On a warm, sunny day in North Carolina last week, James Barrett Yardley was awarded -- to the delight and astonishment of his mother, father, stepmother, brother, girlfriend and (need it be said?) teachers -- the degree of bachelor of arts. Both as spectacle and as catharsis, it was a breathtaking occasion: His cynical old father, sitting in the south stands at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, had to wage a manly battle to keep from breaking down and blubbering like a baby.
No doubt both the spectacle and the catharsis will be equally overpowering three years hence, when brother Bill receives the same degree in the same place, but there can be no getting around it: The graduation from college of your eldest child is an event guaranteed to reduce you to the physical and emotional condition of Silly Putty. That is all the more so when, as was the case with me last week, the child's graduation coincides with the 25th anniversary of your own departure from the same institution; it is about as much emotional overload as the human system can bear.
Had it not been for Jim's commencement, I probably would have passed over my own reunion, both because of shyness in crowds and because my close friends were not concentrated in my own class, but scattered among many. So I have my son to thank for this, as for so many other things: By luring me down to Chapel Hill, he presented me not merely with the bottomless pleasure of being witness to his own passage into adult life, but with the opportunity to reconnect myself to my own undergraduate years.
The University of North Carolina does many things well -- after last week, I'd say graduation ceremonies in particular -- but alumni reunions do not seem to be among them. Perhaps this is true of most large state universities, whose graduating classes are too big to have strong identities and loyalties; I was told by a classmate's spouse, an alumnus of an Ivy League school, that his university would be humiliated if it could do no better than the 10 percent turnout that the UNC Class of 1961 produced, abetted by a halfhearted recruiting effort by the alumni office. Hundreds weren't there who should have been, and they were missed.
Yet in the end none of that really mattered. If many people I'd wanted to see didn't make it, many others did; and, as apparently happens routinely at class reunions, a number of classmates previously only slightly known to me turned out to be entirely interesting and delightful people. To be sure, the experience of seeing one's classmates for the first time in a quarter-century is not without its unsettling aspects: the graying hair, the expanded waistlines, the wrinkles and crinkles -- are these really the people I went to school with? But let him who is without sin cast the first stone: At least a dozen people asked where on earth all my hair had gone.
When we weren't casting nervous eyes at one another's deteriorated physiques, we were moaning about how the world in general, and Chapel Hill in particular, had gone to hell in a handbasket; this seems to be as much a part of the silver-reunion ritual as the execrable food at the class banquet. In the case of Chapel Hill, the complaints were not without justification. The central campus of the first state university is still, in my judgment, about as beautiful as any place on Earth, but travel a mile or two from the Old Well and you're in a land utterly foreign to the Class of '61: Condo City, jammed with shopping centers and strip developments and high-rise dormitories and roads suffering from terminal gridlock. Like other once-small communities famed for their beauty and charm, Chapel Hill has gotten too popular for its own good.
Chapel Hill was once a village; our class is one of the last to have known it as such, and I guess we must be grateful that we at least have the memory. Yet as is almost always the case in human affairs, loss is counterbalanced by gain. If many good things the Class of '61 remembers are no more, some bad ones are gone as well. Most specifically, like other major universities in the South -- and the rest of the country, for that matter -- the University of North Carolina is no longer the captive of antiquated, debilitating social and cultural customs. This is to say that in one crucial respect, the university from which my son graduated is radically different from, and improved upon, the one from which I did: It is open to every student who can qualify for admission.
Among the senior-class photographs in the 1961 Yackety Yack -- the egregious name with which UNC yearbooks are saddled -- you will find only one black face; but in the crowd of students who marched joyfully across Kenan Stadium's playing field last Sunday, there were more black faces than even the nimblest mathematician could have counted. Many significant changes have occurred in American higher education in the past quarter-century, but surely this is the most important and heartening of all. In 1961 public higher education was to all intents and purposes separate and unequal; though most schools are still predominantly black or predominantly white, the old barriers have long since fallen.
The result is that institutions long prideful of their traditions of academic freedom now offer genuine freedom of opportunity as well. For everyone concerned, this makes them better places: more open, more diverse, more representative of the society that supports them. The university in which my sons have studied is vastly more heterogeneous than the one I attended, and for that reason if no other it doubtless has taught them more -- just as it has provided a richer education for their black classmates, whose mothers and fathers were expected to attend black-only colleges. Say all you will about the deleterious changes that have affected higher education since 1961, but in this respect there has been nothing but progress, pure and simple.
For that reason the Class of 1986, when it gathers in Chapel Hill 25 years from now, will look a lot different than did the Class of 1961 this month. But in one crucial respect, the two classes are exactly the same: Their members are graduates of a university to which they are bound for life, and which shaped their lives in more ways than they will ever know. The same is true at campuses all across the nation, in this month of graduations and reunions: The young depart in joy and the old return in gratitude, to the place that, through the deep loyalty it exacts, unites them all. Which is why Jim and I have a date to meet again in Chapel Hill: In May 2011.