Monday, May 01, 2006

Bobcat Love and Celestial Light

On Saturday, Kate and I forced our daughter Rachel to get up far earlier than she would have preferred, kidnapped her and strapped her in the car, and escorted her to Athens, Ohio to visit Ohio University. We’re in the midst of the Spring College Tour Season, checking out potential alma maters for one member of the class of 2011, and O.U. was the next stop on the tour. It’s a place where I stopped for four years, back in the years that straddled either side of the mid-‘70s, so there’s a bit of a history there. And it was amazing how much of that history came flooding back while strolling those cobblestoned walkways.

I am biased, and I admit it. I can’t imagine going to college in any finer town than Athens, Ohio. You can’t stay there after you graduate. There’s no employment outside of the university and the many retail establishments on Court and Union Streets that cater to the students, but by that point you have a degree, and you don’t want to work at Taco Bell, so you move on. But you do so reluctantly. There are 10,000 people in the town and 20,000 O.U. Bobcats. And for the years between roughly 18 and 22, there is no better place in the universe to discover who you are, hang out amidst the natural beauty of the foothills of the Appalachians, and experience college life in the quintessential college town. My greatest challenge was biting my tongue and letting Rachel discover this for herself.

But there’s baggage that comes with that quintessential college life, and that resurfaced during our little campus tour as well. At some indeterminate point in the past the sixties appear to have ended in Athens, Ohio. Kids with short hair walk around the campus now, their cell phones pressed to their ears. They all look like C.P.A.s., and they look like they could be making business deals in corporate America. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time – maybe even for a couple decades after the fact – the sixties were alive and well in Athens, Ohio. Every day was Woodstock. And I can recall strolling those cobblestoned streets for the first time, being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of hair that I saw, being amazed by the number of people out on their front porches, picking guitars and banjos and sawing on fiddles, and being puzzled by the sweet smell that came wafting out of almost every doorway I passed. Just what was that? I figured it out soon enough. They were all just hanging out at home on those old streets, taking the cobble out of cobblestoned, and that was a road that seemed like it was worth exploring at the time.

So I walked around with Kate and Rachel and thought about all that. I thought about all the mistakes I made on this beautiful, picturesque campus. I thought about some of my classes. But mostly I thought about my friends, most of whom have scattered all over the world now, the ones that are still alive, and who I rarely if ever see. There was a girl. There’s always a girl. I don’t know what happened to her. And so when you visit your old stomping grounds a generation down the line there are bound to be a few ghosts trailing behind you, stirring up trouble and old memories.

We walked past Ellis Hall, the English building, the place where I first learned to love language, to listen for the music in the words, where I first caught the melody and was startled. And I remembered some words I first heard in that building, read aloud by some now deceased English professor, his voice finding all the right notes on an impossibly bright, green spring day just like this one:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

That’s good old Billy Wordsworth, and damn, I listened to those astonishing words and wanted to weep, and do cartwheels, and run around like a crazy man and yell at people to stop, to look around them, to check out the celestial light and see how good it looked in Athens, Ohio. I think I felt more alive and more love than I’ve ever felt in my life. I just wanted to tell them that life was precious, and time was short, and that there was no better place on earth to be than where we were, that day, that moment. And I remember that as if it was yesterday.

Then there was this:

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

It was all a long time ago. In my twenties, I would grow melancholy listening to Lawrence Welk play Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. So William Wordsworth at fifty can just about make me suicidal. I walked around that beautiful, 200-year-old campus, hearing ancient voices bouncing off the ivy-covered walls, catching glimpses out of the corner of my eye of friends who were dead, or the victims of too many years and too many miles and too many generic Christmas cards, and I knew very well that there had passed away a glory from the earth.

I didn’t talk about it. What could I say? You see, there are these people you don’t know, and will never know, and they’re walking around behind me, and I hear their voices on the wind. Sure.

So we followed our tour guide, who recited his canned spiel, and showed off some new buildings, and told us above all not to have anything to do with OU’s big rival, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I believe he was serious. I stood next to Kate, my Miami girl for twenty-four years now, and listened politely. You do some crazy things for love. Our love child, soon to be a high school senior, took it all in, and looked around, and smiled. I didn’t have to say anything. O.U. and Athens worked their magic. I couldn’t shake the melancholy. But I was glad, very glad, to be with my family on a gorgeous spring day in southeast Ohio. And all the way home up Route 33, out of those hills and back into the flatlands of Columbus, I thought about the glory that has passed away, and the glory that remains.


Anonymous said...

Athens = home.

and all those fella's with long hair and what not come out during the summer + winter break.

And don't forget the finest coffee shop in all of Ohio, Donkey Coffee.

Unknown said...

I live an hour or so drive away from my own favorite place, Ann Arbor,MI and it's often too far. There's a border between us and a dozen years now, but I fill up with wonder and hope and an eagerness to take on the whole world each time I visit.

