Was It Really That Long Ago?
June 11, 2009 by Chip Wood
It was not a moment to make one feel young. I was seated behind the seniors at this year’s graduation of my former high school — in a section reserved for the “golden graduates.” That is, those of us who had received our diplomas 50 years earlier.
It didn’t seem possible that five decades had passed since I myself had heard my name called and walked down the aisle to receive my diploma. As I returned to my seat on that June weekend in 1959, I cast a glance at the oldsters sitting behind me. It never occurred to me that one day I would be sitting where they were. But last Friday morning there I was, with smiling classmates from that long-ago time on either side of me.
The high school I had been fortunate enough to attend was (and is) an extraordinarily beautiful place. If you are ever in suburban Detroit with a few hours to spare, I urge you to visit the Cranbrook-Kingswood campus in Bloomfield Hills. Among the properties in the gorgeously landscaped 360 acres is an art institute, a science museum, a pastoral retreat, and five schools: an elementary school, two middle schools, and two upper schools, one for young men and the other for young women. About half the students in the upper schools are boarding students, as was I.
When I was there, Cranbrook Preparatory School for Boys, as it was called then, was exclusively male. Young ladies attended Kingswood School on the other side of the campus and were as well-protected from our attentions as a coterie of stern matrons could make them.
We had to attend chapel every morning, wear a coat and tie to class, and were expected, always and everywhere, to behave like young gentlemen. Of course we weren’t. Most of us thought of ourselves as mischievous hellions and took delight in bending the rules whenever and wherever we could.
Today, while classes are largely co-ed, graduation exercises are still firmly divided by sex. The boys’ commencement exercises took place in the morning at Christ Church Cranbrook; the girls’ in the afternoon. Or should I be more politically correct and say “the young men’s commencement” and “the young ladies’”?
Our commencement speaker was Bill Prady, Cranbrook class of ’74. In case you don’t recognize the name, I’m sure you’ll recognize his latest creation — the hit television show, “The Big Bang Theory.” Bill got his start in television writing for Jim Henson and the Muppets and his ability to get a laugh was clear from the start. He expressed his surprise that here he was, 35 years after graduation, and he had to prepare yet another paper for graduation.
Bill began by advising the graduates, “Good luck. That’s it; that’s all I’ve got.” And he ended with the admonition that if they forgot everything else he said, remember two words: “Be kind.” In between was a lot of sage advice on how to live, what to expect, and the real measure of success. If you’d like to hear his delightful advisory for yourself, his speech is available as an audio link on the Cranbrook website at .http://schools.cranbrook.edu/podium/tools/
I don’t remember who spoke at our graduation, some fifty years earlier. None of my classmates did, either. But we all remembered the two songs we sung; they had been a staple of every graduation since the first one, back in 1931. And at this graduation, 50 years hence, we once again raised our voices high.
The first song is called “Forty Years On.” It was written in 1872 for Harrow School, one of the most famous of the English “public” (i.e., private) boarding schools. No wonder that it was adopted many years ago by Cranbrook, which was carefully planned and designed to duplicate the English boarding-school experience. Yes, Harry Potter would be quite at home at Cranbrook.
Here’s the first verse:
Forty years on, when afar and asunder,
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then, it may be, there will often come o’er you,
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song —
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.
Yes, indeed, while sitting there behind today’s smiling, cheerful, optimistic graduates, it was definitely true that “visions of boyhood” floated before me. I’m sure every other golden grad felt the same way.
But it was the final stanza that brought home to me how large was the gap between the Chip Wood who left Cranbrook in June 1959 and the one who returned there this past weekend:
Forty years on, growing older and older,
Shorter in wind, as in memory long,
Feeble of foot, and rheumatic of shoulder,
What will it help you that once you were strong?
God give us bases to guard or beleaguer,
Games to play out, whether earnest or fun;
Fights for the fearless, and goals for the eager,
Twenty, and thirty, and forty years on!
And fifty years too, I hasten to add. Part of me wants to shout, Hey, I’m not that old, darn it! But it’s hard to tell yourself that you look, feel, and act like a youngster when you’re attending the 50th reunion of your high-school class.
For all of you who are celebrating a graduation of some kind this month — whether it be child, grandchild, or your own reunion of however many years — I hope you too have much to remember with pleasure and with pride. And that, like me, you still look forward to seeing what lays ahead, twenty, and thirty, and forty years on.