To stand the test of time

One snowy afternoon in a recent December, I was sitting in a study hall at Harvard University along with four hundred-or-so college seniors, waiting for the Graduate Record Exams to begin. Tension hung in the air as thick as dust in an attic. There was nervous chatter from table to table as the proctors took attendance and confirmed the subject areas of each of our tests. Everyone at my table was signed up for history. I was, too, but unlike the others, I wasn't taking the test with an eye toward grad school and an advanced degree. At thirty-two, I was working through an independent study program toward a BA. If I scored well enough on this test, I'd earn thirty-nine credits and be on my way.

''I don't understand why you're even bothering,'' my mother had remarked on the phone just the week before. ''At one time I thought you needed a degree, but you've managed very well without one.''

Her question had the ring of an echo. Then I realized it was the very same one my parents had put to me fourteen years earlier in shocked disbelief. At the time, I'd been poised on the threshold of a university, too, but I'd been going the opposite way: Out.

''Why are you doing this?'' my parents had fumed long distance from Connecticut to California. The more significant distance between us, though, had been one of age, not of space, and phone calls hadn't helped bring us closer together. I'd dropped out anyway.

''Why?'' I'd asked myself later. Sitting in the Harvard study hall fourteen years after the fact, I still had only vague notions. Up until 1967, I'd been a model student, treading the regulation path of American education unquestioningly from nursery school on up. Then, quite suddenly in my freshman year of college, something had gone wrong. Everything had fallen apart.

A heightened buzz filled the room as the proctors began to circulate, passing out sealed test booklets. The kids around me were straightening up in their chairs, fumbling with their pencils. I studied them, unconsciously appraising. They were a neat, clean-cut bunch and, with their majors of computer science, management and chemical engineering, they were about as far removed as you could get from the kids I'd briefly, very briefly, shared a campus with in 1966. From their penny loafers and button-down shirts to their enthusiastic reception of corporate campus recruiters, these kids might have been the product of another planet, rather than simply of another decade.

I looked at them and felt a definite sense of superiority. Oh, maybe I harbored some small, grudging envy for the orderliness of their lives, their single-minded sense of direction, but not much. My decade had belonged to the disheveled and freewheeling anti-establishment protesters. And I still regarded as sheeplike and shallow the headlong pursuit of material success - corporate berths, country club memberships, profit sharing plans - in preference to the spiritual quests my generation had considered paramount.

''Stodgy conformists,'' I thought. Still, if I looked back objectively, I had to admit that I'd felt the same way about conformism in the Sixties. Most of the Flower Children, Jesus Freaks, Weathermen and assorted cultists had been trend followers rather than originals. I guess I'd just felt more in tune with the goals of the Sixties seekers.

The Sixties. If I were going to be honest, I'd have to grant that there were probably as many sincere seekers after Truth, Justice and the American Way in this button-down crew as there had been in the sandal and bead bunch. The difference between Them and Us was - could it be? - basically one of style and timing rather than of spirituality. I think of my sunny childhood in the Fifties and early Sixties. Those were years of unprecedented material growth and well-being in the United States. Our parents, churches, schools and government knew where they were going, and they proudly indulged and nurtured the next generation: us.

That halcyon period had taught my friends and me to take order and plenty for granted. We saw stable families, religion, as eternal features of the cultural landscape. It never occurred to us that we might lose them. This generation had grown up in shakier moral and economic times. Vietnam, assassinations, Watergate , rising crime and divorce rates. They were bent on securing some personal order and prosperity before taking on questions of eliminating chemical additives, feeding multitudes and gardening with natural fertilizers and good vibes. In the end, we had each tried to do what every generation does as it becomes aware of the immensity of the grown-up world and the littleness of its own coming-of-age self. We tried to exercise some power, to impose some organization, consolidate some position, get things under some kind of control. If I dispensed with generational chauvinism and viewed these kids (and my parents) through eyes cleansed of defensive rivalries, they seemed a sincere, open, likable lot. Practically human.

The minute hand on the exam clock jumped. I came back to the snow and the afternoon and the study hall.

The proctor raised an arm. ''You may begin,'' he said.

Four hundred-strong, we tore open our test booklets and grasped our pencils. Four hundred-strong, we drew in our breath and bent to our tests. The clock ticked. Pencils scratched. Outside, the snowy day darkened and deepened over Cambridge.

The test went on for three hours. Every once in a while, I'd look up to catch my breath. The strain, the exertion, the shared intensity of the ordeal, created a powerful bond in the room. It had been so long since I'd done something hard and singular in company with others. Since leaving school, I'd steered clear of groups. Now, I found my self sitting in the midst of this Straight Arrow community.

Here was the surprise. I loved it. It occurred to me that I was in that exam room completing a rite of passage I'd neglected, because I'd come to recognize a group larger than individuals, larger than generations: a group, like it or not, of which I was a charter member. I'd been studying history, but something else must have crept in around the edges.

I looked at the clock. There was just one hour left. I bent back to my test with a rising sense of excitement. Rising, because it seemed to me I was doing pretty well. Rising, because I was looking forward, when the test was over, to moseying down to the coffee room for a closer look at some of these unlikely new compatriots of mine.

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