Patchwork friends

27 Dec

On the first day of college, I had one class – a night class with the 23 people who would be my cohort in the Honors program.

Our majors ran the gamut from philosophy to English to biology to engineering and everything else. We had ancient history nerds and computer programming nerds. We were from a pretty wide geographic range, especially compared to the demographics of our university as a whole. We had devout Catholics and diehard atheists and everything in between. While we were all nominally middle-class, our life circumstances pre-college varied fairly widely. Some of us partied, and some (like yours truly) were terrified by alcohol.

In short, we almost certainly never would have chosen each other for our friends.

We were chosen based on interviews, essays, GPA, SAT scores – perhaps the most telling thing we all had in common was that we chose to apply to the Honors program.

That first night, as we stood around after class getting to know each other (knowing we would be spending a lot of time together, and also not knowing many other people on campus) we somehow skipped the step of talking about those things that had gotten us into this program. We didn’t play the one-upmanship game of comparing test scores and extracurriculars. We started talking about the one other thing we all had in common – the food in the dining hall. That turned into a joke about “meth in the milk and crack in the cookies” – one of those jokes that’s only really funny when you’re 18 and lonely and nervous and overwhelmingly thrilled to find people you can laugh with.

That weekend, we went on the first of the program’s biannual retreats. There was, to my abject terror, a copious amount of alcohol there. There was only one adult there – oh right, I thought at the time, we’re adults now. They don’t have to send a grownup – and the upperclassmen, especially the seniors, were incredibly intimidating to a shy, self-conscious younger me. Some of the rowdier of them burst into our cabin (as I would later learn was tradition) with a fifth of something (I don’t think I had ever seen hard liquor before, my parents drink wine and beer) and invited us all to the party cabin. Maybe five of my classmates went, the rest of us stayed huddled in that cabin and talked long into the night.

As the year went by, I became less scared of alcohol. I still didn’t drink (not until my junior year), but I often hung out with my friends when they were. I worried about them when they went to parties, and for a while I made them text me when they got home safe, but I also spent many nights playing drinking games with a glass of water and having a grand time. Every time, my friends would offer me whatever their beverage of the evening was, I’d say “no thanks,” and we would move on with our lives. I mercifully escaped that harbinger of bad decisions: peer pressure.

We took a lot of classes together in those four years: probably close to twenty. The night before a big assignment was due would often be spent crowded around one big table, rapidly typing out our adolescent analysis of Homer, or Nietzche. Perhaps because GU doesn’t grade on a curve, or perhaps just because we cared about each other, the nights would also include staying up late to edit each other’s papers, or listening to a presentation rehearsal.

We spent many, many hours debating everything from the existence of God to the graduated income tax. Every time, I was impressed by how smart and informed these people were, and that they wanted me as their friend. Very rarely did anyone change their mind, but almost every passionate debate ended with, “cool, want to go get dinner now?” There’s a lot of power in friendship with people who are different than you, and I often find myself explaining their positions when talking to other friends I have more in common with, religiously or politically. It’s not “playing Devil’s advocate,” it’s explaining the worldview of some of my dearest friends.

There’s a lot to be said for friendships you’re forced into. As humans, we have a tendency to seek out people who are like us – just watch any movie about a high school. And yet the most profound relationships I had in college have come out of a group that was cobbled together by administrators. At least half of them, I never would have spent more than half an hour with if I wasn’t forced to look past our surface differences and get to know the real person. Not every year’s class has the same “hive mind” quality we did, so I suppose it was mostly luck that we clicked so well.

Junior year, I moved into a house off-campus with six of these people. We had fewer classes together that year, but our house held that same feeling of camaraderie, safety, and warmth that I had come to associate with time I spent with my class.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course. There was dating and breakups, and unrequited crushes, and best friendships that turned into all-out fights, and rumors, and all that drama that comes from spending so much time with people, combined with the general difficulties of late adolescence. There were times when I was incredibly angry with one of them – and yet, almost every time, the person I ran crying to was another member of that group.

After all, there’s a reason we call it “Honors incest” – at some point in time these people became more like family. They surpassed the level of closeness that we have with most friends, but they also, like family, became the people I was most likely to be mad at, annoyed by. And yet, like family, I couldn’t cut them out of my life, because they were part of a larger group. We were forced to get over it, move past it, because it would be too difficult not to.

As the years went by, we all made other friends. I joined the newspaper and spent much of my “free time” there. People made friends in dorms, in their major, through extracurriculars. And yet, maybe because of the forced/created nature of our group, it stayed intact. We still had “class dinners” and “Honors Homecoming” and our other traditions. It made sense that our new friends weren’t invited to these events, because they weren’t a part of this group that had been created for us. We stayed a clump, and pulled new people in alongside.

The night after we graduated, a bunch of us huddled back in that same room where many drinking games were played freshman year. It was cramped and muggy, and most of our graduating class was out at the bars. We’d join them in a little bit. For a couple hours, we sat there, playing King’s Cup, reminiscing, and teasing each other. It was that same group as laughed at the “meth in the milk” four years earlier, and yet we’d all changed so much. I was drinking beer that time.

Perhaps most importantly, they allowed me to change. I was a very different person when I graduated college than when I started. As I changed – growing up, I suppose is what they call it – they didn’t box me in. I didn’t have to make new friends to accomodate this new version of me.

We’ve graduated now, and live even farther apart than we did back in high school, before we all knew each other. Some of them I talk to pretty regularly. Some of them I haven’t seen since we threw our caps in the air. Maybe it’s the nature of our frinedships – that I wasn’t friends with them individually, but rather as a web (although, of course, much closer with some than others) – but I don’t feel like they’re over. Whenever I talk to one person, I get updates on a few other people they’re in better contact with than I am. I know I’ll see them again – there will be weddings and reunions and unexpected airport run-ins down the road.

Even if I never see some of them again, though, they’ll always matter. They’ll always be my weird, disparate, incredible people who journeyed with me through four of the craziest years of my life, guiding me and crying on my shoulder in turns. And without them, I don’t know who I would be now, but I don’t think I’d like her too much.

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