So, before I go too far down that trail, congrats and thanks to those who, over the past 18 months or so, chatted up the idea and then did the unglamorous work of putting together what will likely be a model for other alumni classes in terms of events and esprit de corps. I was glad to be part of the team.
As in the past, we were—entirely justifiably—self-congratulatory. Back then, we knew we lived in unusual times and were given rare opportunities to learn and live with instructors and a campus of extraordinary beauty.
This time, we had about 80 folks present (almost half of those still around), a remarkable showing especially since only about 15-20 still live in the Metro Detroit area. We had gracious hosts from our class for some special evenings, a well-executed program from the School, musical talent, and an outstanding guide to the revival of the city of Detroit (an amazing story of history, demographics, collapse, and innovation).
As a historian, the saga of Detroit’s mid-century power, late-century decline, and recent resurgence illustrates the cyclical nature of many historical phenomena and the futility of prediction based on blithe extension of current trends. In the end, I came away optimistic; having seen the effects of intelligence, inspiration, and effort that stand as a rebuttal to the easy despair of our current national/global situation.
We were fortunate to have with us one of our teachers with us for the weekend. He (too) was young then (fresh out of college) and was part of the English Department which gave me great gifts of literature, criticism, creativity, and the discipline of writing. As a professor now, I was especially glad to be able to thank him (as did many others) for his work and to give him a glimpse of his effect on me and the world (which is the secret and rarely-found food of all teachers).
I had noticed, as early as my tenth reunion, that the campus, even if a bit more buffed up than in my day and graced with all manner of new facilities, seemed smaller than when I was bustling through as teenager. The new buildings and refurbished interiors made clear the distance from then ‘til now. We were there, in the words of one school song: “shorter in wind as in memory long,” but it wasn’t ours anymore (if it had seemed so at the time). The school, the students, the styles were clearly of this time and era; and, in that way ordinary. Our memories—of different clothing, different music, different sophistication, and different presence—stood out for their difference (not to say ancientness): faded ghosts running down the same hallways.
Of far greater richness was the time—three-days—of hugs and back pats, winks and knowing smiles, some grimaces, some tears together. How can words capture the immersion in memory? All the cliches are rampant: in the mind’s eye hair is longer, fuller, darker; faces fresher; steps springier.
Even richer was the chance, if only for an hour, to leave those cliches to the side and have some serious talk and reflection about our state(s) of mind. I was gratified that about 30 folks came together to push past the glad-handing and make an effort to see ourselves and each other. We have now all returned to our “normal” lives; but I, for one, feel a bit more anchored, both to my past and to my fellows. The time has come, as I said to the group, to “put down the baggage” of the competition and insecurities of that youth. Getting some understanding of the intervening years/lives of all those with whom I worked and played has helped to clear away those ancient burdens and see my self (both then and now) more clearly.
As our discussion ended, I challenged the group: The clock is ticking. There will be fewer of us at the 60th. When we re-gather, let’s report back on how will I account for the intervening decade (beyond the inevitable physicalities)? How will I leverage what I learned long ago (and since)?
Back in 9th or 10th grade English class, we read and had to memorize Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (1816) [it was an English-inspired prep school, after all].
I can still recite it (mostly). The closing lines read:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Part of my mission was to find the boy who was entranced by that language, to reconnect to the energy and the possibilities it splashed across my consciousness; to push the intervening years aside a bit and look forward as I did then.