Familiar territory

James Harrison, a tenacious and decorated linebacker with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, recently found himself in a difficult situation. In an effort to crack down on collisions that result in concussions, the governing body of the NFL fined Harrison thousands of dollars for two tackles that would have most likely gone unnoticed and un-fined in previous seasons.

The NFL’s message was clear: Either change how you play or we will fine you. Rather than accept the fine and move on, Harrison declared that he would retire from the NFL, reasoning that the new regulations prevented him from playing the way he was taught to play.
My first Homecoming weekend at Williams as an alumnus gave me some insight into the question put before Harrison: What do we do when something to which we have become accustomed suddenly changes? Do we embrace the change and adapt, or do we walk away from it, figuring that a deviation from the familiar perverts the experience beyond repair?

As students, we are united by something current. Students’ day-to-day lives are intertwined. A student shares with his or her fellow students both past, present and, until one morning in early June, future. When I arrived on campus for Homecoming weekend, cherishing my Williams experience, I wondered if as alumni our only guaranteed communal experience exists in the past.

One of the first things I did was to seek out some of the professors to whom I was close. I managed to meet up with one professor whom I had not seen since Commencement. The friendly conversation I had with the professor confirmed what I had begun to realize at the end of my senior year: The further away you get from the pressure to succeed academically, the more you can enjoy relationships with professors. It is a shame that it took me so long to realize this, because Williams students are incredibly lucky to have professors who are both wonderful educators and wonderful people.

After receiving (finally) my final paper from last Winter Study (I got a “check plus,” thank you) I caught up with a friend whose voice I had not heard since he delivered one of the three student speeches at Commencement. Looking for sustenance, we chose Spice Root’s lunch buffet mostly because it was economically sound (all-you-can-eat situations rarely present themselves after graduation).
As we conversed over naan and kidney beans, the subject moved from work (mine) to job searches (his) and the motivation to work (both of ours). We eventually settled on two familiar topics: relationships and books. It was on these two subjects that we stayed for what seemed like a long time.

After our meal ended I headed over to the 2010 Zero Year Reunion, thinking that the natural progression of our conversation to the familiar might answer the question raised by Mr. Harrison’s quandary. If I can connect with a fellow alumnus over the same things over which we bonded while we were students at Williams, maybe there is no need to change one’s approach to the Williams experience once one has graduated. Maybe Mr. Harrison can keep on doing his best to tackle the opponent, and everything will work itself out.
Later that night my friend who had not had dinner offered me her snack bar points, even though she had graduated last year. The next day in the men’s basketball alumni game, in which the current team competes against alumni, I headed for the current team’s huddle at one point. When Saturday night rolled around I had to correct myself when I asked my former teammates if they were going to the bar.
I could not tell if my weekend was determined by pure freewill or an urge to return to the familiar. But as I hopped in my friend’s car on Sunday, headed back to Boston, I decided that Williams students do not have to change their ways in order to enjoy the familiarity of Homecoming. At least during this past weekend the familiar just happened to be what was fun. There will come a time when no one on campus will give me a guest meal, when it will be creepy to show up at Snack Bar at 12:52 a.m. But for someone who recently graduated I can safely say there is no need to walk away from the game completely, though conducting business as usual may be surreal at times.