Last year’s vacation was the trip to the Azores; this year’s was a trip to a large city four or so hours away. Nada and I drove via Dad’s town, spending the night on the beach before heading into traffic on the freeway. We stopped at my old alma mater, a trip I will repeat next week with my daughter and one or two of her friends. It’s been years since I’ve walked on the campus, and in the surprising bright light of August sun we crossed the brick square towards the student union building, passing by the old clock tower. The square was noisy with some kind of construction, the echoing sounds of machinery, dump trucks, jack hammers filling our ears, but we couldn’t see anything. Whatever was happening was on the lower level of the library building, invisible to us.
I was struck at the sense of loss and decay on the campus. Everything seemed both smaller and more dreary than I had imagined. The buildings were dull gray concrete blocks, dark water stains marring them. The bricks in the main square were cracked and broken, and weeds grew in stairwells and against the building walls. The student building downstairs had a new coat of paint, but it was a neon lime-green that looked tacky and depressing. Maybe it spoke to a younger generation, but I just felt lost. Where was the vitality I remembered from my first visit to the campus, the conversations on Nietzsche and Dada I remembered hearing from inside a bathroom stall 20 years ago? Women standing at a mirror, washing their hands, and arguing over that morning’s seminar topic, not over boyfriends and lipstick shades — the perennial subjects of the community college I attended at the time. No. Twenty years on, the bathrooms were empty, and everything seemed old, but without the sense of history and veneration of truly old campuses. The cafeteria smelt of stale food that had been sitting for hours. The furniture harked back to the 70’s: formica and linoleum; bright, relentless colors; a kind of dismay overlaying the faux cheer.
In the big city two hours south, we visited a small private college that Nada had toured in his senior year of high school. It provides a rigorous liberal arts education, pedagogically similar to my alma mater. But it has money. Way more money than my small public college. The campus is dotted with elegant brick buildings; the bookstore is warm and inviting. The cafeteria was closed, by the time we got there, but the smell of espresso still hung in the air outside the building. The contrast was striking. While my alma mater was undergoing some kind of renovation, the overall feel of the campus was one of ungraceful aging and disintegration. The private college, also undergoing renovation in places, seemed lively, engaging, inviting. Zeke is two years away from graduating, and I try to imagine her at my alma mater. Despite my memories of a life-changing experience there, I can’t imagine her wanting to be there. It’s not her kind of school.
Maybe, though, I’ll be surprised. Next week she’ll walk the campus for the first time, by her request. Perhaps something will have changed between now and then. Perhaps she’ll hear African drums at the entrance to the student buildings, as I did, and listen to the swirling conversations about ideas, and feel a connection with a place that isn’t about looking good, but about fostering change.
Whatever happens, it will be all right.