Here’s a quick task while you quaff your iced double mocha cinnamon latte. Turn to the person on your immediate left and explain the significance of the following numbers: 9.76, 1, 10, 47.
OK, you look stumped. I’ll help because, really, you just got here and for all you know it’s the launch code for the Ukrainian missile defense system. 9.76 is the percent of Pomona College students accepted into the class of 2019, a new level of selectivity even by historically stringent Pomona standards. It is followed by one, Pomona’s most recent ranking in the Forbes Magazine’s list of America’s Top Colleges. No real surprise there because you already knew that both you and Pomona were elite. That’s why you are in Claremont at this moment and not in, say, Benkelman, Nebraska.
Ten is Pomona’s national ranking among colleges in PhD production from 1975-2004, another impressive factoid. Consider making use of this item in your next game of Trivial Pursuit.
And 47 is… well… 47. For some, a mythical prime integer with a pedigree of mystery, and for others just the freeway off-ramp to campus. But, really, I just threw it in as a sop.
Here is the point: Pomona College sets a high bar. You are smart, your peers are smart and the grass bordering Marston Quad is probably smart. The standard to which you are held is a substantial one. Graduates tend to do quite well as measured by stature, income and prestige. Plus you get a lot of style points just by saying you are a Pomona grad. The upside is pretty nice and most grads live the Pomona dream by first experiencing success on campus followed by a seamless transition to success in the real world.
Most… but not all.
I can speak with some authority. My experience was less a ‘Pomona Dream’ than a ‘catnap.’ I was overwhelmed from the beginning and I floundered. While any number of my peers compensated for lousy study habits with superior intellect, I apparently could not. My first semester was spent in remedial math and language classes while others raced forward toward the golden ticket. I failed physics and my profound shame was deepened when my micropipette shattered against the stair railing as I exited the lab on my final day in class. Great. As if disgrace wasn’t enough, now I had to pay a lab fee.
The good news was that I graduated without overstaying my welcome. The bad news was that I left Claremont lacking a backup plan. So, what to do now that I had failed to get into medical school and apparently squandered a very expensive upper-tier education?
Curiously, this is when more favorable winds began to blow. Freed from the expectations that accompanied a Pomona education, all plans were now on the table. Medical school, the standard default position of ever so many Pomona grads, was replaced with a few transforming years in VISTA and Ellis Island, a Los Angeles commune north of USC. A sort of John Steinbeck homage followed—”Travels With Charlie” meets “Grapes of Wrath”—in which I spent a year living in my camper and working potato fields, apple orchards and beet piles with no particular plan whatsoever but, nonetheless, having a grand time in the process. It was a great adventure and, at some level, I was enjoying the opportunity to flaunt my detachment from convention.
But, ultimately, it doesn’t build your 401(k), and the truth is, I have always had grander expectations for myself. Perhaps Pomona understood that when they admitted me. The result was that I reached the age of 30 appreciating that I was at a crossroads and that decisions were in order.
The outcome was that I stood on the porch of my Ellensburg, Washington, rental home and decided to enter a profession for which I had long known I was built: education. I would become a teacher. And I would be wonderful. And that, really, is just what happened. I ultimately worked in public schools for over 25 years, first as a teacher and then a school counselor. I married a delightful woman, we raised two excellent sons and have now lived for the past 33 years along a river in the Great Pacific Northwest.
So where does this leave us? Well, as an unremarkable member of the Class of ’68, I will attempt to speak for the outliers among you. While it is the case that most Pomona graduates may be quickly destined for big things, some of us require more time. That can be tough when every class, every Frary meal and every Bridges event requires rubbing elbows with those who are successfully pursuing the dream.
But life is fluid. Expectations work for some and are replaceable for others. Uncertainty can be embraced. It is possible to drive a stake in the heart of expectations and experience the thrill of an unplanned future. And it was Pomona, unlikely enough, that redirected my life to such a satisfying, unplanned outcome in spite of my failure to live the dream.
And, of course, I get to periodically see Kris Kristofferson at my reunions.
Tom Schumann is a 1968 graduate of Pomona College.