If you’ve listened to pop radio lately, you have no doubt heard Ed Sheeran reminiscing about the town where he grew up. The restless guitars lead to the chorus where Sheeran recounts going 90 down those country lanes, singing to Tiny Dancer, and missing the way he felt watching the sunset over the castle on the hill. It is a song thick with nostalgia, which I increasingly feel is the dominant emotion experienced once one is over about age 25.
(Especially when the guitars start going — these chords of elation and longing. Isn’t that always the case?)
I had the chorus of that song going through my head as I drove down country lanes of sorts from Indianapolis to Muncie (and then back to the Indy airport inside 24 hours) this weekend. I graduated from the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and the Humanities in 1997. This public, residential school for juniors and seniors graduates between 100-150 kids a year, and sits on the campus of Ball State University. I was invited back this year to give the commencement address.
To say the two years I was there were formative is really understating things. And so, the place is imbued with memory. Everything about it. I checked into the university hotel in the student center and immediately recalled the scandal I first learned about upon arriving my junior year. At the end of the year before, two students checked into the hotel together. Some official adult had observed them checking in, and so eventually someone was sent up to check what was going on, which is how this plot was discovered.
I spent a few hours walking around Muncie, reliving all my memories, the comical and poignant. I walked down to the White River, where we used to wander in the two hours of free time we had every night. The train whistle was a stark reminder of a horrible (though not fatal) train accident a classmate had our senior year. I visited the “village” — the main drag with shops — where I found that the coffee shop I loved was there, if with a new name and under new management. The White Rabbit Used Book Store was still in business. The proprietor was there. He was still not wearing shoes, though 20 years on I looked respectable enough that I was not required to leave my bag at the front desk as I wandered the stacks. I went to the senior recognition ceremony, and afterwards, nosed around the residence hall. The girls’ side is now the boys’ side, but the doors were open between, so I poked my head down to see at least the door to my senior year room. I wandered around the outside and saw the window to my junior year room. I used to have a view of the dining hall and the classroom building. I remember waking each morning and looking at them.
I spent some time thinking about what I thought then. I don’t think that 16-year-old girl who showed up in Muncie in 1995 had any inkling of life at age 38. If she’d thought about it, I think she would have been happy to know she’d be working as a writer, though perhaps she harbored ambitions to have her pulpy novels be so ubiquitous that they’d sell for $2 at the White Rabbit. I think she’d be happy to know that she got into Princeton, as that was a source of much stress at the time. I don’t know if she had many thoughts about being married with four children, but I think she would have found it interesting if she’d known that her future husband had already finished law school and had been working for a few years.
Anyway, I got up on Saturday, ran 4 miles around the campus, and practiced my speech twice more. Then I met my parents (who came down to see me!) and took the stage. It was a good experience. I got to make some jokes that only the Academy students would get. I gave my advice and then it was on to talk with a few of my former teachers (who are also still there! This school has very little turnover). It was only when I got in my car and was driving away and looked at the dorm and wondered will I ever see this again? that I was walloped with the full sense of decades passing, gone — these grown-up young people moving out of the dorm to start their adult lives were years from being born when I showed up. Yes, the dumpsters and the dining hall look timeless, but many many years of sand have passed through this hourglass.
And then I was on my way, driving at 90 (km/hour) down those country lanes, not singing to Tiny Dancer, but still missing the way this place felt — setting now into the past of my life, all this gleaming memory. It sinks below the horizon of the flat cornfields, my equivalent of the castle on the hill.
Photos: The back of Wagoner Hall; on stage at commencement.