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Commentary: A Return from Ivy Covered Halls

By Meghan MacLean Weir

Buffalo, NY – Homecoming might have had a very different meaning had there been a football team. There would have been pompoms and bonfires, a return to face painting and public acts of idiocy. We might have been an American high school, as seen on TV or on the glossy pages of teen magazines. But we weren't. The building itself would have never allowed it. Perched as it was above a neighborhood struggling in poverty, it spoke of something finer. The towering stone walls offered permanence, protection. Within, marble staircases echoed the footsteps of students with a ring as enduring as our teachers' faith that we would graduate these halls only to continue elsewhere the journey that we had begun there.

The six years I spent at City Honors prepared me to succeed. In place of success read ivy-league diploma, read graduate education, read non-Buffalo mailing address, read overseas experience. And so, about to embark on yet another bout of higher education in Oxford, England, I found myself stalled in traffic on the George Washington bridge in the cab of the fifteen foot moving truck in which I had packed an accumulation of books and furniture, the entirety of my seven years as a nomad outside of Buffalo. The desire to be settled is naturally strongest when experiencing personal upheaval. The enormity of the move combined with the strangely fruity odor that was billowing in a haze of white smoke from the truck's ventilation system and leaving me lightheaded and with a growing concern about potential brain damage, set me to wondering why I had ever left the city of my childhood. Moreover, how was it that in the intervening years so much of my sense of self worth had come to be tied up in what degrees I could earn from universities boasting Latin mottos and ivy covered halls? Was I really eager to bask in the history of such places, or was I hoping to borrow from them some gleam of brilliance to cover up my own bruised and somewhat battered ego?

Having spent much of my college years wondering what mistake in filing allowed my admission to Princeton and much of the years since then wondering how on earth I was to ever gain the maturity and skill necessary to become a physician, I decided that it was perhaps time to return to the halls of a place with a much more personal history than I could ever hope to find at England's oldest university. Now, having come back to Buffalo and my parents home to bequeath upon them, for the next couple of years at least, the contents of that fifteen foot truck, I called my high school chemistry teacher and asked if I might come back to City Honors to, what? Teach? Learn? Maybe just to see and to remember.

Talk about places seeming smaller when you revisit them applies only to people who have grown in the interim and since my personal growth was very much in question as I swung open the heavy doors and entered the building where I had, all in one go, found my first boyfriend and had my one and only onstage kiss, it was no surprise to find that it looked pretty much the same, more careworn perhaps but with no real diminution. The first bell still sounded at 8:20 and the morning announcements were still done by those same boys who have somehow achieved brazen confidence years before their time. The stairwells still echoed and the athletic facilities were, as ever, just as unable to support a football team. The science classrooms, in a grand tradition echoed by each and every university I have since been a part of, still required the most work to reach, in this case a hike up to the third floor.

The particular classroom in question was one where I had once dropped eggs out of windows, started disastrous fires, and generally wreaked havoc at every turn. It might have been pure imagination, but I thought I could smell the sticky remains of the marshmallow I had placed in a vacuum chamber and then allowed to explode. It was the room in which I had decided to be a scientist and if there was any single place that spoke of who I was and where I had come from it was this one.

During the next eight periods I experienced the same rhythm I had moved through as a student and which I now walked as a guest. I stood, as those classmates of mine who are now teachers have stood so many more times than I, before those rows of desks, that sea of faces. I was to speak as an alumna with perspective and wisdom about the places I have been, the things I have done since graduating. I was to represent endless possibility. It was a talk for which my resume was particularly useful. Even to those students for whom the exact location of Princeton or Oxford is not known, the names still carry an implication of excellence, an air of grandeur. I had not gone back far enough in time to find either myself or these students at an age when this did not matter. It may be that such an age does not exist. When I opened the floor to questions, they asked me what I scored on the SAT.

In medical school I learned that individuality begins, developmentally, when the child gains the ability to walk away and exist, for the first time, apart from his or her parents. The result may be skinned knees and broken vases but it is also, in the long run, college, career, marriage. I had been so desperate to prove myself an individual that I never stopped walking, and when the distance seemed the most overwhelming, I packed my bags and bought a plane ticket. I stood there, a pinnacle of achievement and even a tribute to the quality still possible in Buffalo public schools, one that is especially needed during this time of difficulty for the system, but think on this. I am homeless. I am unemployed. And the path I have taken, upon which I carry with me upwards of $100,000 in loans and counting, I chose as much from fear as from a sense of wonder.

When I stopped talking the teacher, once mine and now theirs, offered me to them as a sage overflowing with helpful hints as to how to answer questions pertaining to homework, college application, life in general. Her confidence in my abilities was touching, if somewhat misplaced. What I should have told her is that I am just passing through. I am an echo. I am already gone. I am a curiosity and nothing more, and if there are questions to be answered, as there must be, they will be answered by their teachers, my friends who go to school every day and to whom their students will turn, tomorrow and in seven years, when they are most in need of affirmation. When this happens I will be in an airport somewhere trying to convince myself that I am brave enough to go, knowing all the same that one has to be just as brave to stay.

Listener-Commentator Meghan MacLean Weir is a 1996 graduate of City Honors who headed to Oxford University in England last week to continue her medical education.