Some of my friends are in the position of taking
their sons and daughters to college around this time. I've heard some of them
talking about what a difficult time this is—the joy of seeing a young adult
child stepping out into the larger world balanced with the loss of having that
child leaving home. I offer this blog post in tribute to those parents and to
share a bit of my early history.
It was late summer in 1973. I was getting ready for
That in itself was something of a miracle. No one in my
familial line had ever gone to college.
Only those in my parent’s generation had even finished high school.
In my little graduating class of about 100, few were going
to college. Of those few, virtually all were going to state colleges within a
hundred miles of our small town. Most
were going to remain on their family farms or find jobs in the banks and small businesses
of our small town.
I had been a very odd valedictorian. I’m sure it grieved the
administration to give me that award, but my GPA had earned it – despite my
frequent battles against that administration, my scofflaw attitude, my
smart-mouth relationship with underqualified teachers (in a poverty-riddled
school district). I may be the only valedictorian who had been barred from the
National Honor Society. I was not an egghead or a geek. I
was a good athlete (in those days before Title IX), an “A” student without
needing to work at it, and quite outspoken in expressing my convictions and
acting on them. I did not suffer fools gladly – among my classmates or in the
faculty and administration. My sassy attitude had earned me the reputation as a
discipline problem. Unable to handle me, by my senior year, most teachers had
banished me to “independent study” – which meant that, instead of being in the
classroom, I spent most of my time in the school library preparing papers on
topics they had assigned to me.
With a good GPA and having scored well in the SAT and ACT
tests – as well as being a National Merit finalist – I received a lot of
literature from a lot of colleges. I made my initial sort on two criteria. First, I would not attend a college that had
sororities and fraternities. I had
observed the tyranny of social cliques in my small town and didn’t
want to enter an academic community that mirrored that. Second, I would not attend a college that
engaged in serious intercollegiate athletics.
I had seen what a focus on athletics did to academics. I had seen the
jocks slide by and suffered through history courses taught by coaches who had
no grasp of the subject matter. No more
of that for me. Those two criteria made
it easy for me to toss most of the college promotional materials into the
But one day I received a simple tri-folded postcard from the
University of Dallas. I don’t remember the details. I just remember
it spoke of the value of learning for its own sake, the life of the mind, the
joy of intellectual curiosity, a belief that truth is a thing to be
sought. I was hooked. After many twists and turns, I was accepted
and awarded a scholarship and work-study that would cover all my tuition and
other costs. I had never even visited the campus, which was 600 miles away in
an era where few people flew, and had only spoken with the Dean of Admissions.
But the vision of that university matched my own longing.
Throughout my search for a college, I had believed I was
destined for something different (and, better, I believed) than most of my
classmates. I was sick of my
narrow-minded little town. I was going
to “break the mold” and “make something of myself.” Such is the hubris of an 18-year-old.
I vaguely remember the week before my departure for
Dallas. I remember spending much time
visiting with my few close friends. … I
visited with a couple of fine teachers who had inspired and encouraged me, and
expressed my deep thanks. [Jim McInturff,
I hope someday you Google yourself and find this posting. Your English classes
gave me hope and inspiration.] … My parents had separated in early summer, but
I had a rather amazing conversation with my father.
To get me and my few belongings to Dallas, my mother
borrowed a van. She, my grandmother, my
younger sister, and I set out for Dallas.
We drove and drove and drove.
Eventually, we reached the Texas state line. I was astonished to see the highway sign declaring
it was still another 200 miles to Dallas.
And that’s when I lost it. The enormity of what I was doing
finally struck me.
We had taken family vacations to visit relatives as far away
as Florida or Mississippi. But suddenly,
the enormity of living 600 miles from home, far away from any friends or family
– far from anyone I knew – hit me like a ton of bricks.
I remember my mother was driving the van. And I remember asking her (or was it telling
her?) to stop, turn around and go home.
I said I would be really, really happy getting a job as a bank teller back home
or maybe working in the public library. I didn’t want to go to college. I could
find a job I would love at home. That’s
what I said, as the enormity of this journey struck me.
Today, I imagine she must have set her jaw and clenched the
steering wheel more tightly. She didn’t
even look back to me. She just said “no”
and kept driving. Surely she said
something more than “no.” But I don’t
remember any details. I just remember
that I began rattling out how happy I would be in our little town in some
little job … and that she said "no" and kept driving.
My mother, sister, and grandmother helped move me into my
dormitory room that day. I remember
seeing them driving off, and I remember feeling as alone as if I had been
deposited alone on the planet Mars.
That first semester was difficult. No. “Difficult” isn’t the right word. I was desperately, miserably homesick. But I also became engaged with my classes,
stimulated by my new classmates. I found
people with whom I could talk into the wee hours about literature and
philosophy – thinking “deep thoughts” and dreaming great dreams. At the University of Dallas I found a
community like I had never had. I ended
up feeling “at home” and finding there a community I never could have imagined.
I loved that place! It formed me in
lasting ways and launched me into the life and career I now have.
I don’t recall how many years it took for me to remember and
realize what my mother did for me on that day as we drove toward Dallas. But I’ve
known it for a long time now. I can just
imagine how much she must have wanted to say “yes” when I asked her to stop,
turn around, and take me back to my small town and what would have been its
small existence for me. But she didn’t. She – the daughter of sharecroppers –
insisted on taking me to that university far from home. She must have had
dreams for me – dreams that were strong enough to keep driving instead of capitulating to my fervent request and taking me back home.
I can’t ask her those questions, for she died a few years
ago. We had a “complicated” relationship
in the last years of her life. But I will forever be grateful that – when I
asked to back off of my dreams – she said “no.” She said “no” even though it was
probably against her own selfish wishes. She said “no” because she had better
hopes and dreams for me. I will be
forever in her debt.
Some of you are now in the position of my mother – though you are very different than she. You are
sending or taking your children to college. I salute you. I recognize the
sacrifice you are making: Sending your children to their dreams, while your
heart may be breaking as you send your child into the wider world. God bless you. I hold you in my prayers, and I trust your children will be as grateful as I am to my mother.
Labels: college, University of Dallas