Mopping up the deep end

Whether I made the most of college or not, college made the most of me.

Appears in Fall 2008 Issue: Making the most of college (third annual)
September 1 st 2008

Dr. Livingstone stuck with lamplight, giving her office the shadowy atmosphere of an underground bunker, the sort of place world leaders might gather for post-apocalyptic strategy sessions. What we knew about her added to the sense of mystery: she'd had a security clearance during Vietnam, had received firearms training at some point, and those who'd scrutinized her curriculum vitae claimed there were tantalizing gaps in the chronology. She'd taken me under her wing four years earlier, when I was a freshman first entering her Interdisciplinary Studies program, and now I was on the verge of graduating.

She asked me to sit, then looked me over for a moment. "Four years is a long time, and you've changed a lot."

I nodded, awaiting her pronouncement. Had I turned out all right? Had I fulfilled the promise of my earlier days?

"You're still a pompous ass," she said. "But not nearly so arrogant."

To most people, pomposity and arrogance are virtually synonymous, but Dr. Livingstone was a woman of the world, capable of making such fine-grained distinctions. And it was a testament to the truth of her judgment that, hearing these words, I felt proud.

Much later, after my book Rethinking Worldview was released, I got an e-mail from her. She'd left the university to join a peacekeeping think-tank. Her daughters, whom I remembered as young girls, were all grown up and doing great things. I couldn't help feeling nostalgic.

At the time, my college years were just a prelude, probation before real life began. Now I realized how much more they'd been. Against all my expectations, they had formed me.

* * *

I chose the right college for the wrong reason. By the time I found it, I already had a full scholarship somewhere else, and the deadline for financial aid had long passed. But there was one area where the new school put all the others—including the one offering the free ride—to shame. Union had the best dorms.

You laugh, but it makes a big difference. No shared bath. A bedroom all to yourself. An apartment-style layout, completely furnished and with a state-of-the-art kitchenette. I figured the subject matter doesn't change from one school to the next—literature is literature, history is history—and after all, wouldn't I be able to apply myself better with a few creature comforts?

I loved those dorms. I was sorry to see them gutted.

A friend from Union days e-mailed me when it happened: "Have you seen the photos of the dorms?"

I figured they'd built new ones. Since I graduated in 1991, the university had been on a non-stop building campaign, gentrifying the landscape of my early adulthood, adding some much-needed ivy. Maybe they'd thrown up some red-brick dormitories in the nineteenth century style? But, "No."

"Turn on the news," my friend wrote back.

And there it was on Fox and CNN. My alma mater, eviscerated by a tornado, countless people in the hospital, but fortunately no one killed. The destruction seemed total, at least where the dormitories were concerned. The cinderblock walls, deconstructed block by block and scattered. I tried to remember exactly where my second-floor bedroom had been, then match the image in my head to the one on screen. Sure enough, I could look right in, straight through the roof. I'd spent many a night in bed staring up at that ceiling, and now it wasn't there anymore.

Students spoke into the cameras in their impenetrable West Tennessee accents, reminding me how for my first couple of weeks as a freshman I could hardly translate what people were saying. At our roundtable orientation, the leader had to repeat everything twice for my benefit. Finally, she couldn't help asking.

"What part of the North are you from?"

"Louisiana," I said. From so far south, that if you were born any farther you'd be swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

I watched the coverage like everyone else. This was their tragedy, the kids onscreen. Only it wasn't, not entirely. It belonged to me, too, though in a sense I couldn't articulate. Sure, something had happened to the place, and it was theirs now, but something had also happened to the past. And that was mine.

* * *

According to Dr. Wooten, who never washed out his coffee mug for fear of disturbing its hard-earned patina, I had an affinity for sociological thinking. This was after he read my report on our group project, in which we staged a series of thefts in the Old Hickory Mall, expecting bystanders to ignore them. Instead they cornered us in the back of Kay Bee Toys and called security. Our researcher-turned-shoplifter, a guy from the theatre department, was wearing make-up to make himself look tougher. And a pair of ripped denim shorts.

"You should change your major," Dr. Wooten said. "Or double major."

I was tempted, but I'd already changed my major once, from Communications to English lit, and I was going on five minors. (I actually graduated with three of them).

The secret to success in Sociology, as in every course, was to act like you owned it. Forget about the tests. On day one, you dub yourself a sociologist (or a historian, or a biologist) and start building your expertise. You ask questions in class because you have questions, not because there's a grade for participation. This sleight-of-mind reads as natural affinity, but it's really just taking an interest.

