Posts Tagged With: opportunities

Back to School and First-time Freshmen: 44 Years Later

Today many friends were heading off to school at McNeese State University for workshops, campus-wide convocation, and college/department meetings.  For the third time now I haven’t joined them as a new academic year begins.  Fall term begins on Monday.  I watch them, talk to them, and remember what it felt like to return to another year of teaching. While I miss the classroom in many ways and the students and certainly seeing my friends every day, I do not miss the daily schedule, the ever-increasing demands upon the faculty, or the shifting expectations of a state university.

This fall, though, what I am caught by, is something I read a couple of days ago addressed to first-time freshmen.  The exact advice wasn’t really what I was interested in. Instead, I found myself remembering what it was like to head off to college.

I graduated from high school in May 1969.  Two weeks later, I was living in a dormitory at McNeese State University (Bel Dorm) and taking 9 hours of classes in summer school.  I had my own mailbox at school.  I had my first checking account.

The absolute excitement of that time has never left me.  My various suitcases and boxes filled the back of the Chevy Bel Air station wagon.  As my dad helped me move that into the dorm room on the second floor, I remember having to yell “Man in the hall!” to warn the other girls.  Of course, they were yelling the same thing. Once my bags and boxes were in my new room, my parents and I went for lunch and then I watched them drive away.  No regret, no loneliness.  Just sheer soaring excitement.

Mind you, I had only moved about 45 miles away from home.  But it was another world.  From a small village of maybe 400 where everyone knew everyone else, I was now living in a city.  Certainly now I know that it wasn’t a big city, but I was living in it. And I was on my own.  Meeting a new roommate and having to get along was just part of the adventure.

There was never any question in our family that we kids would go to college.  My mother had gone to business school after high school, and Dad had attended the University of Texas for a couple of semesters.  He was an electrician for Sun Oil Company, and she was a stay-at-home mom.  Yet they’d saved for this, planned for this, and wanted us to experience what was possible.

Many of my fellow Sun Oil kids didn’t go on.  At least the kids of the “hands” or workers.  If they did, it was often the girls, who might become teachers.  Or the sons and daughters of the management, of course, would attend college.

For me, there was never any question that I wanted to get away — to go to school — to get out in the world.  Just as books had always opened the world for me ever since I learned to read, now the college classroom offered me that same path to a future I dreamed of.

My parents always laughed that I was the one ready to hit the road running as soon as I was born.  I was always eager to spend time with cousins and grandparents, not shy about going away from Mother and Dad for a week or two at a time.  That’s me.  Ready to jump in feet first.

I was no different then.  I knew some older students from Egan and Iota who were attending MSU.  Yet in the dorm?  I knew no one.  I had to meet new people and learn to get along.  I had to meet people in classes.  I had to join organizations.

I well remember registering for my first classes.  And pushing myself to get up in time to make class, since Mother wasn’t there with my breakfast to wake me up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

It was a different world then for women students.  We had curfews — and as a freshman, my curfew was 30 minutes before the library closed.  We’d get an extra hour on Saturday night if no one on our dorm wing had received any demerits during the week.  Otherwise, I think our Saturday night curfew was 11 p.m.

Having to be in at 9 p.m. at night meant there was a lot of time to hang around with the other girls.  We had a communal television room on second floor, and a kitchen as well.  Yet some of us had our own tiny television sets and stereos.  Most of us knew how to cook various things.  It was amazing what I could do with an iron and aluminum foil,  or a hot-pot.  I remember seeing the cost for that summer term:  something like $85, I believe, paid for tuition and fees.  With dorm fees and cafeteria plan, my first year (3 semesters) cost Dad something like $1000.  Total.

I plunged into college life with glee.  Late-night jam sessions with guitars (we didn’t demand a lot of actual talent).  Ouija board sessions.  Dance lessons down the hall.  And yes, date nights where you had to stand outside the dorm doors to say goodnight and kiss your date — while everyone else watched.

Before too long, I’d joined the college newspaper staff and the yearbook staff.

I was an English major.  That surprised me, frankly.  I remember that when I first filled out the papers at registration that June I meant to write down “Biology” as a major — I’d been planning on that.  In high school I had taken every science course available, including a second biology that was really a college course being piloted in some high schools.  What my pen wrote, though, was “English.”  Automatic writing?  Destiny?  Or just laziness because that was the easiest thing in the world for me?  I have no clue.  But that choice has threaded my life together.  Reading and literature opened the world for me as a reader and then as a student and finally as a teacher, a professor.

Living on campus in a dorm was a huge adventure.  I had curfews, yes, but I had a sort of self-determination, too.  There were rules and regulations beyond the experiences of today’s freshmen women:  no curlers in your hair outside the dorm; no jeans or slacks to class (at least for a year until rules changed).  We wore sweater sets, skirts and blouses, dresses.  And hose.  Every day.  Yet by the end of my college time (I graduated in December 1972), I was wearing jeans and t-shirts or peasant skirts and sandals.

