By Cora Jane Hurlburt Barnes '62B
As I start the Jeep and head east across northern Massachusetts, I push Play on the CD changer. The Boston Pops’ rendition of "The Way We Were" makes me smile, and the years begin to slip away. By the time I throttle past the Gardner exit in central Massachusetts in the company of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” this semi- retired teacher has been replaced by her doppelganger of 55 years ago.
I had packed up and headed to Providence, Rhode Island, at 17. Four memorable years later, Barrington College granted me a B.A. in English and added my name to its alumni rolls. Following commencement, we embarked on complicated life journeys we could in no way predict. In that moment, the passage of 25 or 50 years would have been an exceedingly difficult concept to absorb.
So why do some of us feel compelled to journey back—driving or flying across state and country to spend a long weekend with aging former classmates who aren’t acquainted with who we are now?
Perhaps the lure of reunions is the opportunity to rewrite history, to allow others to see us as we wanted to be back then, before we came into our own. Looking back on our virginal selves sends us spiraling through time, forward and back, moving, changing, remembering with respect to both ourselves and others. As we remember, we may begin to see ourselves as others saw us—possibly as an “insider” because of campus involvement, instead of “on the fringe” as we saw ourselves for lack of the clever, easy tongue or disposable income. (In my case, perhaps “elfin” at five feet and 95 pounds, rather than the quintessential runt of the litter. Looking like everyone’s kid sister made it considerably more difficult to be taken seriously or viewed as dating material.) To that extent, time travel may be possible.
Then there are the “confessions” that will be offered up. They bubble to the surface after dinner on a Friday evening when former roommates begin by reminiscing about various escapades, and suddenly two matrons are admitting responsibility for the entire dorm being evacuated because they roasted marshmallows in their room over a trashcan fire. Not to be outdone, a one-time member of the basketball team marvels that he and the dean’s son didn’t get suspended for kidnapping a freshman during Frosh Week and locking him in the boiler room overnight. A voice protests, “I have no current recollection of that,” amid the laughter.
Separate journeys converge at reunions. Along the way we have come to see that what binds us together is much more important than those small differences that separated us in the past. In hindsight, attending a small, insular college gave us the advantage of knowing everyone in our class—not just those in our dorm or major—plus a significant number of others. By way of contrast, high school classmates who chose UMass, for example (current student population 27,000+ in Amherst), because of its proximity and lower public-school tuition, rarely express interest in attending reunions because they feel little connection. We, however, have numerous ties that bind.
One compelling tie was our common core of spiritual beliefs. We arrived as conservative Baptists and Wesleyan Methodists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed and Mennonites, with a few Roman Catholics—given special dispensations to attend “the Bible college”—for good measure. Anyone who had come expecting an ivory tower of heavenly accord quickly learned we would instead be challenged to examine our assumptions, to consider alternate points of view. In the requisite philosophy and theology classes, we argued our differences and acknowledged more commonalities.
Some of us also shared summers together painting houses on the Cape, waitressing at a resort inn, staffing camps in Rumney or Schroon Lake to earn the next semesters’ tuition. Thus it was possible to have spent four years and three summers with the same crew, even to find oneself teaching in the same New England school district as a dorm mate or attending the same grad school in the Midwest during the first years after graduation. And whenever such serendipity occurred, the bonds were further strengthened.
Our 25th reunion was the first one held at Gordon. The merger, announced in 1985, had been greeted with mixed emotions. We had, after all, been Barrington alums for 23 years. Some of us even had sons
and daughters at our alma mater by then, not all of whom would transfer to the United College of Gordon and Barrington 70 miles due north. Those who chose to converge on Gordon for Homecoming Weekend in 1987 remembered the campus through the lens of athletic rivalries. Now we needed to see it as ours, not just the new location of the Barrington rock. Over the next several years, as Ferrin Hall was erected and the Barrington Center for the Arts was dedicated, it became easier to identify our sister school as home.
Since our 45th, we have perhaps become more sensitive to our own mortality. Every class has someone who keeps in touch with a broad cross-section, arranging to have lunch with one or two others whenever visiting in their area. But we’ve experienced the phenomenon of small groups of old friends deciding to vacation together annually in locales as distant as the Pacific coast or Arizona’s red rock country, as exotic as the Mayan Riviera. Euphemistically referred to as “road trips,” each one seems to get better, even though we’ve been made keenly aware of how quickly things can change—a group member collapses two days before the scheduled flight to Mexico and is subsequently diagnosed with lymphoma; another classmate delays knee surgery in order to make a trip and experiences San Francisco’s King Tut exhibit from a wheelchair.
In the final analysis, reunions allow us to come face-to-face with the tangible reminders of our youth. And our 50th? There is less certainty that we will all be together for the next one, so we carry away the gift of knowing we are inextricably connected to one another, bound by invisible threads of shared history, fellowship, and laughter. Be well, we call in parting. Go with God.
The yearbook I returned to the house to get didn’t save me from embarrassing myself. (Does anyone ever resemble his or her senior photo half a century later?) It can once again be consigned to the attic.
And that song of Streisand’s that was my traveling music? Scattered pictures/ Of the smiles we left behind/ Smiles we gave to one another/ For the way we were . . . / If we had the chance to do it all again/ Tell me, would we? Could we? A few bars, a fragment of lyric will continue to have the power to transport us. No matter what has changed in us or the world, the music stays the same, like those moments frozen in time and memory.
These are what we keep.
Cora Jane Hurlburt Barnes recently retired from a 35-year career as an English and humanities teacher, department chair, and drama director at Mohawk Trail Regional High School, Shelburne Falls, MA. She also taught in New York State and worked in public television.