Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friends and colleagues

Last weekend was Augie's wedding. As long-time readers may recall, Augie is someone I knew slightly in graduate school who moved to Cha-Cha City the same year I did, for a job at a neighboring university, and who has since become a good friend. We were a couple of cohorts apart and technically in different deparments--but, given our shared background, I expected to see a bunch of people at the wedding whom I knew from grad school. What I didn't expect was to feel such a rush of warmth for them.

This has been happening to me a lot lately--not nostalgia for grad school, which I don't think is a period of my life I'll ever romanticize, but a sense of real affection and esteem for many of the people I knew there. Over the past year or two I've also had several friendships that began at INRU suddenly deepen and become more personal; I'm much better friends, now, with people I knew in grad school than I was while I was actually in grad school.

There are probably several reasons for this. One may be that I don't need the same things from these people now that I did then: during my first four years in the program, while I was actually living in Grad School City, I was terribly lonely and terribly insecure and my cohort was flying apart. I needed close, local friends who had some idea of what I was doing and enduring (academically and otherwise)--and my classmates for various reasons were not those people. These days I'm not lonely and not unduly insecure, and I have a great group of friends and colleagues. I don't need Grad School Friend A or Grad School Friend B to be my bestest friend ever, or my social or intellectual support system. That makes it easier to get to know them at whatever speed and with whatever limitations the relationship might turn out to have.

I got unlucky with my cohort (and possibly with my emotional and psychological makeup), but I don't think it's just me; everyone's happier now. Even when your program isn't cutthroat, as ours was not, grad school means living in a constant state of low-level panic about your abilities and your prospects; under those circumstances, it's hard to be someone you yourself like, much less to be open and generous enough to be a good friend to others.

I had a similar experience in college. Unlike in graduate school, in college I had a great group of friends--with whom I'm still very close--and yet I found INRU a socially and emotionally stressful place. One of my friends called it the "INRU cold shoulder": that experience we all had of walking down the street, seeing someone we knew from section coming toward us, and having a frantic 15-second internal monologue about whether we should say hello. (Will he recognize me? know my name? think he's too cool to talk to me? probably he IS too cool--but I should say hi anyway--well, I'll see if he says hi first--oh, no. . . he didn't.)

And yet, when I ran into exactly those same people in Manhattan, years after we'd graduated from college and years after whatever class we'd had together, we'd stop and talk for 35 minutes: eagerly, enthusiastically, unwilling to let the other person go. I think we missed college--or rather, we missed being so surrounded by smart, interesting people that we'd had the luxury of not bothering to know most of them.

So maybe that's what's happening here, too; it's been long enough for us to miss each other. This August it will be ten years since I started graduate school, six years since I moved out of that city, and three years since I took this job. I've been startled by the number of people from grad school who have recently friended me on Facebook, but perhaps we all want the same thing: to reconnect with those who went through it with us and whom we're abashed to find we never really knew.

4 comments:

Moria said...

Good lord, Flavia, is your timing ever uncanny. I was just having the exact crisis that you describe. I make my home in a department famous for being the very opposite of cutthroat, and yet all of my relationships are tense or limited in one way or another. I have been blaming myself for this. Yesterday, I realized that I should not, that this pressure-cooker we all inhabit makes our relationships as neurotic as we each are individually, and that only time and the easing of the pressure will secure these friendships.

Funny how mutually-endured trauma doesn't guarantee relationships. But also probably for the best.

Flavia said...

I know a number of people (including one or two from my program) who made their best friends in graduate school--who really found, there, their ideal social and intellectual community of quirky-fun-cool people. I'm envious of them, although I guess it's true that I found such a community in college--as I know you did, too, Moria. (Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that the people who most miss the companionate aspects of grad school didn't make as many lasting friends in college, so maybe it balances out.)

Part of what was hard for me about my first several years of grad school was that I really liked most of my classmates. I thought they were smart and cool and hilarious, and that in any normal world we'd be bestest friends. . . and yet somehow and for the most part it just didn't happen. I started to get a complex about it, worrying that maybe somehow I was unfriendable, or undesirable as a friend, to those I considered my people.

It was such a relief to move here, make a great group of friends so easily and so quickly, and realize that it wasn't me after all. Or that if it was me, it was me-in-the-context-of-grad-school.

Doctor Cleveland said...

It's great that you've built these friendships since leaving INRU.

I'm one of the lucky ones who made good friends and collaborators in grad school. But I think my old colleagues still get more valuable every year.

I think a lot of what happens in years grad school is that people realize two things, if they hadn't in grad school:

1) You're going to be doing this for a long time, and

2) You need your peoples.

It's easy to forget either of those things, or both, before the degree. #1 might not turn out to be true at all, because you might never finish might never find a job might quit for law school might might might. Two years into a ladder job, you have to start planning for the future. And if you didn't see how much you needed your peoples when you had your doctoral faculty around all the time, it becomes a lot clearer after you leave headquarters.

Flavia said...

Dr. C:

Yes, that's absolutely right. I've been thinking in those terms, too--needing one's peeps.

It's a rare job that lands one with as many in-field specialists as one had surrounding one in grad school, and it's basically no job that provides one with the kind of regular feedback, from luminaries in the field, that one got from one's diss director and committee.

And heck: friends are important. If they do nothing else, they provide us with people to drink and bitch with at conferences.