McMaster, Class of ’62 Reunion

Coat of Arms for McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

Graduation is always a time of mixed feelings… pride and joy at accomplishing an important goal; excitement at looking forward to a new life; regret and perhaps even depression at leaving behind your friends, social life, and athletic activities.

It is a time for change, though not all changes are happy!

Of my high school graduation class of about a hundred, only three women went to university, and I was the only one at McMaster.

Women did not study science, math, engineering, medicine or law.

No one in my family had ever finished high school, and my family felt that university education was quite unnecessary and extravagant for a woman. They told me this, often. Education was wasted on a girl!

The cost for fees and books was about $450 and minimum wage was $.60/hr.  McMaster had only three entry scholarships… and no consolation award for missing by a few marks! My father was recently bankrupt and unemployed. Married women rarely worked outside the home, and  my mother was caring for a disabled child. (OHIP, Ontario free public health services, would not begin until 1966.)

Everyone said I should be more practical… not only could my family not afford to send me to university, they needed my financial support. I was being selfish. I could teach elementary school without a degree. Sensible girls went to Teacher’s College for one year, or into nursing, or directly into retail or secretarial jobs. If I insisted, I was on my own, except for room and board at home… I had to pay my own way and contribute whatever was left to the family!

My husband’s fiftieth university reunion is this year; mine was last year. Most of our profs and some of our friends are deceased. Except for Hamilton Hall and University Hall, where we took our classes in 1958 as humanities students, the campus has changed beyond recognition. The library, new in our time, is now an art gallery. Our tiny student center, called The Buttery, is now the tony and exclusive faculty club.  It takes a certain amount of courage… and curiosity… to go back!

McMaster was still very small in 1958, perhaps two hundred students in each year. In 1957 the University had reorganized and was no longer a Baptist institution. In anticipation of the population surge, it became a nondenominational institution eligible for public funding . The following year an engineering program was established, and very small departments for music and fine art.

I don’t remember who the speakers were at our graduations, held in the blistering heat of the old Drill Hall, an ugly echoing shell of a building. This was where we took compulsory phys ed classes (5BX exercises), held our dances, and wrote our exams on rickety little folding tables. It was, quite literally a drill hall, a remnant of the war years.

I graduated in three years instead of four, summa cum laude, on the dean’s honour list. Exhausted, despite my success and academic ambition, I could not go on.

I really hate having to participate politely in public ceremonies with which I disagree. The 50th anniversary dinner for McMaster’s class of ’62  was preceded by toasts (handled nicely) and grace. Grace was preceded by a windy introduction by one of the graduates, who then read a prayer which his son, a minister, had written. It went on and on, expressing countless thanks for countless benefits in the name of countless benevolent attributes of a god I don’t believe in. I was embarrassed and annoyed, not by the saying of grace, but by the way it was done.  This was a secular occasion, attended by people of many different faiths, and many of no faith at all. The organizing committee needed to respect this diversity!

We sat with good friends, and the dinner was excellent, but speeches both before and after reminded me that the real life of the university fifty years ago was centered, not on the classroom (lecture hall implies something much too grand for those days) but on the residences and on sports. I never saw the inside of any of the residences, and their dining room was closed to us. A cheap hotdog and dreadful coffee were the dinner options for non-residents who needed to stay late for an evening class or research or work in the library.

Since I lived at home and had no interest in sports, I felt like an outsider then, and I felt the same yesterday. Commuting back and forth, alone, on long bus rides, was not conducive to forming lifelong friendships. It also cut into the little free time I had available for clubs and teams, playing bridge, and just hanging out.  I also worked ten hours per week in the library, shelving books and shelf reading… lonely work, and boring, but absolutely necessary!

At the reunion much was made of the success of grads who went on to get doctorates and had successful academic careers.  Prizes were presented to those who had travelled the farthest, those who have had little or no contact or service with either the university or this community over the years.

All very well! But as I looked around I saw many, many grads in the humanities… perhaps half of the grads… who had spent thirty-five years or more teaching in Ontario… the down-to-earth, back-breaking, mind numbing and often heart-breaking stewardship of education for the next generation. We were the teachers who were hired, for ridiculously low salaries, during the difficult years of rapid expansion, as new schools were opening in every community for the baby boomers born just after the war. Our contributions… local and unglamorous… were mentioned very  briefly by one speaker. The unspoken assumption, I felt, was that these careers were too ordinary to be singled out or highly praised, that somehow we had not entirely lived up to the promise of our potential.

It really did take  courage to go back to Mac and review what we had accomplished with all that youthful energy and ambition.  This was like another graduation… with self-satisfaction replacing confidence and ambition, with preoccupations about declining health replacing the hormones.  Our name tags underscored this. With print large enough for bifocals to read, they included our year book photos, hanging like reprimanding ghosts just below our double chins.

As I walked back to the car in the gentle night air, and looked around at a campus that has changed beyond recognition, I felt old… and melancholy… and spent. This was an ending, not a beginning… and I prefer beginnings!

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4 Responses to McMaster, Class of ’62 Reunion

  1. FLP says:

    This is a very moving account of your past and present experiences. Thank you.

    F.

  2. No school experience is ever free of cliques, as I’m sure you saw repeated year after year in the classroom when you were teaching. The problem comes, of course, when we personally experience the loss of self-esteem and other problems that come from feeling being left outside the desired clique.

    If it’s any consolation, though I’ve never been in that popular or accomplished group, I suspect that they are feeling as insecure as the rest of us – that’s why they stick to the group and laud themselves so loudly and excessively.

    Make it water off your back, Ellen – your school experience and your life contributions are worth every bit as much as theirs.

    • motleydragon says:

      Thank you for your wise words. I quite agree.

      This campus experience was beyond cliques, though. There was “the real university experience” and there was the group that came only to be educated. That sounds too black and white, I am sure. Three families that we know here in Hamilton have sent their kids, at great unnecessary expense, to live in residence, because the parents also experienced that feeling of being excluded.

      The grads I know who lived at home do not look back with nostalgia, talk about life-long friendships they made in college, or make large donations. Living at home is a different experience, regardless of self-esteem and recognition of the perennial phenomenon of cliques. But I think that the grads who lived at home were free of peer pressure, and many did extremely well academically, so perhaps there is a trade-off.

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