Sometimes I think I could teach a course in nostalgia, that longing for a past perceived as perfect. I seem to nostalgize (who knew it’s also a verb) often. A couple of weeks ago nostalgia for school hit me full force as I watched the neighborhood children, on the first day of school, weighed down by enormous back packs filled with new pencils, notebooks, glue, rulers, etc., waiting for the school bus. I was immediately back in school smelling that gummy stuff they used, in my day, to sweep the floors; remembering how the smell of cinnamon rolls baking used to fill the school where I taught; and recalling those Bunsen burners in junior high that we loved to mess with when the teacher wasn’t looking.
We all have our own memories of favorite places. Having spent most of my life in schools, as a student, a parent with children, a teacher, a college professor, and now a tutor, mine are about schools—my geomagnetic field is probably over the nearest school. In fact, just to indulge my nostalgia, here are some pictures of favorite school-related places—my elementary school, junior high, and the Danish bakery we’d frequent on our way home from school (I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin).
Although I suspect nostalgia has been part of being human forever, it was first coined to be a condition in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hoffer, who called it a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” In the 19th and 20th centuries it was still considered to be a pathological condition, but when Dr. Sedikides, Tim Wildschut and other psychologists in Southampton, England began studying it in 1999, they found it to be just the opposite, a rewarding positive experience. They also found that it’s universal and not just an adult pastime, occurring even in children as young as seven. Both the features of nostalgia, pleasant reminiscing, and also its focus, holidays, weddings, songs, and places, are found worldwide, with most people reporting that they experience it at least once a week and almost half saying they feel it as much as three to four times a week. I guess I’m not alone.
Research has challenged the belief that nostalgia is unhealthy, finding, among other things, that feeling nostalgic helps with loneliness, boredom, and anxiety, makes people more generous to strangers, and makes couples closer and happier when they share nostalgic memories.
That said, I’m convinced that nostalgia can be a little addictive as we grow older and have memories upon memories, all the while—at least in my case—slacking off on creating new memories. Research seems to confirm this, finding that nostalgia is high in young adults, goes down in middle age, and gets high again during old age. The reason is that nostalgia helps deal with transition. So maybe that’s why I find myself waxing nostalgic whenever I am reminded of schools; I’m in transition from a life in education.
Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again, meaning that If you try to return to a place you remember from the past, it won’t be the same as you remember it. I test that claim every time I walk into Lake Harriet Upper School to tutor (I couldn’t get back in schools fast enough when I retired so I signed up as a volunteer tutor) or when I stop by Burton Hall on the U of MN campus or revisit the classrooms of my undergraduate days. On the surface, these buildings and their classrooms remain the same, and almost like an addiction, trigger some sort of feel-good chemicals in my brain.
Recently, however, my addiction to schools was tested. I was finishing up with my tutoring group, when the principal, whom I could see through the open door standing in front of a class, walked out and asked me if I wanted to take the class for the rest of the day, the sub had not shown up. (I need to explain that this principal happens to be my son, who thinks his mom might be more at his bidding than other tutors in the building). How tempted I was to say “yes!” To get back into the fray, get those kids, who were taking advantage of having no teacher, back to work. But then something clicked in me. I didn’t want to go into that classroom. From a lifetime of teaching, I remembered clearly what I’d be taking on, and I realized that my freedom to do what I want is awfully sweet. Mother or not, I told the principal, “No thanks.” I didn’t want to go home again.
Freedom. It is a sweet thing. Loads of time all to myself, no obligations. And my new-found freedom in retirement clearly moderates my desire to actually work again full time in schools. But the memories are also associated with the sense of being involved in something bigger than myself, something with the potential to make the world a better place. And . . . taking classes, traveling, having lunch with old friends, getting lots of exercise, and volunteering—even tutoring—don’t quite satisfy the need to have my life count, even now, in retirement.
So where am I then? I can’t go home again and I don’t want to, but my new “place,” retirement, leaves me searching. As I noted before, I am in transition, and my happy memories about schools, while addictive, will not suffice for a meaningful retirement. So I go forward, I can’t really replace my bond to education, but nevertheless I’m ready to commit to something equally meaningful, something that in what I hope is a distant future will live up to all the virtues of nostalgia.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.
From Billy Collins "Nostalgia" in Questions About Angels 1991
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