Today I visited Williamsburg, Virginia, to enjoy the colonial Christmas splendor and visit my Alma Mater. Nothing unusual in that, of course: Williamsburg is a magnet for visitors this time of year, especially beginning with Grand Illumination day. And who doesn’t enjoy going back to visit their old college from time to time?
For me, though, visits back to the Colonial Capital have been rare, and usually undertaken with reluctance. Since graduation, my relationship with my old school has always been a bit fraught.
It was the sort of crisp, gorgeous late autumn day you often get in Virginia: sunny, with immaculate blue skies and temperatures in the 40s. Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street running from Merchant Square to the old capitol building, was bedecked in its traditional livery of Christmas wreaths and decorations — featuring red and green apples, evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, cranberry sprays, and a host of natural accents including even cotton boles and oyster shells.
The vast indoor/outdoor museum that is Colonial Williamsburg pulsed with life in afternoon sunshine. Eighteenth century servants greeted ticket holders to attractions like the Governor’s Palace and the powder magazine, while horse-drawn carriages plied the streets, and drink stands did a brisk business in coffee and hot cider. (Incongruously, signs throughout the area pointed the way to “cold drinks” — a reminder that for much of the year, the Tidewater region of Virginia bakes in blistering heat and marinates in humidity.) Near the junction of DoG Street and Merchant Square, skaters glided around an ice rink.
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As I passed through Merchant Square, I recognized many of the same retailers and restaurants that were there four decades ago: The Scotland House. The Trellis. The Christmas Shop. Binn’s Fashions. All the years fell away, or at least fell back, and past their edges I could glimpse the sights and sounds of my life as a young man.
A moment later, I was across Jamestown Road and standing before Lord Botetourt on the William and Mary campus.
I stopped by the statue, and swept my gaze around the triangular yard at the President’s House, the Brafferton (long ago a school for Native American children), and the broad backside of the Wren Building. Named for the renowned English architect Sir Christopher Wren, the Wren Building is the oldest college building in America. As an English major I had many classes there.
Although it’s the nearest precinct of the College to Merchant Square and Colonial Williamsburg, that triangle of lawn is usually deserted and nearly always quiet. It seems designed as a place for reflection; and as I paused there I found that the lightheartedness I had felt earlier, walking up Duke of Gloucester Street, was now alloyed with melancholy. In a few weeks I’ll be leaving the country again for Europe, and while I expect to return to Virginia from time to time, when or whether I’ll get back to this place is anyone’s guess.
I realized then that I hadn’t come up here just to see the place. After nearly 40 years, I had come to make peace.
When I entered W&M as a freshman in 1975, I felt with some justification that I was a young man with promise. I had excelled in one of the country’s best school systems, performed with distinction in nearly every academic discipline I’d concentrated on, and scored highly in my college board tests. I was ready to make a mark.
By the time I left four years later, life was a lot more complicated.
I’d married a William and Mary girl in our sophomore year, and through her school friends we became involved with a rural, evangelical church that had largely turned its back on the world. The church subsumed our lives for two years after graduation. After we finally struggled free, I drifted from one job to another, never really catching fire anywhere. I took a shot at graduate school, but fell short of my doctorate when my first marriage fell apart.
I finally managed to eke out a career in computing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; but it never felt like I came close to fulfilling my potential. With a buyout from UVa, I retired early with Carol to pursue our dream of traveling. But I was followed by a lingering sense of bitterness that I’d never stretched myself. I had failed through an uninterrupted string of paltry successes. I’d never risked the heights.
And in my heart, I heaped much of the blame for that failure on the place that had once seemed to promise so much, but where instead my life started unraveling: William and Mary. Whenever I thought back upon my years there, it was the bad things I remembered. Feeling awkward at social events. Constantly getting sick in drippy Williamsburg winters. Getting mocked for my faith by a snarky Writer in Residence. Working dismal jobs to stay afloat in the early years of my marriage.
On the occasions when someone would ask my opinion of the College, I would airily reply that it was the sort of school that took big people and made them into small ones. From time to time when, as an alumnus, I would get solicitations to donate to the W&M endowment, my dormant hostility toward the school was sharpened by my embarrassment at feeling that I wasn’t successful enough to afford a donation. Finally I responded back angrily — in words that would probably shame me, if I could recall them now — that I had no intention of ever giving them a dime, and they may as well stop trying. I haven’t gotten a solicitation since.
These past few months, with less traveling to do I’ve had more time to reflect on my life, more opportunity to examine the long train of missed opportunities, early exits, unpressed advantages and ill-considered decisions that have marked the turning points of my passage so far. More and more I’ve been entertaining the suspicion that William and Mary was never to blame for my inability to live the life I had envisioned.
Today as I walked from the triangle, around the Wren Building and into the wide-open space of the Sunken Garden, I remembered my first impressions of the place as a new student. Over the years, When I’ve thought back on my W&M experience, my recollection has been that I was mostly detached from the world around me — more of an outsider and an onlooker than a participant. But my walkabout this afternoon brought back unbidden memories of the many ways I participated in the vibrant life of the school.
I was a cheerleader. A JV cheerleader, but still. The captain, Linda Bresee, was my partner. She was a dreamboat, and way out of my league.
I danced in an original theater production commissioned by the College to celebrate the US Bicentennial. Which will no doubt come as a great surprise to anyone who has tried to dance with me since then.
I worked for the campus police on the student security patrol. It was usually a sleepy job, though occasionally things got weird — like the time when some genius scheduled a Grateful Dead concert at W&M Hall during Parents’ Weekend. I remember packs of dangerous-looking but very happy (and completely baked) concertgoers weaving their way past alarmed parents back to their Harleys. Later that night, in the pitch dark of the Wren triangle, I found two completely perfect cream pies sitting abandoned on a bench. I took them back to the police station and we debated whether to dare eating them. Were they left by the Dead fans? Who knew? Finally a passing sergeant who didn’t know the backstory noticed the pies. “Okay if I have a slice?” Absolutely, we assured him. When he didn’t immediately have a psychotic episode, the rest of us grabbed forks.
I got married (the first time) in the Wren Chapel, one of the two wings of the Wren building. A couple weeks before the wedding, male members of the wedding party and some of my other student friends kidnapped me and carried me to Crim Dell, the lovely body of water with the fairy tale bridge near Landrum Hall, and threw me in. It was late February, and patches of ice were still floating on the water; but the dunking of engaged bachelors in Crim Dell is an ancient practice at the school, and mere mortals don’t flout the Old Ways at William and Mary (unofficial motto: “Three hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress”). Fortunately my groomsmen had taken the precaution of sounding the Dell first, to find a spot where I wouldn’t be splashing down onto a submerged bicycle or dorm fridge.
Revisiting the scenes of my student life today, and seeing in a host of beautiful new buildings how the College has gone from strength to strength, I was overwhelmed with the realization: this is a great school. It wasn’t the comfortable epiphany you might imagine. The taste of failure is never quite so bitter as the moment you realize you have wrought it upon yourself. It would be easier if I could lay my shortcomings at the feet of my Alma Mater; but like any other great school — indeed, like life itself — William and Mary can only offer distinction, not confer it. The rest is up to the pupil.
Self awareness comes, if it comes at all, for different people in different stages of their lives. For many of us, the best we can hope is that we finish growing up before we grow old. I’m 59 and the bulk of my life is behind me. Much of what I might once have accomplished with my life is now just a regret. But tonight as I write this, I feel a sense of lightness at having shrugged off an old, debilitating grievance.
William and Mary, I apologize to you both.
Hark upon the gale.