Both my brothers graduated over the last few weeks. Ezra from Oberlin College over Memorial Day weekend, and Nathaniel from UCLA business school last week.
I've only been to Oberlin four times, once each year my brother was there, for a couple days each time. Oberlin helped me realize what I like and dislike about small towns. I think I would feel lonely living in a place where you could walk across the enormous town square in the middle of the day and not run into anyone. That's probably why, during my stays, I grew attached to all signs of life. Even small places like the campus convenience store, dining halls, and coffee shops. And especially the town's main street area, only three blocks long, which included the college bookstore, an army navy store, a one-screen movie theater, a Ben Franklin convenience store, a restaurant and bar that served amazing hamburgers, a brunch place that was always packed, a burrito place where we went once, a casual Chinese place where we went once, a fancier Chinese place where Ezra never wanted to go, an Asian fusion restaurant that clearly aspired to be Zagat's top-rated restaurant within a 30-minute radius, and a candy store, Gibson's, that looked like it had been there since 1910 and that served chocolate covered fruit that also looked like it had been there since 1910. I enjoyed just walking by these places, like you would with stores in a favorite vacation spot, as they provide liveliness and familiarity in an isolated, unfamiliar place.
But what's amazing about college is that even in this tiny town, in a school of less than 3000 students, Ezra's life was incredibly rich. Each visit, I loved getting a snapshot of that life, and attempting, over the course of two days, to figure out the lay of the land, the rhythms of his classwork and the many networks of relationships. Whenever I would visit either of my brothers at college, they always seemed to be surrounded by a squadron of women, who were all very sweet and smart and whose names I would always get mixed up. Our visits would be one dorm room and party after another, in buildings whose names and locations I would also get confused. During Oberlin graduation weekend, I had a lot of misplaced nostalgia. "Oh, was that the place where we saw that band with that girl and ordered cookies?" No, I was told, that was somewhere else and someone else.
Oberlin lived up to its reputation of being open, liberal, and intellectual (especially as compared to my college). It was the kind of place where no one I met was even considering going into investment banking. It was the kind of place where if they showed that Metallica documentary on the tiny TV screen in the common room at midnight, you wouldn't be able to find a seat (this actually happened). It was the kind of place where if the class commencement speaker is introduced as a die-hard John McCain supporter, he's not exactly greeted warmly (this actually happened). It was the kind of place where the big event each year wasn't the homecoming football game but the drag ball, where professional drag queens from Cleveland came in to host the competition and where even unsuspecting brothers who were visiting for the weekend got roped into putting on Catholic schoolgirl outfits (this actually happened). When I visited during Ezra's freshman year, I had actual late-night talk about the meaning of life. During college! Who knew!?!
It was fun to see the ways in which Ezra and his friends embraced this sense of liberal openness in various ways as their college careers evolved. During Ezra's freshman year, I heard that there was one common room on his hall where you were allowed to be naked. Sophomore year they were in a coop, where everyone had to take turns cooking. This year Ezra's girlfriend lived in a house with seven women, six of whom had boyfriends, and they all appeared to be one big happy family.
I was pleased that, like my other visits, graduation weekend was a series of so many random events that the two days felt like a week. My aunt and grandmother and I saw the Frank Lloyd Wright house near campus.Ezra's girlfriend and all her roommates had a barbecue, which was basically a memory test for all the names of all his friends, which I managed to pass, barely. At night the school's world-renowned conservatory had a concert on the town square, where they lit Chinese paper lanterns and served pie.
After the conservatory concert, Oberlin's steel drum band, O Steel, played on the steps of the chapel. Yes, Oberlin is also the kind of place the steel drum band has twenty members and where people start reserving their spot where they're going to stand about an hour ahead of time. The audience eventually started clapping in unison to encourage the band to start playing, and then started dancing up a storm when it began. I was standing near some high school girls who seemed to be veterans of O Steel concerts and who were really into this one band member right near them who was wearing a cowboy hat, and was shirtless. Yes, Oberlin is a place where the guy banging on trash cans is the campus equivalent of Mick Jagger.
But even more that the graduation events themselves, the thing I enjoyed most about the weekend was, once again, seeing the various layers of my brother's college experience. Over the last year, Oberlin had apparently been plagued by a rash of cover bands, and so our first night there we saw two of them, one for an indie band whose name I forget, and the other for Weezer, a band who I know from songs that came out when all the Oberlin seniors were eight years old. How did everyone know all the words to "The Sweater Song
The following night, I arrived back from the O Steel concert, the night before commencement, to see a dozen people splayed out on the couch, trying to figure out what to do, just like it was any other night. People were cleaning up, figuring out what parties were happening, dealing with girlfriend and boyfriend issues, calling and texting around. I'm sure many were thinking about their future jobs and careers and summer road trips, but they were still together, talking, appreciating and embracing the collective energy that they found at college. In the real world, they're sure going to miss it.
As for UCLA business school graduation, I'll address it in a future post...