My first fall semester was the first time that freshmen didn’t have to wear beanies or get hazed as freshmen.  The “college life” I’d read about and anticipated had been a 1940s-50s culture, evident in television and movies.  It was passing even as I entered college.

McNeese was then and is now basically a commuter school, yet it was possible for those of us who lived on campus to have a different experience, to be part of the campus life.  That was challenging at times, but fun.

Lake Charles isn’t that big — maybe 73,000 people — though it certainly has changed in many ways, offering many more cultural outlets and places to go.

It was huge to me, though, and I was limited that first year by not having a car.  I walked to K-Mart, to the drugstore near campus where I could cash a check, to Little Pigs or Taco Bell or maybe Burger Chef for a meal on weekends.  By the second year, my parents had bought a new car and I was driving the Bel Air station wagon.  I could haul lots of friends to the drive-in on nights when the charge was $1 for the entire carful of us.

We had dances.  We went to football games.  We entertained ourselves and, thank goodness, survived the stupid stunts of youth.

We laugh that the 60s finally hit Lake Charles and MSU — in the 1970s.  That was true in many ways.  There were controversies over the length of boys’ hair.  Over dress regulations.  Especially, though, over the hair issue.  That was somehow symptomatic of the turmoil going on all over the U.S.

Somewhere buried in my many photographs are some from those years.  I have some of the newspapers and yearbooks, and my photos are scattered in those as well.  Mostly, though, I have the memories.

What did I expect?  I didn’t know, not really.  I just knew that the world was opening up, and that I was ready for it, for whatever would come.

That I ended up back in Lake Charles, teaching English at McNeese State University, was hardly something I planned.  In my dream academe I thought I’d end up in New England — not that I’d ever been there at all, but it fit in with that ideal I’d derived from movies and television.  Instead, I got a job right back here, and made a career on the campus that made it all possible.

That opportunity has been both profoundly satisfying and profoundly frustrating.  To watch the college emerge as a university, with world-class faculty, and to be part of opening the world to other young people was without price.  Yet to experience the state funding issues that continue to rip apart state-funded universities in Louisiana is painful and frustrating.  This state has been slow to see people go to university; my generation was perhaps the first to do so in large numbers.  It may take another generation to regain lost ground.

All in all, though, I have loved being part of McNeese, both as a student and as a faculty member.

My friends are going back to teaching, and I watch them and have no pangs of regret.  Retirement came at the perfect time for me.  And once more, my world has opened up.  Retirement from McNeese was, I laugh, just another graduation.

And the first-time freshmen about to start their fall term?  I hope they are excited.  Their world is so much larger and fuller than mine was.  Yet for them too, university will offer a world beyond.

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Simple Gifts

There’s a lovely Shaker hymn written in 1848 — “Simple Gifts.”  I’ve always loved the tune, and the words are just as beautiful as the tune itself:

“Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

The first stanza is what looped in my head all day as I stayed home, alternately sleeping and reading.

What a joy it is to have the simple gift of a home itself, a sanctuary, a place of safety.  So many people don’t have the opportunity or the chance, and far too often we take our own homes for granted.  As I read through the news today, I was reminded just how fortunate I am.

The home itself, built in the 1920s, is a cottage or bungalow style, built on piers.  After all, in the coastal areas that architecture makes sense.  There are lots of large windows as well (and now they open, too, and have screens) so that breezes can circulate and cool the house.  Of course, in the heat of summer — which starts early and stays late here — it’s much more comfortable to use the air-conditioning.  In fall, though, as soon as the temperatures drop, it’s a treat to simply open a couple of windows and allow the breezes to circulate.

Because it’s older and on piers, some floors aren’t level.  Truly.  There’s an actual hump in the kitchen, right in front of the stove.  If I stand barefoot, my arch can actually curve to fit it.  Short of pulling the entire floor up and re-building, I’m not sure I can fix this.  Somewhere in the past, that board simply warped and settled.

Nor is the only such quirk in my home.  For years, before I discovered that there wasn’t a support beam anywhere from the living room to the back (and had one put in), the house wasn’t level — it was so not level that you could drop a tennis ball in the living room and watch it roll through the kitchen and the laundry room to the back room.  The house is more level now, and the floors no longer offer quite the fun of tennis-ball dropping.

It’s a modest home by many standards, but I fell in love with it as soon as I walked in the front door the first time.  The large windows in the living room allowed natural light to flood the room.  Since it’s a north-facing room, that’s really nice.  The bedrooms are east-facing, also nice for gentle light.

Over the years, I’ve added my own touches.  I’ve re-painted rooms.  I’ve renovated in earlier projects, but now am involved in yet more renovation.  Years ago my brother Phil pulled out the kitchen sink and lower cabinets and built new cabinets, neat and shelved and even put in some drawers.  About that same time I put down stick-tiles, but that wasn’t a wise choice.  These have popped and broken, and I am now in the process of beginning to pull them up.  New upper cabinets have been built and are soon to replace the older ones.  As those are done, one more coat of paint on the walls should do it.  Then I’ll get the lower cabinets repainted as well.  Finally, I want a new countertop and sink — I’m thinking of granite or quartz, something clean and simple.  Aqua walls above, white wainscot below — and aqua lower cabinets, white upper cabinets.  New flooring — sheet vinyl, probably, because of the uneven floor itself — will follow.

