I spent the Sunday of Labor Day weekend touring our old campus with my college roommate, Nancy.
This wasn’t the purpose of the trip. Nancy lives in southwestern Virginia, and I live in Brooklyn, NY, a long distance for a weekend visit (though we’ve done it). Nancy’s son and daughter-in-law recently moved to our old college town, about halfway between our homes, so we decided to meet there. And once we were there, the desire grew to revisit the origins of our close friendship of nearly 40 years.
I had been to a few reunions over the years, but the focus had always been on catching up with old friends and classmates, reminiscing about our college days, and showing off our families. I hadn’t spent a lot of energy on the changes in the campus itself. And Nancy had never returned.
It was a mixed experience. On the surface, the campus seemed to be simply a bloated version of its old self. It has tripled in size and population since our day, and has morphed from a college into a university. But the stately Jeffersonian architecture, the lush grass and flowers, the sparkling fountains and the inviting wooden benches were as idyllic as we recalled them to be.
Inside, though, was a different story. The graceful dormitory parlors of our youth, complete with glass chandeliers, Oriental rugs, grand pianos and cozy, overstuffed Queen Anne chairs had been transformed into wifi and entertainment centers, with furniture that would have been at home in a hospital waiting room. The dining hall, which had featured execrable, overcooked food but white tablecloths, heavy flatware and classical background music, is now a maze of neon-lit snack bars and fast-food counters. Perhaps most jarring, although we regressed back to our young adulthood in each other's company and in these evocative surroundings, the polite and helpful students whom we stopped for directions and clarification called us "ma'am."
I was going to write something about being grateful to have experienced the campus’s most beautiful and graceful days (at least physically; I’ve written here about some of the less beautiful social issues), but of course that’s my age talking. Like everyone else’s, my taste was formed in large part by my early experiences, so I was primed to find my college’s setting beautiful and congenial. The kids who “ma’amed” Nancy and me will probably be nostalgic for the plastic and electronics that dismayed us, and will in turn be appalled by mid-21st-century innovations I can’t even imagine.