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We have heard a phrase over and over: “You can’t go home again,”
Yet I did. I went back to Connecticut, spent two days at my boarding school reunion, seeing some women whom I last saw fifty years ago. I sat in the dining hall where I had spent many hours, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, all with white linen tablecloths and crystal that rang a musical note when you tapped your fork against it. Even at breakfast our orange juice was served with elegance. From the patio that ran the full length of the building sloped a hill that ended at a lake. Beyond that lake I could hear the soft smack of tennis balls hitting rackets. What struck me and what I believe did not touch me when I attended this school, was the physical beauty of this space. I have often said that St. Margaret’s, now called Chase Collegiate, was the epitome of white privilege in my life. I still believe that. For years I have denied any affection for this place, this now outrageously expensive school, where tuition reaches $33,000 for each year of the last four years. This price tag does not include boarding or meals as it is now solely a coed day school. There is no one I know well who could afford to send a son or daughter to such an institution for twelve years.
All through lunch, I looked at the purple and the copper red and the white through the windows as plants and trees bent toward us. After an hour of talk and laughter, speeches and introductions, I found myself feeling at first melancholy and then appreciative. Melancholy because this was a place where my life was one of utter restriction. I was allowed home only three times a year. At 9:30 p.m.I was put into a small dorm room I shared with another boarding student while someone patrolled the halls, making sure we were all in our appointed places. Melancholy because I was told when to study, when to eat, when to pray, when to play field hockey or basketball, when I could make a phone call or when to take a walk. I was told when I could entertain a “gentleman caller” who might venture to visit on Sundays, even though he would have to spend part of his time on those afternoons with a tea cup balanced on his knee, making conversation with the headmistress.
My appreciation in that profusion of sunlight and books, was for those around me, for women in their late sixties who were full of thoughts about literature they were reading, who were still working, or volunteering after putting in years as teachers, mathematicians, administrators. And along with this appreciation came a deep respect for the education that we all received there. We were encouraged to love learning and to hold an intense curiosity about and passion for the world. We came of age when the choices for women were much more limited than they are now. However those who were there this past weekend had managed to break into fields as “firsts”, raised families, saw husbands through cancer and dying, took care of children and now take care of grandchildren. I believe St. Margaret’s contributed to their ability to do all these things.
Finally, I circled back to the melancholy: to the wild hope I had had as a young woman sneaking out of a window to meet my boyfriend in the lacrosse field, and my naive belief then that the world was benevolent. At the house of one of our classmates, late in the evening, we talked about how we wished we had been more prepared for what came after we left our school. While St. Margaret’s provided a cocoon around us giving us space to tackle intellectual challenges, guided us in how to read literature with a depth I never even encountered in college, it failed to connect me, as a boarding student, to the conflicts and day to day events I might have experienced if I had lived at home. Those who were day students commented to me that they were stunned to learn how restricted our lives were as boarders. At the time they were oblivious to our restlessness, our yearning for the chance to call a friend at midnight, or hang out with the girl across the street on a Saturday afternoon. My mother told me after I graduated that she was sure that St. Margarets was more restrictive when I went there than when she attended from 1934-1938. My sister and brother who went to McDuffie and Westminster Prep schools never go back to reunions.
It comes back to loss, doesn’t it? It comes back to wanting to redo some years. My parents ultimately decided to keep their last two children at home and to send them to the public high school in Woodbridge where we grew up.
As I walked into the Connecticut countryside leaving Sharon Stow’s beautiful home, as I felt the dip and turn of that land I still resonate with, that I still feel utterly connected to, I felt gratitude; for books and the love of reading, for deep and challenging discussions in classes where teachers asked for everything we had and more, gratitude for the girls who surrounded me with affection and love and helped me through awkward times, and finally gratitude to my parents who believed they were giving me the best and bore the expense to provide it to me.
The end result of this brief return to my alma mater, being the person I am now, is an abiding anger at a country that allows for the inequalities that persist in denying such tough, demanding, high expectations for all students. Class size is fourteen at Chase Collegiate. There is a beautiful library and new buildings going up all the time. The old ratty senior house where we were allowed to smoke during our last year there has been torn down and in its place more garden, more natural beauty. I wish they had kept that shabby wooden place, with its lumpy couch and its sloping porch. I wish there were some indication of the roughness, margins, the everyday ordinary working of the world there. I worry that those lovely young men and women who greeted me as I drove up the circle to enter the front door, will leave this place believing they arrived there because they deserved it, that their lives are superior to those below their hill in Waterbury. I worry that they will not understand that it is accident of birth and yes, white skin, that got them where they are now.
My hope for them is that what is taught there is the true and unvarnished history that led to their privileged place. And that out of that will come great and abiding compassion and social activism, that they will work to make space and beauty for all children, all young people, in which they may safely explore their vibrant city, their small town worlds.