Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s grumpy. We’re all exhausted. We pulled in last night at 9:30 after our whirlwind tour of North Carolina colleges. We live in Pennsylvania. It’s practically a southern state compared to New England states like New Hampshire or Vermont, but our winter suits none of us. Especially Sophie.
She’s a high school junior, academically inclined. She’s trying to find the perfect school. Not too large, not too small, not too urban, definitely not rural, not too close, not too far, with a deep biology department, and a women’s Rugby team. Oh, and far warmer winters than we have in Gettysburg. Our winter starts in November and lingers around until April. It’s a waste of half the year.
Thursday afternoon, stolen glances at the clock in the second-floor conference room, high and to the side. I tried to not be obvious. 2:40, 2:55, 3:15. We planned to be on the road at 3:00. The finance committee meeting lingered, stretched, expanded as we discussed the cost/benefit analysis of upping our internet bandwidth. The meeting was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. but Wednesday’s snowstorm caused a late start to the day. Ugh, winter!
We checked into our hotel after 10:30 p.m. Our first college tour of the weekend scheduled at 8:30 the next morning. The pace never abated. Tour, drive, tour, drive, eat, sleep, tour. It was warm. Fifty-five degrees when we pulled into Chapel Hill. And raining. Friday morning, somewhat cooler, somewhat rainier. We’re an outdoorsy family—lots of hiking regardless of the weather. And we have a Columbia clothing outlet five miles from home. We all have awesome raincoats. A little rain shouldn’t be too disruptive, we thought.
I graduated from college in 1984. Touring these schools, UNC, NC State, Elon University, I learned things have changed. At my school of two thousand students, we had one cafeteria. A massive room, bigger than a gymnasium, rows of tables stretching from one wall to the other. It was open for business for four hours each day. Meal times were set, and that’s when you ate. Breakfast from 7:00 to 8:00. Lunch from 11:30 until 1:00. Dinner 4:30 to 6:00. Thirteen hours until your next meal. Pocketing food to eat later was considered stealing.
Sliding my tray, walking down the serving line, I’d point at various dense, cheesy, overcooked casseroles. None appetizing, none particularly tasty. And vegetables—lima beans, peas and carrots, my least favorites, swimming in hot water. Any other necessary calories were obtained from white bread rolls with butter trayed next to the fountain drink machine. My final year, they added a lunchtime salad bar. Iceberg lettuce, sliced hard-boiled eggs, pickled beets, gloopy dressings like thousand island and blue cheese—nutrition, an afterthought.
Touring schools with Sophie, I was shocked by the food selection. Taquerias, kabobs, wraps, salads, pizza, soft-serve. Cafeterias resembled food courts with small tables of four and six. Nowhere near enough seating to accommodate everyone at once, but each meal was served for three hours. The students naturally spread themselves out. NC State even had a late-night cafeteria for students who couldn’t make it through the night until breakfast.
Food is the easy example. Subtler, but more important improvements included availability of free tutoring to any student in any subject. A writing center to offer feedback on students’ essays. Professorial office hours, Teaching Assistant led lecture reviews. Advisors, mentors and hundreds and hundreds of clubs to join. The only thing that didn’t improve was the dorms. The rooms we toured were smaller and drearier than where I lived thirty-five years ago.
After each tour, an hour and a half standing in chilly, relentless rain listening to “campus ambassadors” tout their variously awesome schools, we hopped in our car to move to the next destination. Everyone quiet, worn out from being cold, lost in our own thoughts. My thoughts? A little bit of envy, a dose of regret.
As we toured the campuses, learning what each school had to offer, I tried to envision what Sophie was thinking. Which school did she see as the best match? Is the town of Elon too small? Is the NC State campus too big? Is the UNC biology department robust enough? But by the time I got in the car, I was primarily focused on which school was the best match for me.
I often think back to my young adult years, starting with college and extending well into my thirties, and wish for a do-over. Yes, I had fun, lots of fun, but it was always drunken-fun. I was always drunk. And if not drunk, hungover. My effort in college was just enough to get by. All-nighters for essays and papers, rote memorization for everything else. I never let studying interrupt my party schedule. I had some classes that I enjoyed, some I even nailed, but none of them got the attention necessary for me to grow as a scholar.
I don’t have fond memories from college because what I was doing as a college student—bars, parties, hookups, drunkenness—no longer interests me. I used to love reminiscing my college years. Now I just see them as so much wasted time. The student life described on the campuses this past weekend, delving into and mastering topics, seeking out help when I need it, offering help when I know it, is much more in line with who I am now. A well-rounded student, focused, sober, maybe I’d even join a trail running club.
For the past eight months, since attending a writers’ workshop at West Virginia University, the idea of a structured learning environment for creative writing has become my dream. I’d love a chance to immerse myself in education once again, but this time do it better, take it seriously, improve with each class.
I’ve got this dream on hold. I have two kids moving steadily towards college. A family to help support, a household to help run. I have plenty of responsibilities to keep me busy without adding rigorous coursework into my schedule. For now, I’ll satisfy myself by reading books, maybe enjoy an annual writers’ workshop, and try to write clean, interesting blog posts for you to read. And maybe, if I can find one, I’ll join up with a trail running club in the meantime.
The title of this essay is taken from the Frank Sinatra song My Way. I hate Frank Sinatra. Please take a minute to listen to this version by Sid Vicious. It’s brilliant. Tee beginning is satire. It really gets started after a minute or so. My Way.