Yep, it’s spring, so it must be alumni weekend time. I’m certain of it, for we just returned from one in California.
By now, I’ve accumulated enough years on my vintage [in mercy, we won’t say how old] life odometer, to be a veteran of these springtime rites of passage we call alumni weekends. In our case, they are inescapable because not only do my wife and I have collectively nine alma maters to keep track of, I’ve also taught at five educational institutions (three universities, one high school, and one junior high), over a period of 34 years. Each of these can be counted on to schedule an alumni weekend each spring. Translated: it means that rare is a spring when a particular alumni weekend fails to belt out an irresistible siren call. And it’s all because of numerology. Actually it’s an insidious attempt by society to keep us broke by reminding us (by snail mail, e-mails, telephone, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, et al) that somewhere, every year of our lives, a five-year-multiple of some sort has reared its ugly head. And rejecting such a summons is almost a sacrilegious act: akin to burning a Bible—or a National Geographic magazine.
Well, as I said, we’ve just returned from another one. And this one was impossible to resist: a West Coast high school class was circling its wagons for their big 4 0 reunion. And I received an invitation that—oh, let me tell you how diabolically wicked it was! One of those long-ago students e-mailed me, informing me that way back when we were both young and foolish, I’d been one of her favorite teachers, and she’d never been back to an alumni reunion because I wasn’t there and that if I didn’t show up for this one she’d boycott that one too—Did I really want to have such a dastardly crime on my conscience? And she called in reinforcements for added insurance. “Trip insurance,” I believe they call it in the cruise industry.
So, of course, we packed up our bags and went. And it was worth many times over what we paid for it. I must confess to you that, in life, I’ve had more than my fair share of honors and degrees, but none of them can compare to this tender-hearted former student of mine, who after agreeing to introduce me to the alumni crowd, sat there with me on the front row racked with anguish and embarrassment, declaring over and over in a shaking voice, “I just can’t go through with this, Dr. Wheeler! I just can’t!” And the closer we got to our place in the program, the more she shook. Almost, I thought we’d lose her.
But of course we didn’t: the most moving heart-felt tribute a teacher could ever receive. Complete with a conch shell in which she had somehow some way, I don’t know how! beautifully inscribed these words inside: “Dear Dr. Wheeler, you will always remain in our hearts”—words no one but me could see.
Of course I hugged her! Indeed, for a time, I could not speak. Not until afterwards did we discover she’d been given a standing ovation. Because, in the brief terrestrial passage of this thing called “life,” rarely are we moved to such an extent that we’re incapable of speech. All the way back, on our return flight to Denver, I dissected that precious moment to find out why. The closest I can get to an articulate explanation is this: If we are lucky enough to live a rich full life and be the recipient of honors, the ones that mean the most come from the lips of those who have known us the longest, and say, in essence:
I knew you when—. I knew you when you were young and crazy like us. When you loved us unreservedly even when we were most unlovable. There were times when you lost your temper, when you did and said stupid, even inexcusable things, just like some of us did—but we loved you all the more because we knew the love you had for us was Velveteen Rabbit real. And it’s because of all that, that we haven’t been able to forget you—that we can’t even imagine not having you with us when we celebrate our 40th alumni weekend.
This is what alumni weekends are really all about. For we are unreservedly vulnerable only once in life—when we are young. And though we may be considered successful by the great world later on, if our long-ago peers don’t consider us to be successful (with qualities that really matter, that stand the test of time), when we go back to the old campus on alumni weekend, when we pick up where we left off all those years ago—then we are not really successful at all, no matter what the world might say. And this is the reason that, if I should somehow live a thousand years, never could I imagine so undeserving, so heartbreakingly beautiful, a tribute as the one I just received.
May God bless her! And bless all those others who shakily stand up in front of their long-ago-but-forever classmates, to express that rare kind of love that comes—if it comes at all in life—but once.