gone, and the Dunkin Donuts on Broadway where we had slurped countless undrinkable pink and orange cups of coffee was gone.

Another historical note: I attended Columbia before Starbucks.

Mingling after the awards ceremony, I learned that three of my classmates are dealing with their young adult kids changing their sex. No one did that when I was in school; in 1983, the AIDS Crisis was in full bloom.

On another note, I was impressed with the bravery of award-winning younger alums who are reporting from the Ukraine, and who shared their stories at the awards ceremony.

In 1983, my J School advisor told me to find a dusty road in Africa and go down it, then come back and write about it.
Never made it to Africa, but in the decade after J School, I traipsed the hell over the former USSR as a tour guide and freelance writer. I rode the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Irkutsk three times. Fell in love in Yalta on the Black Sea, toured the Caucuses and Central Asia. The halcyon days of Perestroika and Glasnost helped me sell lots of stories.
My favorite tour gig was called DESTINATION UKRAINE: KHARKOV, ODESSA, KIEV

Now these reporters, class of 2013 and 2003, were writing in a Ukraine at war under exploding drones and missile fire, with laptops under their flak jackets, and they were modest and marvelous. I have no idea if I would have been so fearless. Won’t know.

But here’s why my reunion was rich: simply gathering at David and Cissy’s Brooklyn brownstone with Andy and Leni, with Elliot and Steve and Polly and Blake. Then later with Theresa. Barbara, Jean. Marianne. Geraldine. David number 2.

If not for Columbia I wouldn’t have these friends, who originally came from Kentucky and New Jersey and Ohio and Tennessee, from Australia and Zimbabwe and Argentina.
They worked for CNN and PBS and CBS, for Scholastic and for Newsday and the New York Times. They made independent films and won Pulitzer Prizes. They worked for the SOROS Foundation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, for NPR.
Many were laid off as newspapers shuttered and media organizations consolidated.

But after 40 years, that’s not what we talked about. We didn’t discuss the professional arcs of our lives at all.
Who we were remained who we are.

Andy: laconic and David: kind and pensive.
Jean: so New Yorkish.
Polly still walks incredibly fast, and Barbara reminded me of some of the best lines I came up with in J school, (“as remote as Tashkent”).
Eric remembered the J-School blues I wrote,
“They told me I would do well, if only I had a fire in my bell—y”

I mentioned at dinner one night that Elliot could be annoying, and he told me I hurt his feelings, but he forgave me.

They mattered in my life and matter still.
We limited the ailments talk, and focused on the projects talk.
We drank good wine and toasted each other.

And we agreed, in principle, to show up for our 50th reunion.

Read more musings, essays, and other contributions from Boomer readers in our From the Reader department.

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