Marietta Pritchard: Report from the Class of 1958
AMHERST — It’s the season of commencements and reunions, and although I won’t be attending my 55th, I have been scanning my class reunion book with fascination. It is a fat red book, with two sets of entries — Radcliffe College on one cover, and then upside down (or rightside up, if you prefer) on the other cover, Harvard College, both of them the class of 1958.
I feel a little guilty about not going to the actual gatherings, since my college roommate is one of the main organizers of the Radcliffe events, but not guilty enough to go. The book itself gives me all I need for the moment.
The Radcliffe College I went to no longer exists. It went out of existence little by little, and was finally swallowed up by Harvard in 1999.
Born in 1879 as the “Harvard Annex,” the women’s classes were separately taught by Harvard faculty until 1943, when they were fully integrated. James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president at the time, is quoted as saying wittily that “Harvard was not coeducational in theory, only in practice.”
The proportions of enrollments were uneven from the beginning, and remained so for a long time. Our class had 217 young women, and our reunion report takes up 76 pages. The Harvard report is 342 pages long, with about 1,000 enrolled in that year’s class. But much has changed — even at Harvard — since 1958.
At the end of last year, the enrollments of men and women at Harvard College were almost exactly even, at about 3,300 apiece.
But statistics are not what engage me most. It is the stories. Most people, as they recount the events of their lives, like to accentuate the positive. Some accounts, as usual, seem simply too good to be true. In those, as in the annual Christmas letters sent out by some families, there is only good news, only bragging rights: Every trip has been fabulous; every job profitable; every child and grandchild above average; all gardens flourish; and all retirement activities are both productive and satisfying.
The aftertaste of these reports is like too many helpings of dessert. They make me want to respond with the words on one of my grandson’s T-shirts: “May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook” — or in this case, our college reunion report.
But there are also many thoughtful accounts of what it’s like to be in the middle of our eighth decades. There is both loss and gain — the loss of friends and partners, the loss of our own speed and strength. But there is gain, too — call it wisdom, perhaps — a sense of perspective, of what’s most important to spend our energies on. For most, this involves families, and for many it involves the continuation of whatever they have been doing all their lives — teaching, lawyering, doctoring, writing, painting.
Many describe a late-blooming concern with politics and the environment. Betsy, my college roommate, a single parent for a long time who is now happily remarried and retired from her work as a banker, followed her earlier political interests to take part in a group that addressed “the ridiculously small number of women in the tenured faculty” at Harvard.
As that group was winding down, after achieving notable success, she put her shoulder to the wheel to help run a grassroots group called Grandmothers for Obama.
Not everyone takes on large issues. One classmate uses part of her five-year summary to reveal that she’s looking for someone to help her prune a sprawling historical novel she’s been working on for years. Set in ancient Greece, it needs “a seasoned fiction editor to work with me through to the essential story and make my manuscript one everybody wants to read.”
Any takers out there?
And although most responders tend to be earnest and sober in their accounts, one classmate takes a nice humorous, ironic tone about her less-than-perfect life: “Despite my personal trials, I’m optimistic about my health (the cancer has never intruded below my belly button) and don’t regret many choices in life….”
Still alive, still kicking, still putting it into sentences. Happy 55th reunion.
Marietta Pritchard can be reached at email@example.com.