Back to School (Temporarily) at 50
I recently attended a writers’ conference at Arizona State University. First time back on campus in many years, at least as a student. And I was most definitely a student for those couple days – commuting, parking, backpack, lunch at the student union, the whole enchilada. I was wandering around looking for a specific building, trying to appear nonchalant about it – apparently without much success, as one young man pulled his earbuds out and asked me if I was lost. Thoughtful kid to even notice, let alone take the time to help out a stranger who could easily have been his mom. “Why – do I look lost?” I asked him.
He grinned and nodded. “Yeah, kinda.” Then he proceeded to walk me in the direction of the building I was seeking. We chatted a bit on the way. His name is Ernesto and he’s from a tiny town called Rio Rico, not far from the U.S./Mexcio border. I mentioned that I’d gone to the University of Arizona, ASU’s arch-rival. He feigned upset and pretended to walk away. Then he told me he’d started at UA – makes sense, as it’s a lot closer to his hometown than ASU. But he didn’t like it. Felt it was cliquish and uninviting. A hard place to blend in and make friends. I told him that was funny to hear, as I’d thought the same thing about ASU back 30-some years ago when I was considering applying to schools.
At any rate, he’d transferred to the big city college at the start of this school year, and hasn’t looked back. The sheer size of the Phoenix area still overwhelms him, but he likes the campus, the town of Tempe where ASU is located, and the people much better. I say good for him for knowing his own mind. Reminded me a bit of Eric’s comments that so impressed me during that one dinner we shared with his family back in December:
He’s in his senior year at Northeastern University in Boston, majoring in environmental/civil engineering. At the one family dinner we shared with him, Eric explained a bit about his process for choosing Northeastern. He and his dad had gone to tour a number of schools in Boston, and Eric found himself paying particular attention to the demeanor of the students on the various campuses. Immediately he rejected a couple of schools, simply because none of the students looked even remotely happy. That’s a pretty significant level of awareness for an 18-year-old. And I couldn’t have been happier or prouder to hear him describe this thoughtfulness.
So chatting with this kid, Ernesto, of course reminded me of Eric. I rather suspect that my son would be the one to pull out his earbuds to help a lady the age of his birthmom find her way around campus. He’s charming and considerate that way. I was also just reminded of him in general, being on that campus again. While I never attended ASU as an undergrad, I did take part in a summer program for smart kids back in high school – that’s where I met my amazing friend Jane. There’s a reason they segment school into various age groupings. We might have been in a gifted program, but we were still a bunch of high school kids, running amok on a college campus. So you might not be surprised to hear that one of the things that delighted us that first summer was going up to the roof of the Modern Languages building and making a game of trying to peg the people below with Skittles. I never liked the taste of those candies – but I still chuckle at times when they come up in conversation.
I did grow up and move on to become a real undergrad. I look back now and wish I’d taken a lot more advantage of the speakers and concerts and general-interest programs that were offered on the campus. The good news is that our new house is pretty close to ASU, so we still have the opportunity to do those things. Although, the attitude and demeanor of college campuses across the country seems to have changed so much since I was in school.
When I was at the UA, mall preachers would hold signs and shout at anyone who’d listen. Now, they are confined to a tiny corner – and I suspect their speech is closely monitored. I had several teachers I despised for various reasons (mostly opinions with which I disagreed) – today on certain campuses, I could file a grievance that might actually affect their pay and status and even tenure prospects. A-list comedians are opting out of stops on college campuses because the PC Thought Police are wringing every last ounce of fun out of comedy. Thoughtful commentators are being labeled as extremists, as the actual extremists – uninformed students – shout them off the stage. The campus protests of the ’60s were before my time, but I suspect from the videos I’ve seen and what I’ve read that people were at least allowed to air their perspectives – even if it was through a megaphone or while bike-locked to a chain-link fence.
So things are different now.
And I really have become my father. I was making my way to the student union for lunch, when I suddenly heard the rumblings of something that sounded like a cat being murdered. Turns out, whoever determines the tunes that get played in the breezeway in front of the student union has what my professional guitarist husband would call comically juvenile musical taste. It was thumping, bumping, ear-splitting EDM (electronic dance music) – and no one even seemed to notice. The 19- and 20-year-olds carried on their conversations, shouting to be heard, but without flinching or batting an eye.
I also noticed something I’d never seen before that made me feel old: skateboard lock racks.
Then I headed to the library. Some things have stayed somewhat the same. Though many technology options abound that didn’t exist when I was in school, it’s still a quiet place where studious kids seem to congregate. One cool thing was the school’s prominent encouragement toward sustainability and recycling all across campus, including a large sign painted above the photocopier in the library lobby. (I do, however, take exception to the encouragement to print anywhere.)
The kiddo is getting ready to finish up his college career this summer and make his way out into the wide, wide world. I imagine that one day, as he looks back to his university days when his 7-year-old cousin Parker is a college senior, things will have changed even more. As well they should – it’s the only constant in life.