After a class reunion
Fifty years ago this spring I graduated from one of our blessed New England boarding schools, and recently I returned for a class reunion. I approached the day with a good deal of apprehension. Here would be gathered a group of friends, a number of whom I had not seen for half a century. They would have undergone not only the inevitable process of growing from young men to relatively old ones , but of changing deeply within themselves. I would myself have changed in the same way. Would it be possible to find any common ground in the present, or even to stir recollections linking the old times with the new? Despite such worries the occasion turned out rather well. Again and again beneath the mask of the weather-beaten face I found a mannerism or trick of speech that brought back everything in a flash. The conversation was agreeable, the reminiscences lively, and the tale of the intervening years had in it quite often the elements of humor, independence, and courage.
What haunted me as I turned away was not the shock of these renewed encounters, but a question that in a weekend symposium had been raised about the school itself. How could an institution so secluded from the real world, it was asked - a little Utopia in the New Hampshire hills - hope to prepare its graduates for the kinds of battles they would ultimately face? The students had talked about ideals. But would the ideals they had nurtured be relevant to a life where the tough decisions so often have to be made on the basis of interest or necessity?
The question having been put, it was answered in various ways by students, alumni, and parents. Some said the school wasn't really as secluded as it appeared. Amid their pursuits of academic excellence, of athletic success and achievement in the arts - amid the trials, above all, of getting into the college of their choice - students still had time to read the day's newspapers. Practitioners from various fields visited even so remote a place, often spending several days with interested students. Others suggested that what they learned at the school was more practical than it appeared on the surface, and that the reputation of being an unworldly Utopia might be somewhat misleading.
As I thought about these answers it seemed to me that they touched only the surface of the question. I felt, moreover, that something was at stake larger than the immediate issue raised. In every life men and women are confronted with the necessity of going forward from one sphere into another - from school to college, from college to the world. They change careers, change their life styles, grow from youth to age. In the midst of such revolutions how can they be sure of remaining themselves; how can the lessons learned in one phase be carried over into the next? We lead disconnected lives, but we cannot be disconnected personalities except at peril to the soul.
The school of which I have been speaking has for its motto the Latin words: Ea discamus in terris, quorum scientia perseveret in coelis. That means, as I understand it, that we should learn those things on earth the knowledge of which will persist into the heavens. In those words, it seemed to me, is the profound and radical answer to the question raised by the doubting alumnus. If there are indeed truths that are valid both in this world and the next, there are surely truths that endure through such comparatively similar worlds as school and college, college and career. They may not be the ordinary facts learned in the classroom - though the fact that two plus two equals four may well be as valid in the heavens as it is here. Yet there are matters of value and faith that can serve a man or woman in good stead no matter in what part of life's journey. To learn about friendship, how it is formed and guarded; about power, how it is amassed and spent; about honor, about defeat and victory - these lessons are at the heart of any communal experience. They are as relevant whether they come out of a beautiful but circumscribed existence in New Hampshire or are learned in the streets of the great city.
Such was my half-formed answer to the question; but I kept in mind also, as I turned away from the reunion, another answer, one offered by a lad whose role in the symposium had been to carry the microphone to various speakers and commentators in the hall. Happily he was moved to speak himself, and he spoke very well indeed. You are talking about the ''real world,'' he said in effect: what makes you think one world is more real than another? We live always amid a mixture of fact and fantasy, of the real and the ideal. These elements may change their proportion but both are always present, and mastery of life consists in dealing with the two of them in whatever environment we move. I liked that, and I thought, looking back, that my days at the reunion had confirmed the insight.
What was more real, I asked myself - the lads of fifty years ago, or the declining figures with which I had been consorting? Youth and age coexist in every one of life's veterans. The past and present, the boy and the man, are one and both have their reality. No good lesson, once learned, ever becomes wholly obsolete, as no conviction is ever beyond being tested or refined.