You all know her. She was that shy girl in high school. The one who kept to herself. The one who seemed lonely all the time. The one who didn’t smile or join the clubs. The one you didn’t choose for your sports teams but you copied answers off her tests. She never felt like she fit in. She always felt out of place. She didn’t want to be in school. Unlike you, she never went to the football games or the prom. She stayed home and did her homework so she could get good grades on her tests and go to college to start her real life. Yes, she was excited about going away to college. The “away” part that was the best part. It was her chance to reinvent herself. Or perhaps invent herself for the first time. She chose Pittsburgh, of all places, for the fresh start. Where no one knew her.
Why Pittsburgh?, you’re thinking. She wouldn’t have chosen Pitt because of its great sports reputation. It probably had something to do with its high male to female ratio. I know she wanted a boyfriend. It probably helped that Pittsburgh was close enough to her hometown to visit occasionally, but far enough away to be totally on her own. Her parents agreed to her choice because they had friends who lived there.
The day came when it was time to leave for school, and not a moment too soon. There weren’t any teary farewells. She hugged her parents at the gate, boarded the plane and buckled up, anxiously awaiting the full breakfast the travel agent promised. Those were the days. Her first flight ever, from Newark to Pittsburgh, turned out to be a piece of cake. Getting a taxi to take her to the campus was easier than she had expected, especially since that cute pre-med student sitting next to her on the flight offered to carry her bags and share a ride to school. Everything was going smoothly until she reached the campus and realized that she left her wallet in the taxi. Although she was not off to a great start, she forged ahead with determination. With her map in hand she headed to the building where the freshman orientation was to be held.
The huge auditorium was packed to capacity. Despite the lack of adequate air conditioning, the crowded room filled with excitement as if the audience of freshman students anticipated a rock star would materialize at any moment. The room suddenly quieted as everyone noticed the lone bearded man in a stereotypical tan corduroy jacket standing at the podium, patiently waiting for their attention. This is it. This is the moment she’d been waiting for. She's in college now. She took a deep breath trying to calm her nerves, counting on this moment to change her life.
She listened intently to the speaker’s words, trying to ignore the fact that, without her wallet, the only possessions she had were her student ID card and the few bucks she borrowed from her new roommate. Although the speech was long and boring, to this day she’s never forgotten this one comment the speaker made. “Everyone look at the person seated next to you. One of you won’t be here next year.” Nervous laughter filled the room. She feigned confidence. With a big smile, she placed her neighboring students on notice. I was here to stay. Or so she thought.
Better than she ever dreamed, she thought college was so cool. It was so different than high school where everyone was literally imprisoned in the building from 7:37 A.M. to 3:45 P.M. every day, having to get permission to go to the bathroom! She enjoyed the freedom of being able to set her own schedule. With some classes in the morning, some in the afternoon and some in the evening she was free to come and go at will. She could study at the library, hang out at the student union or just practice (hustle) pool, her new hobby. Students were treated like adults.
Campus life was exhilarating. After having spent years alone in her childhood bedroom she never even wanted to go back to her dorm room. She checked out the political groups and observed protests of the Vietnam War. She stood in a crowded courtyard listening to guest speaker Renee Richards, the trans-gender ophthalmologist/tennis player and, looking back, realizes not one person criticized her like some are attacking Chaz Bono. College students, were open to all possibilities. Even her. She began emerging from her cocoon. Perhaps too fast.
That pre-med student invited her to her first frat party. She had never tasted beer before. Although she didn’t like the beer, that other stuff they were drinking wasn’t too bad. The mixture of Tang and grain alcohol relaxed her and made her giggly. By the end of the first week she decided her morning class, French 101, at 8:00 A.M., was not working out that well for her since she couldn’t wake up before 11:00. She learned the process of dropping a class before it would show up on her transcript. No problem. It was as if she’d never enrolled. She didn’t need French anyway. What a waste of time, she thought.
She liked her philosophy class, not just because it was at 2:00 P.M., but that was a much more reasonable time for those with a social life. Yes, the chance of her making it on time to this class was much better. She had to admit she liked this course because the students were allowed to smoke in class. There were ashtrays on the desks! In those days it was not only cool to smoke, but your choice of cigarette showed how cool you really were. You've come a long way baby, one TV ad touted. She sure had. Enjoying her Kools in class relaxed her and helped her come out of her shell. It felt good. During her first week of Philosophy 101 she studied Nietzsche and Sartre. In her second week she learned that she’d get an “A” if she attended classes, or a “B” if she never showed up. She opted for plan “B”.
She attended all her Psych 101 classes until she wound up in the hospital. The health center couldn’t figure out why her neck was so swollen. A cold? The flu? They weren’t sure. “Drink plenty of fluids and try to rest,” the nurse advised. She stayed in bed and got her classmates to take notes for her while she guzzled chicken soup and downed ice cream. Her throat began to hurt worse than ever. When her head felt like a knife was stabbing her brain through her ears she ran to the emergency room. They admitted her immediately. “You have mono,” the doctor informed her with a stern look on his face. She had the feeling she wasn’t the first student to succumb to this ailment. “It’s bad. Possible liver damage. We need to call your parents.”
That was the last thing she needed. This was the first time she was on her own and within a month she had screwed up royally. Not only had she dropped classes but she wound up in the hospital. How would she explain this? Needless to say her parents were not too pleased with her stay in the hospital or with that shaggy haired boy in the fringed suede jacket that stayed by her side, bringing her ice cream. In their minds it was all HIS FAULT!
After a week in the hospital she tried going back to classes. But she was so tired from the mono, she could barely sit up, no less trudge through the snow to get to the other side of campus. Once again she was confined to her room. Studying from classmates’ notes was not the same as attending lectures. She passed the first semester, barely. She was still determined she would not be the one to drop out. She would not be the one who would not make it through the year.
She tried. With a new attitude she planned to be the best student on campus after returning from Christmas break. No more late nights. No more partying on weekdays. No more of that nasty Tang and grain alcohol concoction that the kids drank in the dorm. She would study, sleep and go to classes. That was the plan until she got the flu in her second week of her second semester. Feeling like a failure, she dropped out.
After her second child was enrolled in kindergarten she knew the time was right. Yes, she went back to college, determined to get her degree. Like a little grade school kid picking out her first notebook, she couldn’t wait to get all her school supplies. The fresh, crisp textbooks would be hers. She could highlight them, write notes in the margins. This was her chance; her second chance. How often do we get that second chance? She seized the opportunity.
She doesn’t remember what the lecture was about during her second orientation but she knew one thing for sure. Someone sitting next to her might not make it to graduation, but she would. I’m paying for this myself and I’m going to succeed, she thought. Four years later, with her children at her side, she posed proudly for graduation pictures. She never gave up on herself. I never will.
- Silver Spring, Maryland,
- August 30
- Writer, adoption rights advocate, healthy living proponent and bleeding heart liberal. My drugs of choice are ice cream and chocolate.
My memoir - Call Me Ella - is now available on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G1SK3KW
Please visit: joanekaufman.com and amykdesign.com
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