There are other areas I’m ready to work on.  The living room needs to have the old, crumbling paneling replaced.  The ceiling tiles there are falling down, so I’d like something simple to cover the ceiling.

For so long I too took this home for granted.  It was such a place of joy and comfort for a while.  Later, though, as my mother and brother were ill and after they died (in the 90s) it became more of a place to sleep, less of a home to entertain friends.

It was more of a refuge then.  On Fridays, I’d come home and shut the front door, often staying home all weekend.  Stressful work environment and life needed some kind of balance, and this house provided it.  I simply existed in it, though it did provide me that respite from the craziness of my life beyond it.

Then as Dad’s health worsened, I spent more time with him and less time here.  Moving in with him meant I was living in the bedroom I had when I was 16.  I moved essentials of my life there.  On weekends, I could visit my own home.  There wasn’t much time, however, for working on it or for actually living in it.

But that was interesting and revealing, too.  I learned about myself and how flexible I can be.  What is essential for me.  I occupy a house about 1800 square feet, and live alone (other than the three cats and two dogs).  Yet I have lived in a 12×13 ft. bedroom, with a small area in Dad’s living room for a computer desk.  And a card-table for a work desk.

Now I live in my home again and relish the opportunities to refresh it, to open it once more to friends.  I anticipate that.  I also recognize that such renovations will not happen overnight.  I have learned patience.  I have also learned, through living in Dad’s house while renovating it, to live in the midst of such chaos.  And to make order as I can, both mentally and physically.

Right now I am in the room that was once my bedroom, a room about 13 feet square.  Now it is an office, with no pretense at being a secondary bedroom.  I have my desktop computer and printer and my beautiful Texas-star-cornered black walnut desk.  My craft tables and materials are also in here.  As I sit here, I can look beyond the computer to a wall unit that my dad built me when I was in high school.  I wanted some kind of bookcase/storage/makeup area to fit my high-school status.  He couldn’t afford to buy the furniture but he built this piece for me.  It’s been painted since then but it has a pride of place wherever I am.

Much of my furniture, in fact, is a mix of family hand-me-downs and “store-bought” furniture.  Some was bought new.  Some was bought at flea markets or antique malls.  The blend works for me.

It’s not a house that will grace the pages of Southern Living or House Beautiful.  It’s not elegant.  My friend Patty says it’s “eclectic,” and she’s right.

I can sit in the large rocker in the living room, a gift from my grandmother Ella that belonged to her parents; I have the matching love seat too.  One of my earliest memories is sitting in that very rocker, then covered with red velvet I think, in my great-grandparents’ living room — and I’m so young that my feet barely reach the edge of the seat.

If I go to the kitchen and want to make gumbo, I use a pot that my grandmother Ella gave me when I moved to Beaumont to teach at Lamar University.  There are other pots and pans, of course, but that pot is one that is special.  If I want to make fudge, I use the bottom of a pressure-cooker that my mother always used, a pot that Mother gave me at some point.  We’ve made so much fudge in it that the line where the fudge boils up to is clearly marked if you look hard enough.

If I wanted to, I could sit on my front porch and watch people without fear.  I have neighbors I know well enough to wave to, to talk to, to visit with.

What a simple gift it has been today to stay home, recovering from sinus problems.  I could sleep without worrying that someone would break in or bomb me or use poison gas.  I could walk to the kitchen, open the refrigerator or freezer and find food with no problems.  Water from the tap was fine to drink.  A stove and microwave meant that I could cook.  If I needed, I could put laundry on to wash and then dry without leaving my home or without worry.  I had extra clothes, in themselves a gift.

I could talk to friends on the telephone or text them.  I could turn on a television or listen to music.

Television allows me to watch any number of programs.  Internet opens the world yet more to me.

My pets are fed and watered.  They are cared for, not wandering the streets searching for food.

And I can take antibiotics that my doctor prescribed and that a pharmacy filled, using health insurance I can afford, with a low co-pay.

Tomorrow when I meet a friend for early coffee (he has faculty meetings tomorrow since McNeese State University’s fall term begins on Monday), I have a car that I can depend upon.

These are gifts, gifts from the work I did for years, from the savings I have, from the pension I’ve earned.

I am surrounded by gifts, gifts from loving family and friends.  Gifts from my own work. Gifts from opportunities for women that don’t exist in other parts of the world.  I went to school and was able to make teaching literature and composition my career.  I can travel without permission from my male relatives.  I can make my own financial decisions, sign my own legal papers.

Simple gifts.  Gifts to cherish.

Today was a good day to be grateful.

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