The Class of '63

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 18, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--I was leaving Cambridge as my old classmates were returning. Personal landmarks come too swiftly these days to give them all due attention. A 25th college reunion followed by a 50th birthday and now a 30th reunion. I have passed up this trip inward for a trip outward.

But I cannot resist bringing some classmates with me. These fellow travelers through our mutual demography have been neatly packed, their lives bound, between the crimson covers of our reunion book that is titled with deceptive simplicity: ''Harvard and Radcliffe College, Class of 1963.''

I read about them, one at a time, with a fascination we reserve for old friends or even for strangers who have done time together.

In the eyes of others, I suppose, we have much in common. A group of students of roughly the same age with roughly the same SATs and roughly the same bright prospects who went through the same school at the same time.

We arrived in Harvard Square in 1959 on the last train out of the Fifties. We left just months before President Kennedy's assassination and the true beginning of the Sixties. Together we went through our 20s during those 1960s and landed in our 50s in these 1990s.

But reading through these brief and lengthy, sunny, dull, amusing, painful mini-autobiographies of lives in progress, I am struck less by some unified class theory -- The Tale of the Class of '63 -- than by our stories. A word comes to mind that now seems out of place for the Harvard-Radcliffe of our youth: diversity.

There are among us -- as predicted and carefully produced -- a disproportionate number of doctors and lawyers and authors of far, far too many books. But we seem as different as the subjects of those books: a guide to the combat fleets of the world, a memoir of sexual abuse, an interpretation of Genesis. We include a Buddhist monk, a meteorologist who has flown into the eyes of 225 hurricanes, one ''unpublished thinker,'' a prison minister and prisoner. The prisoner reports that he won the inmates' chess tournament.

Many of us, especially the men, became as successful as the alumni association of the 1960s would have smugly predicted in their annual fund-raising projections. But others have felt the shifting ground of the '90s.

Among the graduates of this ivy college are 52-year-olds who are ''seeking new employment'' and ''looking for my next job.'' One writes of ''experiences which have led to a new awareness of the fragility of so-called security. Perhaps it is a false god.'' Which is newer, an unemployed academic upper crust or the fact that they admit it to each other?

At midlife, I am not surprised to find these pages filled with stories of empty nests and aging parents. But we didn't do a core curriculum in family, either. We seem to have equal numbers of first-time grandparents and first-time parents, or at least fathers. ''After three years of progressively higher-tech reproductive technology,'' writes such a father, ''we finally got knocked up in a petri dish.'' Who would have expected that in '63?

The most frequent word used by those who have lived through enormous change is now ''still.'' ''Still in there pitching.'' ''Still trying to act locally while worrying globally.'' ''I'm still doing business at the same old stand.'' A professor -- we have more than our share of those, too -- writes that ''My middle age has had a luxuriant stillness to it.''

Although some of us report breezily about ''new family, new spouse, new firm'' and others tell of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I read into that ''stillness'' a greater fear of uprootedness than longing for adventure.

We have come -- together -- to an age when there are intimations of mortality and not just in the 27 obituaries at the back of this book. But we have arrived at this awareness through separate experience. Indeed the most riveting part of the continuing plot of 1963 is in the blows life has dealt, the hands of the deck.

We hear about a daughter who is ''coping much better on Prozac,'' a son who is putting up a ''gallant fight against cancer,'' another boy killed in a skiing accident, a girl who fell to her death from an apartment window. ''My wife of nearly a quarter-century,'' writes one among our mourners, ''died of AIDs acquired from a blood transfusion.'' Thirty years of post-graduate adulthood -- life -- leaves few people untouched.

Compared to the class of 1993, are we a rather similar bunch? Three-quarters male, nearly all white, we don't fit the current definitions of diversity that typify any campus conversation or admissions policy these days.

But in a country that talks increasingly about groups, about cultural differences, 30 years out, we offer a much more vast portrait of diversity: uniqueness, individuality, autobiography.

What we have in common are lives as unique as their own pleasures and disasters, their plans and accidents. In the end, or in the middle, we have each become a group of one.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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