Nice words today...I'm smiling.

Russell Lucas said...

This is such a fantastic post. We just-- like yesterday and the day before-- spent some time at my little college town (Indiana, PA), which sounds suspiciously like yours. The three of us had our nine (between us) young kids along, and while we're not school-shopping yet, it was so meaningful to walk in those same places and sit on the same benches.

Anonymous said...

When I was at OU, 63 thru 67, you were either Greek, GDI (God Damn Independant) or artsy-craftsy (the word hippie had yet to be invented). Buses picked up students at the campus gate who wanted to be freedom riders down south. Every other spring the Hocking River flooded the town, and the students had a mild, pointless demonstration in the Spring of the off years. It seemed like everyone was from Cleveland (I wasn't), except that there were a surprising number from New York, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh. Those of us who lived down the hill in the East Green had to climb that hill first thing every morning to go to class, and it was alleged that one could always spot female OU students and alums anywhere in the world by the size of their calves, the result of all those hill climbs. Some of us majored in accounting back then, Andy, although we had a good time as well. It's where I first heard the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Simon & Garfunkle, James Brown, Jimi, Van Morrison, and a lot of more forgettable folks. Unlike your Kate, who was more or less coerced into going to Miami, four of her older sisters went to OU, where I met and married one of them.

It was a great place to make memories. If Rachel ends up there, I hope she finds it to be as wonderful as we all did.

Anonymous said...

Great. Now you'll have another worry.

The trolling nets my sig.other's sons throw out every night at the Casa, or (OH YEAH) the Smiling Skull.

e said...

I suppose saying something like: "my sister went to OU (class of 2000) and did nothing but party for 4 years, graduated almost on a technicality, and now has to go back to school to actually learn something" will only make you angry.

I know your older daughter is there now and is probably making her own way... but, man... if you don't want a couple of tight-black-pants-wearing, I'm-hoarse-because-I-drank-to-much-last-month, I'm-glad-my-dad-doesn't-know-what-I'm-up-to daughters, don't send them to either OU or Miami....

That's a terrible thing to say, I know. However, given my sister, parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who are all either Bobcats or Redbirds...try Ohio Wesleyan or Kenyon or Case Western or Earlham or (gasp) Wooster.

e said...

I am just kidding, of course.

I'm sure your daughters tell you everything.

Andy Whitman said...

Erik, re: the party aspects -- certainly they are there. They've always been there. But they are everywhere else, too, and I daresay that, even at a Christian college, if kids wants to party, they will find a way to party.

I think I got a good education at O.U. But it probably varies depending on the program, as it does at any school. I majored in Creative Writing, and I was taught by some big-time writers -- Daniel Keyes ("Flowers for Algernon") and Walter Tevis ("The Hustler," "The Man Who Fell to Earth"). So I went to a Top-5 Creative Writing school, which prepared me to write sentences like "The macd_update.asp is called when an SR is expanded, and an individual MACD number is selected from sr_select_menu.asp." Oh well. It wasn't their fault that you can't make a living writing creatively.
But I really received an excellent education there.

I also did my fair share of partying. But that was me. That wasn't the university doing that to me.

My oldest daughter is actually at Kent State University. She's doing fine, although it's probably best if I don't know some things. But she's busting her butt academically. I'm proud of her.

Rachel isn't interested in Ohio Wesleyan (too close to home) or Kenyon (too close to our old home in Mount Vernon, Ohio; plus have you ever met a normal human being who went to Kenyon?) Ohio State is way too big, and way too close to home. The other MAC schools in Ohio (Toledo, Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami) aren't Ohio U. Why would you go to them? I'm pushing Wooster. Rachel isn't that interested. Right now it's between Denison, Oberlin, and O.U., at least in Ohio. We haven't explored out-of-state options yet, but we will.

e said...

Actually everyone that I know that went to a liberal arts college in Ohio was on massive scholarship. My parents paid nothing for me, whereas my sister (who went to OU) cost a mint.

But it's not for everyone. There's not the happening social scene at most liberal arts colleges, so if you're "stuck" there, you are likely to get weird, depressed, or both. Unless you're already weird or depressed (or both) like I was/probably still am. In which case, the only place that would have worked for me was a liberal arts college.

Again it's only my experience, but the Miami-OU commonality of today (circa 1995 to the present) is one of great privilege. Almost all of the people that I know that currently attend or have just graduated from either of these schools come from significant wealth. That is simply not the case with many of the other MAC schools or most of the liberal arts schools in Ohio--with the exception of Denison and perhaps Kenyon. But OWU, Witt, Allegeny (PA), CWU, CoW, Muskingum, Marietta, Oberlin, Earlham (IN)...these are all filled with normal folks that perhaps didn't want to go to a school of 10,000 or so people.

