The Morning After: An Enduring Experience

For awhile, I was generally pretty disdainful of what I’ll call the “Lawrenceville hangover” – the ailment, so to speak, that strikes young alumni with bouts of nostalgia, an inability to fully immerse themselves into their college experience, and a compulsive magnetic draw to their alma mater. I’d see kids who graduated a few years ahead of me in TJs on a Tuesday night in October and my first instinct was to deem them, well, pathetic. Lawrenceville’s great, yeah, but hey – you’re twenty, you go to Columbia or Georgetown or Trinity or wherever, and the pizza here, in the grand scheme of pizzas, is pretty lousy, even if you can get away without paying. Go home.

The hangover picks its victims arbitrarily, but it generally comes, as hangovers do, after a particularly hefty indulgence, the cheaper the poison, the better. It accompanied a romantic illusion of Lawrenceville that I found tacky and shallow, prescribed by a pretty generic laundry list of prerequisite experiences. Oh, you had a great field hockey win over Hill junior year and school camp changed your life and you fell in love with a senior on the lacrosse team? Neat!

I was jaded, really. I’d come to Lawrenceville as a new sophomore from North Carolina, lacking athletic ability or Irwin dance floor smoothness – the necessary currency to get by socially in this alien environment – and disdaining the antiseptic “we’re all in this together” exuberance that seemed to characterize the school’s leadership spheres. But I was fine with it, I guess. My Lawrenceville experience, I boldly thought, was more poignant than anyone else’s: I’d struggled, I’d succeeded, I’d laughed, I’d cried, I’d danced the emotional spectrum with a brush of complexity absent from the experiences of those who wouldn’t be able to let go after graduation. I viewed Lawrenceville as a less-than-perfect place that had at times been rough but mostly served me well, given me a solid education and great friends, and, after Commencement, would be nothing more than a place for which I’d have pleasant recollections but no real overwhelming emotional allegiance.

I probably come across as little more than a bitter twerp, and for awhile, I was. But this is a reflection on Lawrenceville, not a kvetch about it, so I’ll emphasize the fact that somewhere between my graduation last May and the chilly April night in Baltimore on which I’m writing this, something changed. Something compelled me to revalue my own experiences as special – no more or less special than anyone else’s, but unique, glorious and, well, real.

In short, I came to college. On paper (or Facebook), the past eight months have been great for me. In spite of everything ostensible, though, I felt lost. Comparativism is in my basic nature, and I came to realize that my insidious discomfort arose not from where I was, but from where I wasn’t. I wasn’t home.

It’s a hokey way to put it, I suppose, and probably a bit dubious, since I left Lawrenceville in a rear-view mirror of objectivity, determined to not romanticize it. But now I’m starting to realize that that’s not exactly how things work. Mrs. Sandra Rabin put it best, at a time when I couldn’t grasp it.

“You can’t appreciate something,” she said, “until you step away from it.”

The cynic in me could juxtapose this lesson with my original disdain and find myself facing a wall of regrets. It would be a lie to say I have none. I regret not telling Mrs. Rabin that I summon her wisdom daily. I regret not sitting down with Mrs. Larson and being honest. I regret not thanking Mr. Cantlay for urging me to memorize a hundred lines from Paradise Lost. I regret not working harder at Chemistry, and I regret the way I treated a lot of people. I regret not appreciating what I had when I had it.

But the romantic in me is learning to view things a bit differently. I’m starting to look at my time at Lawrenceville not simply as an education, but as an adventure. Yeah, it made me miserable at times, but I owe it everything. It isn’t just a school – it’s more and less than anyone, “hungover” or not, can really realize.

So what is it? To me, it’s the Saturday afternoons in January wasted, but not really, in an otherwise empty TJ’s and the Sunday dusks when the October sky glows orange and cerulean over the cornfields. It’s a Maidenhead bagel eaten at five in the morning in the football stands after sneaking out to climb to the roof of the field house. It’s waking up before the rest of the world on an August morning and watching the golden light of the Circle embellish the lingering smells of summertime. It’s a first kiss on the soccer fields. It’s a sleep-in on Thursdays, a copy of The Lawrence on Fridays, and a Saturday night spent clumsily permuting teenage yearnings in awkward fumblings on the Irwin dance floor. It’s growing up. It’s all the accountrements of high school – stress, envy, love, rage, and an inexplicable, perennial pulse of eagerness – compartmentalized in a place and time that no one from back home could ever completely understand, and you might not either.

But maybe we’re not supposed to. Maybe Lawrenceville’s greatest gift to us was not an education, not friends, but a cabinet of gloriously unintelligible feelings: the insecurities, the exhilaration, the loneliness, the nostalgia. Our fundamental connection to our alma mater won’t resurface while sitting on a porch with our friends after two years or while writing a check to the alumni office after twenty. It comes, in its purest form, when we look back on the little intangibles – the things you’ll never see in a brochure – that make something in our chests pulsate just a bit. It might be a place or a scent. It might not be anything concrete at all. But it’s there. It’ll bite, mind you, without warning, at which point there’s not much to do other than retreat into your memories, to go back to those two or three or four years spent exploring yourself, others, and life on whole at an old brick boarding school down Route 206.

And whether you like it or not, you’re home.