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I have to admit that sometimes I get jealous of people who’ve had the option of living and working in the same area for their entire lives. They form lots of deep bonds, run into people they know all the time, and have a historical sense of the evolution of a place.

But moving around has its benefits, too.

Parents of young children regularly have the experience of running across adults who haven’t seen the kids in a little while and getting the shocked reaction at how much they’ve grown. The parents don’t really notice the change because they see it happen day by day. But people who go years between seeing the kids notice it immediately.

The same thing holds for locations. When you’re there all the time, you might not notice the degree of change over time. But go some time between visits, and it’s as plain to see as a taller kid.

Last week I attended a statewide OER conference at the County College of Morris, where I worked from 2003 to 2008. (It’s where the blog was born; its title was accurate at the time.) I had only been there one other time since leaving, and that was to visit a program located in a single building. This time I had the run of the campus -- at least during lunch -- so I wandered around the buildings in which I used to spend my days.

In the 11-plus years since I left, of course, there has been plenty of turnover there. Wandering through some of the faculty office corridors that used to be in my division, I only recognized about half of the names on the doors. It was a Friday, so there weren’t many people around, but there were a few. One professor who started there just before me stepped into the hallway, looked at me, paused for a moment, then asked, “Matt?” That seemed about right.

Returning to places from the past is always revealing. Walking around Williams, the first thing I notice is my body tensing up. In retrospect, when I was there, I was scared or nervous pretty much all the time. The muscle memory of that fear remains strong, decades after its causes have faded to irrelevance. Walking around Rutgers brings back memories of the lean and hungry 20s, for better and worse. I miss the hair and metabolism of those years, but not the gnawing sense of helplessness, or the nasty apartments.

The first thing that struck me at CCM was that it was physically smaller than I remembered it. That holds with places remembered from childhood, but in those cases, there’s an obvious cause: things look bigger when you’re little. I was in my 30s when I worked at Morris, as tall as I am now, so that’s not it. Some of it was a function of comparison; DeVry was one building, so compared to that, CCM looked huge. Brookdale is half again CCM’s size, so with a different frame of reference, it looks smaller. But it wasn’t just the campus. The room in which the OER meeting was held was one of the larger lecture halls; I used to hold Division meetings there. I didn’t make the connection for a few hours, because it was so much smaller than I had remembered it. I recalled it as cavernous, holding a cast of thousands. It isn’t. And I don’t think it changed.

Realizing that brought back the memory of the feeling of being overwhelmed. I wasn’t any smaller then -- vertically, anyway -- but I felt smaller. I was very much figuring it out as I went along. Characteristically, part of the “figuring it out” process involved writing about it. Back then I was a generation younger than most of my colleagues, and I felt like I had joined a successful TV show somewhere around season seven, after some of its stars had left. In retrospect, I caught the tail end of an era, but there was no way of knowing that at the time.

Walking through now, I felt a confidence that I never felt then. A place that used to intimidate me now seems to be at a much more human scale. It seemed, for lack of a better word, manageable.

Age and experience have their compensations. I don’t get to be the rising young star anymore; I aged out of that a while ago. (Does anyone do “50 over 50” lists?) But having been in various places and lived to tell the tales, an unforced confidence has slowly slipped in. I don’t really notice it day to day, but having stepped away for a while, I couldn’t help but notice how it had grown.

Thanks, CCM, for functioning as an unintentional mirror. I needed that.

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