Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 6, 2014
The 4th of July Thunderbirds usually get me thinking – as I get all choked up — about graduation from college, and about the sheer, welling gratitude in my heart that my father did not make me apply to the Air Force Academy the first year women were to be admitted, 1976, which was the year I graduated from high school. They’d come recruiting, with their training film and their starched and buzz-cut student representative standing in the front of the group, spit-shined shoes locked together and hands at his side. “He may have butterflies,” the accompanying officer assured us, “but you can bet they’re all in formation.”
Later, at dinner, dad pitched it hard. All I could think of was: wrong for me. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Butterflies in formation? What kind of sick, dark, inhospitable world would that represent?
Miraculously, I graduated college on the emerald lawn of an absurdly beautiful arbor of a tiny liberal arts college in southern California on a hot May day wearing long green wool robes, alongside about 115 other women. I remember it like I remember all the other convocations: the Latin song (Gaudeamus Igitur), the professors in their black robes and colored sashes, the bucolic, old-world, Spanish-tiled charm of the campus, and my joy of being there, in what appeared to be nothing short of a fantasy.
Certainly, the whole thing was dreamlike for me: that I applied on a whim and got a full ride. That I boarded a plane alone, left Seattle, dad’s kingdom, and landed half a mile from orange and lemon groves and fifty miles from the looking glass kingdom of Los Angeles. That I never had to take math, never had a roommate, and got to reinvent myself — to the degree that one ever can. That I had art and history requirements and took fencing with a former Hungarian gold medalist. That within the college was a small walled garden where one could read the assigned novels and study the assigned Latin. That I had good friends, and boyfriends. And that, most amazing of all, two professors mentored me — and absolutely, positively changed my life.
This is what I am thinking about as Celine, my own daughter, prepares to loose herself from the safety and beauty of her own liberal arts college and to engage in the gears of the world at large. She has not yet had a game-changing mentor, someone who has heard and studied her, made her feel the uniqueness of her mind and character, and helped her underscore the importance of tending to both. In her small school, she has not had that one experience every liberal arts grad needs: the buzzing, booming fly-by of a person whose care for her intelligence and fiber are as real as the real world beyond.
Because, however much ideas, books, and events may change our lives, people do, in fact, change them most profoundly. Even though I’ve often claimed airily (like any good story lover) that some of the most influential people in my life were fictional characters, I’ve lied!
It was my two college mentors who shaped the young-adult version of myself the most. One – for whom I worked as a research assistant — taught Victorian literature. Suave and slightly rakish, he could read five languages and made material new no matter how many times he’d already taught it. The other, a professor of American intellectual history and my undergrad thesis advisor, was known for standing on tables to teach, for haranguing students with his semi-Socratic methods. He would bear down hard on every notion, proposition, and comment as if all our lives depended on all our answers. Intellectual laziness, seen by these two as a sort of modern plague, was being ticketed.
For the final exam in his infamous 18th Century American Intellectual History class, the table-stander said this: “Just tell me what you learned. And, people? It better be good.” I remember sitting down that night with my black and white composition notebook in my dorm room, trying to figure out how to discern what I had learned and digested, let alone express it well and with freshness.
So, thank you, fly-byers. You remind me to pay attention to all the important people in my life and to be grateful for them — and of all that I wish for, for my own sweet girl.