It’s hard to explain my love for the physical place of Oberlin: a flat landscape, crosshatched streets, the howling winds of winter and sweltering humidity of summer. The exclusive-trying-to-be-inclusive liberal arts college and economically-depressed town attempt to negotiate a symbiotic relationship.
Oberlin is steeped in a history of firsts – first college to admit black students, first to admit women, first to begin thinking about transgender inclusivity. I feel this storied past at Oberlin, this critical history, standing in front of the one-room schoolhouse where black and white children learned together in the 1830s. Illegally.
Sitting on the plane returning from my 25th reunion, the more recent past lingers in my mind. I reunited with four dear friends from freshman year. Oh. Freshperson year – this is Oberlin we’re talking about.
We, the five friends, are all the same. Our personalities are, strikingly and humorously, exactly as they were two-and-a-half decades ago. Sarah still has definite ideas of how to manage the logistics for our collective group. Stacy’s sunny disposition coats the group in a delicate layer of optimism. We are all profoundly different: a pile of advanced degrees, five marriages, nine children, two divorces. We’re finally old enough and smart enough to mend the rips in our four-year five-person quilt.
It’s never too late to offer an apology.
Beyond our group, the faces are still familiar. At this level of familiarity, my memory blurs the edges of past relationships. How well did I know her/him? (Oberlin of 1991 only had two recognized genders.) I’m not entirely sure, freeing me to uniform friendliness and indiscriminate hugging. You, the 100+ folks who returned for our 25th reunion, you are all my friends, past, present, or potential.
At some point my nostalgia for Oberlin may wane, if the college abandons its lofty ideals or my memory fades beyond recognition. Until then, all roads do, indeed, lead to Oberlin.
And the sky takes me back home.