Promoting another post to the “Reunion Top.” –93kwt

This weekend is my five year reunion. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write here a post highlighting a few of the most shining moments I remember from my days there. In one post, I could have done this: restricting myself to “moments” that can be described to people not of my inner circle and and which are purely positive would have generated a short enough list.

But as I sketched it out, I found there was more I wanted to write about. I wish I could have kept it simple, but I’m probably incapable of this. I want to give you an idea of what was important to me, and how I connected to the campus community. And I want it to include some of the good and the bad, as well as the hard and the incidental. I want to tell a story, but remind myself that I did not live four years as a story, or see a “point” or even a unified flow in my life as I was going through it: though I suspected that I would look back someday and see it that way.

Five years out, this series of posts is much of how I see what I lost and gained at Williams. This is ephblog, so the segments are far from uncut or uncensored, but they are long enough to be true. They capture what is important to me looking back, and the past I want to give homage to as I think about reuniting with my class this weekend.

It could easily have gone another way. At 16, I had less than no interest in the College Process and the preparations for it that my elite high school expertly herded us through. Rather, I was an active antagonist of the mere imagining of my future and I shaped my environment around my antipathy. Among my friends, college plans were never a topic. I responded so acidly to even the gentlest probing from my parents that I made them stop asking. I set myself up to take on the whole thing completely alone, were it not for a few mandatory meetings with college counselors (and it bears mention that had I gone to another NYC public high school, it’s likely that budget cuts would have eliminated those counselors, as they did for my brother).

The butterfly flapped its wings when I had my first meeting with the counselor assigned to my class, Ms. Weinstein. That spring 2000 afternoon, when I told her I had done absolutely no thinking about colleges, she placed in front of me a careworn and obviously often-photocopied sheet listing names of schools, divided into first, second, and third tiers. The first tier was mostly a mix of the Ivies and what I now know to be called the “Small Liberal Arts Colleges,” all of which I had of course never heard of. I remember being vaguely mystified by the strange people-like names, like Williams, and the existence of a school apparently named after a toothpaste. Remember this was a list just of names, no other context except for the “tiers.” All I knew was that I had to go to Barnes and Noble that summer and read (but not buy) the Fiske guide a few times that summer. The B&N was located in a shopping center at the end of a beautiful bike ride by the water, and which also had a video game arcade with pinball—I’m not positive if I could have made myself go enough times if not for these facts.

Weinstein had thus at least assured that I read a blurb on Williams, but that was it. During my senior year, when things counted, she up and went on sabbatical, resulting in the appearance of Mr. Pallo. As if my dislike of college weren’t strong enough, at 17 I had an equal dislike for counselors, who I saw as people who could claim to read my mind. I told Mr. Pallo so, and fortunately for us both this was A-OK by him. There’s a long story here, but I have to make it short and say just that Pallo and our mutual blunt affection for each other saved me from I-don’t-know-where. Had it been anyone else I think I’d have clammed up. Instead, I trusted him enough to believe that I should apply for the top small schools, and in March I had my pick of the usual northeastern SLAC suspects.

I also trusted him enough to do something I could barely stomach even on his advice and my parents’ begging. At Mr. Pallo’s cajoling, I had also had the mercenary wisdom to elevate my Puerto Rican heritage above my White to status as a checked box on my Common application. Thanks to this, when it came time for spring Prospective visits (“Previews Weekend,” I think), I was sent a special invitation to come up two days early by chartered bus. I really cannot express to you how naive I was of everything that was going on. For me, it was a free way to make a visit I already planned to make. For Williams, it was a way to direct-market to the school to one of their most concentrated and important groups: the large number of minorities that the school draws from the New York metro area (as I would learn riding the Motor Coach home on holiday breaks, odds are if you are a minority at Williams you are going home to NYC). Our bus had a bubbly-suave Mexican-American staff member riding with us and guiding us through an itinerary of special events for us those first two days, including a dance party the first night.

I don’t describe these things bitterly or with an agenda despite their possibly charged nature. Rather it is with a sort of distant fondness, because I only came to realize years later what was “going on,” and realize only now (as you will see) how it was all part of a madly delicate chain of events. When we all crowded into the Admissions Office to be picked up by our host students for the long weekend, I would meet the accident that most sealed my path to Williams.

I cannot swear to you that all the hosts were minority students, though I assume there was an effort to match us up in this way. If I had been matched to a Puerto Rican, though, I’ll never know: mine was the only one not to show up, and I was left the last pre-frosh in the office. By chance, however, a student had walked in for some other business of his own, and he and I had somehow engaged in incidental conversation. When it became clear that no one else would come for me, the admissions officer asked Sung if he would take me, and he readily agreed. Just like that, I became the only pre-frosh to be assigned to a sophomore instead of a freshman, and staying in the basement of Brooks.

Brooks dorm, in case you don’t know, is a “row house,” and it’s the dumpiest of them all. It was for years known as a place for frat-like parties, and Spring Previews 2001 was no exception. Friday and Saturday night the basement was packed with blaring parties, the following morning the classically beer-sticky floors. If I had approached this at all rationally, Brooks should have driven me out of the Berkshires. I felt deeply uncomfortable at classic loud house parties and did not attend them in high school. And if I were surveying dorm quality, as I assume prospectives usually do, I couldn’t have been somewhere worse than the one room in Brooks basement, the last-picked room of the dumpiest party house on campus.

Sung made all the difference, and that’s all there is to say about that. He liked me, and I liked him. He gave me his time and showed me his life, I followed him around as he studied, hung out with his girlfriend, and practiced his role in a play written by a friend. He didn’t take me to a party, but he made me a nice dinner and talked lovingly about his girlfriend, trusted me with things that felt personal. His life looked manageable, and that’s all that mattered to me: I just wanted to know that college was going to be possible, and not horribly foreign. Sung felt enough like a kindred spirit that I reasoned that if there was a place for him there, there could be one for me too.

I swear to you, it was as simple as that. Sung, and also the students on campus I crossed paths with, all of whom struck me as uncommonly polite. Recall, however, that I am from New York City.

That’s how I came home and told mom and dad that I had decided on Williams. It had nothing to do with the “market niche” (as HWC has referred to it) that Williams cultivates, because I was hopelessly oblivious to this and to everything that made Williams Williams—indeed, my next segment will have a lot to do with the ramifications of that ignorance. I have no doubt that I had an equal chance to have the same bonding experience at Amherst, Bowdoin, or Middlebury, but I had there the extended visit that would have meant a real chance. They did not invite me, and I was too lazy, too scared and apathetic about my future at college, to go. I checked “Puerto Rican,” Williams sent me a bus and her good Korean son, Sung, and the rest is history.

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