Fifty Years Later by Joe Orfant ’72

Who knows what convinced my adolescent mind half a century ago to take a chance on that new school in Bedford? Did I know that it was a pivotal decision that would affect the direction of my life? For it surely did for the better. But who could have known then?

The chance became an adventure and a challenge. The days began the same way, racing from one side of Lowell to the other to collect our carpooling gang and then slaloming down Route 3 dodging the cones and barriers of the road’s reconstruction  yes, it’s been reconstructed again. Then careering down Concord Road to Springs Road, carefully calculating the diminishing time to the first period and, if time permitted, swinging onto the wide loop of Fox Hill Road, terrorizing the sylvan sub-division with our manic dash, all to avoid the frightening blind hill on Springs Road (our terrorizing paid off; the hill was removed the summer after that first year). Next came a wide right turn into the hastily built gravel parking lot – and always to the back because we were perennially late – and finally the run to Building 9 on the northernmost corner of the sprawling, but deceptively charming Bedford Veterans Hospital.

We always entered 9 down the short set of stairs on the left and into the steamy cafeteria where the paint smelled new – no one entered by the front door – and weaved through the tables crowded with our fellow “scholars” deep in study but often deeper into the never-ending Whist games that filled the short minutes between the classes above. Plywood partitions defined the makeshift classrooms in former hospital wards. We were promised better to come in the neighboring Building 8, then busily under rehabilitation. I don’t recall any resentment for our spartan facilities because there was unspoken sense that we were all collaborating in this great speculative venture. We knew what we’d signed up for: students, faculty – many who hardly seemed much older than us – administrators and staff. Everything needed to be created new – a student paper, clubs, a drama club, hockey, basketball, softball – and it all sprung up seemingly magically with good cheer and no apprehension. I marvel in memory at the explosion of creativity. Where did we find that confidence? Proudly we applied the college decal that clung to the rear window of just about every car in that dusty, muddy, slushy lot. Middlesex – we were eager to tell the world – was real and we were all building it. Who else could claim as much?

Sometimes we’d squint our eyes and pretend that the leafy grounds and Georgian brick buildings of the hospital were our own traditional New England college campus, but that small fantasy could not cosset us in those flimsy, plywood classroom cloisters from the world beyond. The reality of that hospital, the broken veterans seeking recovery, and a war raging across the globe, everything about those surroundings had lessons for us. Even a simple, indifferent trip through the basement tunnels to the PX for cheap cigarettes – we all foolishly smoked then – confronted us with this reality. What other idyllic college campus could offer such profound lessons? 

Middlesex – we understood – was a place of first and hard-earned second chances not to be wasted. We came to cherish the place and sometimes we even lamented that we had to leave, mildly resentful that we couldn’t pass a full four years in what had become a comfortable, familiar home.

Who were we? Well, it disappoints me to say that we were not the richly diverse Middlesex community of today. We were overwhelmingly white and young. Many – if not most of us – were the first in our families to find ourselves at any college. We juggled jobs, family obligations and studies. We came from struggling working towns and cushy suburbs, but among us were veterans and middle-aged moms who unabashedly reminded us with their determination and dedication how precious was every opportunity. Middlesex – we understood – was a place of first and hard-earned second chances not to be wasted. We came to cherish the place and sometimes we even lamented that we had to leave, mildly resentful that we couldn’t pass a full four years in what had become a comfortable, familiar home.

But leave we did because Middlesex was that springboard to even greater things. It propelled me into a large, prestigious university. My new classmates were an intimidating bunch at first. Each one seemed more accomplished and experienced than the last. What – I asked myself – am I doing here? But that Middlesex confidence stuck with me. This was another opportunity that Middlesex had taught me not to squander or fear. I discovered that I could more than hold my own, even excel. No surprise really, hadn’t I helped to build a college?

It’s funny how that leafy red brick campus we dreamed of came to be, yet the place is still unfinished. It will never be finished. Each generation confronts new challenges and gets to build it anew. Today’s students are faced with an almost unimaginable global challenge and their Middlesex experience will be different but uniquely their own. What lessons it has to teach them! They may not know it yet either, but they made a great choice. The perspective of half a century tells me so. I hope that one of them will get to look back in another 50 years. What marvelous stories she will have to tell about how she and her classmates built a college in challenging times. Prepare to be amazed.

Anyone who has ever taken a class at MCC is considered to be alumni, whether they are high school students, traditional-aged college students adult learners or senior adults. To join MCC’s free Alumni Association, visit www.middlesex.mass.edu/alumni/ or contact Amy Lee at 978-656-3028 and leea@middlesex.mass.edu.

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