There are so many of us out there -- McGill Grads from years past, but not ancient enough or rich enough or famous enough to be featured in the McGill News. We may have long since left Montreal, for whatever reason, but we love and support McGill. We have fond memories of being ordinary students there.
Ordinary students. I thought about that as I rattled along in the train from Ontario to attend Homecoming '96, my first ever. The 175th Anniversary of McGill, the 35th of my BA. A time to celebrate something ordinary, I decided, as well as something special. My life at McGill began at the corner of Milton and University Avenues one brisk September morning in 1958. Fresh from Grade 12 at Montreal High, I was entering second year. I nervously waited -- and waited -- on that corner to meet the upper year student who was to be my "big sister" and show me around.
Big sister never appeared; was she standing on some other corner? But someone else was also waiting for her, and we found each other. Sophie Szuszkowski, BA'61, BLS'65, MLS'71, and I became friends from that day forward, throughout our years at McGill.
Ordinary students. Living at home in NDG, I commuted daily with so many others by crowded bus to and from the campus. In winter, frost glazed the bus windows, but I knew the route and every stop. If necessary, I could scratch a tiny hole and I'd know where I was by one glimpse of part of a building, or a tree or a store sign.
Sophie and I were not part of the residence or sorority crowd. Life beyond classes for us revolved around odds and ends of films and talks about social events and friends. The Psychology Club, Christian Fellowship, McGill-Queen's football games.
We ordinary students filled the huge classes, read the McGill Daily (then showing its first quivers of radicalism) while waiting for lectures to begin, and lived within a tight budget. In upper years our classes were smaller, often around a table. It seemed odd to find one's individual voice for the first time.
Ideas. Thoughts. How to think. How to express that.
So now I wander around the campus.
I smile at the same old Roddick Gates and Three Bares and green spaces. Nothing has changed, I decide, except that there's more ivy, and the Gingko tree is gone. I stand in the foyer of Moyse Hall and hear echoes of Dr. Hebb expounding on psychology, forbidding us to take notes. (It's okay to knit if we want to, he says, because it's all in the textbook, and he wants us to listen and think.)
A student comes by, leading a tour, so I tag along and follow them inside Moyse Hall. I blink. Now it's a spiffy theatre, with pink carpeting and full stage lighting. But in my mind's eye, I see a dark, dingy hall with rows of hard wooden seats and a lectern with a gowned professor. "A long time ago this used to be used as a lecture hall," the guide says. I nod.
In this building I learned Spanish well enough to be told, "You speak with a Spanish accent," when I switched to French on my summer job. Here, ad infinitum, I parsed sentences and memorized vocabulary in Latin, and learned to love words. Here I studied -- and managed to enjoy -- 11 Shakespeare plays in one year.
In other buildings I avoided science (a regret ever since) by taking physical geography and learning about weather and land forms. I followed the 1960 U.S. Presidential race with my political science classmates week-by-week, and then day-to-day, to the final victory by John F. Kennedy. Sociology opened my eyes to people as groups, and to research and term papers.
I poke into the Redpath Library and remember the click of stiletto heels, the nylons and smart skirts and blouses. I smile at the sign inside: "Absolutely no roller blading allowed." In this building, after my BA, I went back to McGill for a library science degree. One day someone interrupted with "President Kennedy's been shot!" and we milled about outside in the courtyard. Later, when the news came that he was dead, flags in Montreal went up to half mast; we didn't fly flags much then.
In 1964, I became Librarian of the School of Library Science, just then entering the computer age. The organ pipes of Redpath Hall were directly through the wall from our little library, and when someone practiced on that organ, we heard it.
More than that, we felt it. (I still like organ music despite, or perhaps because of, that). I wander through the Open House tents and displays and crowds, thinking of yesterday, enjoying today but also looking forward to tomorrow. That something special. Sophie. We had gradually lost touch after I moved to Ontario in 1966, but recently she had come across my name and address at work, in a directory of writers. We eventually connected by electronic mail. How about meeting again in person at the 175th Anniversary Homecoming? we asked each other.
She was working on the Friday and Saturday, but we could meet in Place d'Armes at the start of the Walking Tour of Old Montreal. "I'll wear my raincoat," I wrote. Sunday morning. I feel as nervous as I did on that street corner my first day at McGill. It's cold and blustery as I walk from the Metro station toward Place d'Armes. Half of this McGill crowd seems to be wearing navy raincoats. Will I know her? Has she changed? Have I changed? Will we have anything in common? The last time we saw each other was more than 30 years ago.
"This must be Margaret," a voice says from behind me.
I know that voice immediately. Smiling, we stare at each other for a moment, then hug. "I would have known you anywhere," we both say.
The tour is wonderful, and our little bits of chat embroider the edges. Outside Gibby's we ask someone to take our picture. Then we leave the rest of the group to have their special McGill brunch. We head for the Café St. Paul, and our own special meal. Two hours of talk, and catching up, and laughter. It is as if nothing has changed. Thirty years dissolve. So we are out there. Ordinary students each with our own stories. Most of us will never be McGill's famous sons and daughters, but we all have a special link, whatever we've achieved or earned or experienced. Our education at McGill was second to none.
I wince when I think about how few library books my annual gifts to McGill have probably provided. But when I play with words, listen to music, enjoy a play, argue with a friend, read an article, try to figure out my world and my life, McGill is back there somewhere, underneath.
That's ordinary. And special.
Margaret Springer went on to work as a librarian at the University of Waterloo, then at St. Paul's United College. She is now a freelance writer living in Waterloo, Ontario. Sophie (Szuszkowski) Pukteris now works at Concordia University and at the National Film Board in Montreal. Homecoming Week is Sept. 18 to 21, 1997, for graduates with years ending in a 7 or a 2. General events are open to everyone. For more information, call Anna Galati at (514) 398-3554 or firstname.lastname@example.org