In a few days I will celebrate my 60th birthday, although I’m not at all sure that celebrate is the right word. These days, when I look in the mirror, the face I see more and more resembles that of my grandfather. Recently a student wanted to know whether I had been at Yale with her grandfather. Another student in the class is the daughter of a former student. All these, obviously, are signs that I’m getting older.
My upcoming birthday has also brought with it a number of messages via Facebook and other social networking sites from folks I knew decades ago, in high school and college. It’s fascinating for me to reconnect with them now and compare life stories. When we were in high school and college we were all wondering what life would bring for us. The Vietnam War was the big thing in our lives, who would go, who wouldn’t; who would survive, who wouldn’t.
Then the war ended, college ended, and suddenly it was time to worry about becoming adults: careers, marriage, children. As I read the notes from my friends of decades past I read about how they’ve fared over the years. Pretty much all of us got married. Unfortunately, most of us have also been divorced. Most had children; unfortunately, I did not. I suppose the only advantage of being childless is that I’m not paying off college loans as are several of my friends.
I’m particularly interested in the careers that we followed. Several of my old friends became lawyers, as I did. A few became physicians. One became an orchestra conductor. Several joined the Peace Corps after college and, after that, stayed abroad. One became a language teacher for the U.S. military. One of my college friends became a dictionary editor. Another was an early computer software pioneer. Most of us have been fairly lucky in our lives.
When I think about what gave us the opportunities we had, I think that there were several important factors. First, higher education was inexpensive. My college and law school tuition bills never exceeded $3,000 per year. I was able to work part-time to cover the full cost of my education while going to school. That’s something today’s graduates can rarely do.
Second, the economy was, for the most part, decent. I never had a rough time finding a job while I was in school and after I graduated. If you were willing to work hard, you could get a job. Again, I don’t think that is true for many of today’s high school and college students.
As I get older, time seems to speed up. It hardly seems possible that this is 2012 and I’m going to turn 60. Every New Year seems to arrive more quickly than the last. I’m feel very lucky that I teach at Kansas University and spend my time with young people. It’s through them that I can still experience, even if only vicariously, what it means to be young today.
When I think about the coming year, I think about continuing in a job that I love at a place I enjoy, surrounded by my dogs in a house I’ve lived in for 18 years. Certainly, I worry about the world and about health matters and life after divorce, but I recognize how fortunate my life has been entering into my 60th year. However, I also wonder whether my students will be as fortunate as I have been given the conditions they face in 2012. I can only hope that they will succeed and find contentment and that 2012 will be a good one for all of us.