A Yankee Notebook

April 4, 2016


MONTPELIER, VT – One of the greatest problems of retirement – or even partial retirement – I’ve found, is that we spend a lot more time staring at screens than we used to. Our computers import facts (once you’ve double- or triple- checked them), opinions of all stripes, and cute puppy and cat videos. The television covers “Breaking News!” literally 24 hours a day. There’s no escaping either, unless you divest yourself entirely of both.

In this quadrennial year of a Presidential campaign, the news is especially bad. Each candidate, promising to make our lives better, must first tell us what’s wrong with them. If they’re to be believed, the nation is headed for another catastrophic financial depression, aliens are pouring unrestrained across our Swiss-cheese borders, terrorists are at the gates, and the current President is plotting to take away our firearms and, besides, plannng a power grab for a third term. The list goes on, and the inevitable result among the credulous is predictable: fear, depression, and rage.

Thus it was wonderful, yesterday, to get away from all that for a day and visit my old prep school in Massachusetts for its annual “Scholarship Luncheon.” Former scholarship-student alumni who now contribute to scholarship funds and have included them in their wills sit down for lunch with current scholarship recipients. It’s always a delightful experience. The additional benefit for us old folks is the chance to experience the changes that have occurred over two generations; these kids are younger than my grandchildren. Only an utter curmudgeon could not be pleased at the differences, which pretty much reflect those of American society in general.

That comment may be a bit overblown, however. It’s hard to ignore that just this past week the Governor of North Carolina signed into law a bill whose mean-spirited and only half-hidden intent is to make more difficult the lives of LGBT people. I recall that during my years in school, a student would from time to time simply disappear without explanation or remark. We reacted like a herd of caribou, which is to say almost not at all. But I noticed, about a generation later, that those “disappeared” students reemerged with notes to the alumni magazine about their “partners” or, in one case, to being a pastor of a small church in San Francisco.

Today, if I google the school’s web site and click on “Gay students,” it appears on a list of student activities – “Social Concerns” – undreamed of in my time. “The sin that dare not speak its name” is now a part of student life as the Gay Straight Alliance. Other students have formed an Alliance for the Humane Treatment of Animals, and still others are affiliated with Amnesty International. I can only imagine bringing up, in their presence, that, among other things, we had a small, but lively Model Railroad Club.

We were children of our time, as they are of theirs. Dwight Eisenhower was beginning his first term as President when we were seniors; and as I remember, we were being inculcated with a respect for authority (reinforced by daily chapel and weekly church services, attendance taken), an assumption that we would go on to higher education at the “best” colleges and universities, and that we would in later years express our gratitude by helping successive generations of students. Our Founder, a popular 19th-century evangelist, believed in educating the “head, hands, and heart,”and raised money tirelessly to provide financial aid for indigent students. Our headmaster, who  never learned our names, was a clergyman cut from the same cloth; his favorite hymn was “Come, Labor On” – which we did. We worked at jobs from the cow barns to the coal-fired power plant, and from the kitchen to the registrar’s office, as part of the curriculum.

Our shirt-and-tie for lunch and jacket-and-tie for supper are rules now long gone. Meals are buffet-style; no more high-speed student waiters and ponderous faculty members at the table with us. Tuition has risen a bit, from $750 in my day to currently $57,100. But the financial burden hasn’t: While I got a $400 scholarship, a little over half of the total, the average grant today is well over half – $48,820 – leaving $8000 to make up. A summer job won’t quite do it, will it? Well, my summer job in 1951 didn’t make the $350 difference, either.

Our class of 1953, now conflated with the women’s class of the same year from the then-separate girls’ school five miles away, has begun a scholarship fund. It’s not huge, but it grows slowly, and will take a nice big jump when more of us die off. The school has assigned us a student who’s the direct recipient of the income from the fund. Pablo (his father’s Spanish, his mother’s from New York City) is artistic; first time we met, he was interested in automotive design. I quickly e-mailed him some photos of my favorite Jaguars to show him how it should be done. But now he’s expressing interest in combining his artistic interests with engineering to design products for the future. “A personal goal,” he writes, “is to design a product that has zero carbon footprint, from production to decomposition.” He’s off next year to a five-year art and design program at the University of Cincinnati. But that could change, too. Doesn’t matter; he’ll do just fine.

It’s impossible, surrounded as Mother and I were, by a hundred or so kids like Pablo, to be pessimistic or frightened about the future of the nation. Liberated from the prejudices to which we were subject at their age, they may just pull us through the darkness surrounding our growing political paralysis and ideological rejection of common sense. Please don’t ever start a sentence or a paragraph with the words, “Kids these days...” because the kids are doing just fine. Maybe they can’t milk a cow, drive a stick shift, add a column of figures, or write in cursive. They know how to learn whatever they need to know, and their heads, hearts, and hands are in great shape.

Photo by Willem lange