After 49 years, I returned this past weekend to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I went to college. For years after graduating, I dreamed about the place. I dreamed about the people and places I loved, tests I didn’t like, professors that inspired me, and weird twists on all of these people and places. But slowly, the dreams eventually ended. New people and places began to dominate my mind.
Like many people of my generation, college changed me. It was a rite of passage, or the closest to such a formal initiation that we had then in our culture. It didn’t lead immediately to a job. But it did nurture my life-long interest in philosophy, psychology, and history. It was where I first learned to meditate, acted in my first play, had my first poem and story published, and participated in my first (20) political demonstrations.
It was on a school-arranged trip that I first flew to Europe, or first flew on any airplane anywhere.
It was also where I met 2 life-long friends, Al and Mark. For the last 41 years, we have celebrated Thanksgiving together despite living in different cities. This year will be the 42nd.
And this year we decided to do it differently. We would first fly to Ann Arbor the weekend before Thanksgiving, meet with some old friends, see our old haunts, and even go to a football game. I hadn’t been to a football game since 1967. Then we would fly home, and a few days later drive with our families to one of our homes to celebrate our traditional Thanksgiving.
One of our old college friends, Steve, came to visit us at the house the 3 of us had rented. I had only seen Steve once since graduation, maybe 15 years ago. So when he came to the door, I was surprised by the joy I felt in seeing him. We hugged with sincere affection.
We sat in the living room and talked for hours. Steve led it off, talking about his life, his triumphs, and frights. Words had been our door to the depths of our souls and we entered through that door once again. Then I told my stories, then Al, and Mark. Even though I had heard Al and Mark’s stories before, I didn’t feel “I heard all this already.” I felt I was hearing the stories for the first time, with a new twist, or as if their stories were my own.
We shared not only memories but also a way of viewing the world. And a soundtrack, of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, the Stones, Beatles, and Leonard Cohen. A few words from a line of this soundtrack would come to one of us, to explain a feeling or event, and the others would complete it.
Today, young people are assaulted by messages from the GOP and corporate interests denigrating education and critical thinking. They are forced to face exams that undermine and distort learning and pay exorbitant costs for college. They have been told to concentrate on any skill that would get them a job, and to think learning about the arts or their own psyche is a waste of time. Too many have become fearful of the future.
We go to college not only to learn a skill we can use to get a job, or to “make a living.” Making a living requires much more than a job skill. We need to learn about the historical context in which we live. We need to learn how to communicate and cooperate with others. We need to learn how to learn and grow from whatever happens. We need to lean about our humanity, about who we are as individuals and what we share with others. We need to learn that diving deep into our souls and minds, and finding a way to live meaningfully, is possible. We need to learn how to make a positive future possible.
One benefit of going to college is making life-long contacts and friends. By getting to know people in such depth the quality of our lives is improved. Friends become supports and mirrors enabling us to see ourselves more clearly, and to act with more understanding in the world. We can’t allow this role of college to be undermined.
This weekend reminded me of just how much I should be thankful.
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