Against all odds I’ve lived beyond the confines of a 50th college reunion, now joining superannuated loyal alumni returning to campus as a“Perennial”, a tag that is far more generous and far less descriptive than “Shambling Husk of a Person Seeking Connection With a Life Only Dimly Recalled”. So it was as a Perennial that I drove up the hill again to find the campus essentially where I left it, but subtly altered as open views have been filled with new construction and familiar haunts have evolved into freshly coined businesses. A long central path runs down the backbone of this college town and campus, slightly more congested as classes return and Amish carts bring handmade goods to stalls along the path. Banners and signs waved a jaunty greeting as I parked between a dusty Dodge Caravan and a sleek Rolls Royce convertible. I can’t begin to guess at the slog the chipper development staff goes through – organizing this spectacle and housing pop up a week or so after the Commencement litter has been swept up. They were universally chipper on day one but somewhat brittle by Sunday mid-morning as they had heard one too many complaints about the fluffiness of towels in dormitory accommodations.
The President made his rounds, dutifully extolling the generosity of the loyalists whose classes had contributed millions to the small college’s coffers. Some of the Perennials were in that cohort; most of my pals were still trying to figure out how we thought we could retire and still pay the cable bill.
But, happy to be back, and resigned to seeing flags and pennants reminding us of the many generations of graduates who followed our tattered retreat from the groves of academe in the riot of the late 1960’s. Most of the signs welcomed us back by class, but since some of us had outlived our reunions, one sign in particular struck me as oddly impersonal and unsettlingly familiar.
“Welcome Back, You.”
An unadorned “Welcome Back” fits all sizes and raises no curious flights of fancy. “Welcome Back … You”?
The first impression is that the college thinks it should know me, but just can’t quite come up with a name. Rather than stumble and guess, “Welcome Back … Terry?”, the sign signifies a warmish welcome and the admission of the droll ravages of time. Almost immediately, however, I hear a different intonation as I consider the greeting spoken. Not just the word, “You”, but an elbow in the ribs, perhaps, or a light punch on the arm. “You devil, you.” “You scamp, you”, You joker, you”. This is a welcome accompanied by the curious mixture of affection and correction offered by those who know us well enough to see beyond our public personae. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
I suspect those whose collegiate years were filled with triumph and celebrity hear a different greeting, but those of us who tried the patience of the place understand that this reckoning is the gift that keeps on giving. I’m ok now, too long in the tooth to be dangerous and too diminished in charisma to be an attractive distraction. Welcome Back, Me, the college says, pretty sure the worst that will happen is that I complain about soap.
The theme song of my early years was, “I Did It My Way”, and while Sinatra may not have given much room to his few regrets, mine are heaped like kegs at a frat party, a simile I choose with some caution. I spent the summer before my freshman year in a house in the woods on the Upper Cape, above the elbow, near Thoreau’s cabin and a short walk from the Bay. I read everything I could get my hands on, especially histories of European literary and artistic movements. At the end of the summer, I packed a backpack, grabbed a guitar, and headed off to find the intellectual playground of my dreams.
I’m not sure I read anything assigned in the debacle that was my first three and a half years on that campus. I have no memory of riveting conversations with professors, no fault of theirs as I was only fleetingly and rarely in the classroom. Paradise Lost? More like Paradise Ignored.
I mention the social and academic wasteland that was my collegiate career to introduce one of the unexpected pleasures this Perennial found over the course of a weekend. I listened to my classmates and appreciated the lives they had lived. I sat with a friend who had taught in schools such as those I knew comparing notes on “the Duke of dark corners” in Measure for Measure and arguing whether Shakespeare intended us to see The Merchant of Venice as belonging to Shylock or to Antonio, the actual merchant, and if so, whether Antonio’s opening lines, “In sooth I know not why I am sad…” is an unarticulated, unintended declaration of his love for Bassanio, the moronic frat boy, and in that reading, if the character of Portia has to be reassessed.
Regrets? I could have had a thousand conversations such as that in my college years and did not. But, welcomed back, I could bring the person I had become to a place that had wished me well.
That sign now means something more to me. “Welcome Back, all that you regret and all that you love, and all that you are.” “Welcome Back, You”.