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Going Home

 

Dee Ann Rexroat '82

 

**CASE VI Gold Award Winner for Column**

Many first-year Cornell students were born the year this picture was taken in front of Old Sem. Captured on graduation day, 1982, are girlfriends (from left) Karin Kadlec Barthel, Britt LaBissoniere Hoverman, Rae Lynn Jenkins Jirsa, Dee Ann Rexroat, and Bambi Hull Riesen.

I recently read that students entering college this fall were born in 1982. This fact astonished me, for that is the year my Cornell classmates and I graduated. I had not realized that babies born that year were grown and about to walk across the Hilltop studying English 111, General Psychology, and Origins of Western Civilization.

When I mentioned this discovery to several classmates at Homecoming, their reactions were consistent. “Why,” they asked, “did you have to tell me this?”

Why, indeed, does this bother us? Our four years at Cornell have receded. By now we have all turned 40. We bear scars that mark our battles and triumphs since the day, half a lifetime ago, when we posed for photographs in our graduation gowns. We have lost grandparents, family, friends, and marriages. We have experienced the joys and anxieties of parenting. We have completed several careers. We have come a long way since our college days.

Despite all this, it still feels odd that current students consider us “old.” When I say I graduated in 1982 they look at me as if I’m citing a historical date, and in a sense, they are right. Though our four years on the Hilltop are hardly significant in the long history of this college, we occupied a pivotal point in history. We had one foot planted in the past as among the last to live without computers or phones in our rooms. The other foot was planted firmly in the future as we were the first to study four years under One-Course-At-A-Time, now a defining aspect of Cornell.

When we return to this historic campus where little appears to have changed physically, we are transported for a moment to an earlier time. We seek out places we once inhabited, hoping to find meaning in them. Do we secretly want Mother Cornell to remain as we knew her, to cocoon us and to nourish others after us in the same way? Do we want to recover those years when we discovered love and knowledge, when we were full of hope?

The college, of course, moves forward as we all do, modernizing for the next generation. And so when graduates return to the Hilltop they are shown newly renovated buildings and told of technological advances. It is not uncommon to hear them say they liked things better the old way. Why is that? Alumni who loved their Cornell experience like to think of it—selectively, without the stress of pulling all-nighters—as frozen serenely in time.

Is it true, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, that you can’t go home again?

As we look back, we may think our possibilities in life have narrowed and we may grow nostalgic. This is human nature. It’s therapeutic. It can help us examine the choices we’ve made. I believe we must go home again. Then, at last, we must turn and continue our journey forward.

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