So you shouldn't infer some sort of silver-spoon background for most of these schools. One good friend of mine from Wooster was the first person in his family to go to college--he was from a trailer park in Arkansas. Of course another one happened to have a Congressman for a dad.

And then there's Duncan Jones, who (accidently) broke my nose during rugby practice. His dad was a little known rock and roll star from the 1960s named David Bowie. So I guess not everyone is a regular joe.

Andy Whitman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

David Bowie ... That name sounds vaguely familiar. I'll have to look him up. :-)

It's really difficult to get a feel for the student body of any given college/university during a 2-hour campus visit. But that, to me, is as important as the campus, the programs offered, the academic standing of the institution, etc.

I (and by extension Rachel, or at least that's my hope :-)) am looking for a place that's diverse in every way -- culturally, racially, economically, religiously. Why? Because that's the way the world is, and the sooner you can come to grips with that, the better off you'll be.

Rachel has led a semi-sheltered life in Westerville. She's surrounded by middle- to upper-middle-class suburban kids. And so I really want her to experience reality as it exists for other groups of people. I certainly experienced that at O.U. It's difficult for me to gauge, at least at this point, whether that would be true now. I hope so.

There are certain places where I know she would NOT experience that -- Miami, for instance, which may be the most homogenously preppy and Republican campus in the nation. Just Say No to the Redhawks/Redskins/Hey, we've got some makeup that can take care of that.

In terms of the smaller, liberal arts colleges you mention, e, I believe you when you recount your experiences. But I'm wondering, even with the scholarships you're talking about, how they could boast of a more diverse student body than some of the state institutions. The tuition at Denison is $37K per year. At O.U. it's $16K. Those had better be some really great scholarships.

We're probably out of luck in terms of scholarships related to financial aid. It's the curse of the middle class. We don't make enough money to just shrug off, oh, say the $40K - $60K per year that we'll be expected to shell out once both of our kids are in college at the same time. Who can do this? Not me. But we make too much money to be eligible for scholarships based on financial need.

Academic scholarships might be another matter. We're just looking in to that process now. But Rachel is in the top 1% of her class, is involved in many extracurricular school activities, etc. Lots of good stuff there. There should be scholarship opportunities on that front. We'll see.

e said...

I was on academic scholarships. Plus I went to a rough-and-tumble Columbus public high school, so I'm sure that made a difference as well.

Diversity. Wow. I could say a mouthful here about colleges. On the one hand, it doesn't matter if you have 213458172 countries and ethnic groups represented on campus. I went to Ohio State for graduate school 7 years ago and saw, ate with, and talked with people from pretty much everywhere in the world and of pretty much every socio-economic class. But the diversity I experienced at Wooster was far deeper than the merely broad experience I had at Ohio State.

(As an aside, I think that between my experiences at Woo, OSU, and ND as well as friends and family at BGSU, KSU, YSU, Oberlin, Kenyon, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Florida State, Tulane, Louisiana State, USC, UCLA, Reed, U of Oregon, Gonzaga, Akron, Toledo, OU, Miami (OH), Stanford, Tufts, Kansas State, and almost all of the NCAC liberal arts schools--Case Western, etc.--I've got about the broadest exposure to various campuses in the US and England of any non-guidance counselor. That of course doesn't mean that I can tell you what your family should do. But I can tell you something about each school through the experiences of me or a friend/family member).

Here's a for-instance: I joined a frat my junior year at Woo. These frats were not like the national ones that other friends of mine were in. Two of my frat brothers were from Pakistan, one from inner-city Detroit, one from Mexico City. Then a bunch were from the sticks of Ohio or Pennsylvania. I was one of only three Ohio urbanites during my time. Now I can't make a claim for every other school in the world, but I can say that "diversity" could be something like "window dressing" if you don't get involved in it. If you aren't part of a diverse community on purpose--which is tough at big schools because enclaves of ethnicities develop and harden.

Ohio State was populated by more ethnicities than I've ever seen in once place, with the possible exception of the Bronx. But no one talked to each other. It was eerie walking down the sidewalk with ten thousand other people who didn't look each other in the eye and who mostly talked to each other on cellphones.

So "diversity" means little unless you actually have meaningful experiences with people different than you. And in this department quantity can actually work against quality. I'm sure this is true at any size of school, not just mammoths like OSU and dwarves like CoW. (It's true at ND where white and black and asian students don't interact much.)

Andy Whitman said...

Okay, e, after reading your words, and after much prodding, cajoling, and threatening (okay, not the latter), Wooster has been added to our list of campuses to visit.

These are the Fighting Scots, right? I love Fighting Scots. It's the memories of Braveheart. I'm thinking of painting my face blue, my own little private protest against all the makeup at places like Miami. Freedom!, I say.

Living the Biblios said...

I really enjoy your blog. I graduated from OU in 1984 and worked at School Kids Records until seminary beckoned in 1990. God bless.