Every few months, an issue of the Northwestern Alumni magazine arrives in my mailbox. Some issues I scrutinize more than others, but I always try to look through it at least a little bit. I appreciate all of the effort that goes into putting it together, after all.
Specifically, I check to see the notices about marriages, births (both of which are rare for my class anymore) and death notices. Typically it’s a professor that I had in one of my classes, but I always check for the general student listings, too. I’d hate to see anyone I knew very well listed there, and so far I haven’t. But today’s issue did have someone from my class listed, and this caught my attention.
This was someone who left her home at the same time I did, who walked the campus when I did, who got her degree the same day that I did, and now, as of last September 10, she is no longer with us on this earth. I didn’t recognize the name, but I felt compelled to find out more about her.
I went to the Freshman Facebook (and yes, we did call it that) that Northwestern compiled for all of its incoming freshmen. In these days of social media, I’m sure that it’s no longer necessary to do this, but I hope the school still makes an effort of some type. All of those scared and anxious 18 year-olds–who are going to have their lives changed over the course of their years on campus–need something to get the ball rolling in the way of introductions.
I got out my old facebook, looked up my recently deceased classmate, and realized that I had never met her at all. Perhaps we were in a class together at some point, or our paths had crossed in some other way, but I had no idea who she was. I learned that she was from Vermont, though, and this intrigued me on some level.
Northwestern, like all the other top schools, prides itself on its diversity. And diversity is exactly what I–and a lot of the others in my class–desperately needed to have. Over the first 18 years of my life, I knew my little slice of Springfield, Illinois quite well, but I knew nothing beyond it. I had never met a New Yorker before, or a Texan, or anyone from Cleveland, or Minneapolis, or Chicago. And I got to meet all of these people and more in the time I was on campus.
I once wondered a great deal about the world beyond my hometown, and four years as an undergraduate at Northwestern exposed me to people and ideas I had never encountered before. And it sounds trite, but it made me a better person. I’ll be forever grateful to have had the experiences I did while on the Evanston campus.
The Vermont thing made me curious as to how many of my classmates (there were over 1,000 in all) came from Vermont. So I started with the As, and began paging through, looking for anyone who came from Vermont. Along the way I encountered old roommates, and people who lived in my dorm, and girls I had crushes on and could never talk to, and people I would know from classes or activities on campus. It felt as though I had time-warped back to 1986 for an hour or so.
As I moved through the alphabet, page by page, I knew that I was going to get to my own entry, in about the middle of the book. I even gave some thought to giving up, rather than come face to face with the guy I used to be. But I was committed to seeing my research through, and I stopped long enough to consider what got me to the point that I was in the facebook to begin with.
At that moment, I realized that I never applied myself to studying as much as I should have, and yet I did fairly well, and I uncorked an admissions essay that must have made an impression on someone who read it. I like to think I wrote my way into a top-notch university, and then wrote well enough to hang around until I graduated four years later. And nobody can ever take that away from me, either.
I finished up with the book, after much contemplation and reflection about the fleeting nature of the college years. It was an important time when I transitioned to adulthood and went out to face the world, and all of my classmates did the same thing. And I felt exceedingly fortunate to be the one looking for a deceased classmate, instead of having someone else looking for me.
I hope that she (and I’m refraining from using her name, to respect her privacy) had a good life, filled with things that made her happy. I wished that for everyone I encountered in the book, whether I knew them or not. I’m sure there are some others who are no longer with us, and that our ranks will only get thinner as the years go by. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and so it goes.
And to answer the question that drew me in to begin with, there were two of my classmates who hailed from Vermont. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure there were homerooms at New Trier that had more representation in my class than the state of Vermont did. But Northwestern could say, truthfully, that Vermont was indeed represented in its Freshman class that year. How well-represented is another story. But they had more Vermonters (if that’s the right term) than any other school I would have gone to, and that made the exercise seem worthwhile for me.