A couple of days ago we visited the university where my dad went to college and graduate school. My niece is a freshman there now, and although I wasn’t really looking for a full-circle moment, I got one anyway.
But not how you might think.
Everything has changed since my dad went to school there. It’s an overrun cliché, isn’t it? That everything has changed, that things were better back then, that they don’t make them like they used to.
Clichés are clichés for a reason. They’re usually born in some kind of truth.
I was born down the road and the surrounding valley of orange trees and sequoias and wetlands has long since melted into silicon, where people who would rather spend time in front of screens raise astronomical funds from venture capitalists and try to figure out how to make even more money off everyone else who’d rather spend time in front of screens.
This is success, right? It’s what we honor these days.
My dad showed us the window to his freshman dorm room, which is about fifty feet from where my niece now sleeps. This was very awesome, and the closest we’d come to present connecting directly to past.
We walked around the campus, which is infected with cars now, hauling ass on roads cut through an environment never meant for this kind of traffic. My niece said that in her two weeks on campus, she’s seen more tour buses full of people from other countries carrying selfie-sticks than she’s seen students her own age. Nothing against those people, she said… she just wished she could find more people she could relate to around here.
My dad walked us through scenes over a half-century old, memories etched in open space and freedom, while we avoided the cars and buses and hurried folks looking down at their phones. The place had grown to the point where walking around the whole campus wasn’t much of an option, and we were talking about giving up as we approached the engineering building on the corner of the old quad.
My dad pulled the handle on one of the doors to show us where he'd spent so many nights getting ready for whatever life was going to throw at him, but the door was locked. He muttered an expletive followed by something about how they’re trying to keep people out, instead of letting them in. And we moved on.
We walked around the corner of the quad and into a beautiful courtyard with an incredible church, her facade straight out of a northern Italian village and framed on all four sides by a continuous stretch of low sandstone buildings. The low buildings surrounded a space of maybe three acres that made up the original main quad, where my dad showed us the cornerstone of the school from the late 1800’s.
This was the beginning.
Where the school started.
Before someone figured out how to make a lot of 1s and 0s fit on a piece of silicon.
Back then my mom and dad had their first place off-campus, tucked into a middle-class neighborhood, but now those houses with less than a thousand square feet are selling for a couple million dollars or more. And I guess that’s to be expected when the hotbed of tech is in the backyard.
Sometimes those tech companies create something of real value. And others show their true colors, in hues of a shell game built more on market valuations and perceived value than real value. But it is what it is, and nobody is going to change it now.
Especially nobody around here. Those successful tech companies who evolved into behemoths are the same ones paying for the new buildings just outside this courtyard.
We stood there in silence, taking in the simplicity of our surroundings relative to the chaos outside, until my mom’s voice pierced the quiet.
Why can’t it just be this?
No one answered at first.
Probably because there’s no reason why it should be anything but this.
My dad doesn’t get caught in waves of of nostalgia. He’s not a rose-colored-glasses kind of guy, with remember-whens invariably better than what-really-weres. He calls a spade a spade.
It probably should still be. Just this.
And this is where things came full-circle for me.
Back to the heart.
I have my own courtyard that looks like this.
So do you.
Where your intent is pure, where you’re at peace, where you began. The walls surrounding your courtyard have rooms where ideas are shared and understanding is embraced. Those walls also let people into the inner sanctuary. And those same walls keep out what threatens the flowers growing inside.
This is your heart. And mine.
Humans grow. Institutions grow.
But this school didn’t have to grow in the particular way it did.
It chose to.
And in doing so, it bought in.
So now this school locks doors that didn’t used to be locked. But it will unlock them for the best high school quarterbacks, for kids willing to pay $60,000 a year, for heavy-hitting legacies, for donors’ kids whose parents give millions of dollars in exchange for implied admittance and maybe a name on a building.
We’re still not sure how my niece got in. She’ll tell you the same thing. She was a great student, a difference-maker on her small-school volleyball court, active in community service, a hard worker, and a really good kid.
But that’s not enough these days.
Not to get in here, anyway. It’s enough in the real world, though. She’s going to do pretty damn ok wherever she is in the real world.
When she told one of her teachers that she was accepted to this school, he smiled and told her that sometimes the good ones win one.
He was right.
And who can blame her and the rest of these kids for coming here? Or their parents, for that matter? They want what’s best for their kids, and they’ve been bred to believe that an education from an elite university will make a difference. They’ll get better jobs, make more money, buy more Audis.
Outside this courtyard, those things matter.
But here inside, they don’t.
As we turned to leave the courtyard, I pulled on the church door handle, hoping to get a glimpse inside of something bigger than myself.
But it was locked, just like the engineering building was.
Stanford bought in.
You don’t have to.