One of my grad school professors put it well.

"This is your subject," she said. "I expect you to take ownership. Dig into the journals; keep up with what's going on the field. If you only read what's assigned, what's the point of being here?"

The point for most students, I suppose, is to get a degree. To get out of school so they can finally start living. They focus on the diploma, not the class. For others, what matters is outside the classroom. The social game. When I visited my wife's alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus, I asked whether it was a party school.

"For a certain kind of student," she said, "every school is a party school."

The opposite must also be true. For a certain kind of student, every school is top tier. Every classroom is Plato's academy. The question is how to be that kind of student. It begins with taking an interest. Showing an affinity—whether you have one or not.

* * *

As a freshman, I needed a special dispensation to join the senior-level theatre seminar on directing. My advisor signed off on nineteen hours worth of upper level electives without batting an eye, but for this one I needed permission. Mr. Burke, who ran the theatre department, had once worked for A. D. Players in Houston, where my family now lived. That accident of geography seemed to work in my favour. He let me in the class.

We sat in a semi-circle up on stage—in director's chairs, naturally—and I only understood about a third of what was said. This time it wasn't the accents. The other students were sharp, and they'd been in the department for years. They had a shared knowledge I lacked. So I had to play catch-up, asking questions outside of class and going to the library every time someone casually referenced an obscure book. I read Uta Hagen, Jerzy Grotowski, and Constantin Stanislavski. I went to a production of Sartre's No Exit after hours, dug through scenebooks in search of something interesting to direct.

By the end of the semester, I could follow about half of the in-class conversation, and the following year I was assistant director on our production of The Fantastiks, in which I also made my stage debut, albeit as a mime. (My second on-stage role, awarded by my voice instructor, was in Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona; I played Vespone, who doesn't sing—or speak—a word.)

Thus another secret of success was revealed. It's better, if you have the choice, to dive in at the deep end of the pool. You won't know what's going on at first, but that's the best incentive to learn.

One of my theatre friends spoke fluent German thanks to her years in a Berlin-based touring company. She'd joined not knowing a word of the language and had to learn all her lines phonetically. I discovered this skill after making some dumb remark in my pidgin Deutsch, cribbed from re-runs of Hogan's Heroes and Allo' Allo', to which she replied in a torrent of sprechen-sie, much to my surprise. At first I couldn't imagine learning anything that way, let alone a language. Now I wonder if there is any other way.

Immersion is the word. In college the point is to immerse yourself not just in language but expertise. Digging into the journals, as my grad school prof suggested, is one way. Outside reading, and lots of it. But your best resource isn't the library. It's the teachers.

* * *

Most of my professors had offices about the size of a mop closet—assuming there was just the one mop, and perhaps a little pail. They kept office hours anyway, an open-door policy most of us only took advantage of when problems arose. Missed a deadline? Skipped a class? That's what office hours were for, to save you the humiliation of trying to explain in front of everyone else. I realized only later what those open doors really signified. The expertise was making itself available, assuming we students were interested.

There was more. The professors opened their homes to us. I was at Dr. Livingstone's all the time. A whole group of us spent the night once and were served pancakes the next morning. We were part of the family. Mr. Pugh, who'd introduced me to Camus and Chaim Potok, invited the class over and serenaded us at the piano. And to one extent or another, all my teachers were open in this way. They were willing to be mentors, even friends. They would meet for coffee off campus, answer honest questions about my progress (or lack thereof), and just talk. I didn't have to have a problem, personal or academic, to justify the time. All I needed were questions and a willingness to ask.

Other students were the same. Jim Tartar, a senior high up in the Honors Program when I was just a freshman, took me to the mall and explained deconstruction. It wasn't the last time someone had to explain it, and I still don't quite grasp the concept, but Jim was one of the older, wiser students I modelled myself after. He talked about our professors—academic deities, in my mind, unknowable and radically Other—as if they were friends. He had conversations with them, even disagreements. He almost seemed like one of them. For me, he was one of them, and that was a secret, too.

As a student I was on a hidden trajectory, and its apex wasn't a degree. I was part of a process, and it was transforming me. Not into a graduate but into a teacher.

* * *

The first class I ever taught was Eric Williamson's. He had to go out of town, so I agreed to cover one of his community college courses, a night class on American literature. Unlike most of the other grad students in creative writing, I wasn't putting myself through the program by student teaching. I had a corporate job. So the thought of being in front of a classroom was unnerving. I boned up on Edgar Allan Poe like a kid cramming for the big test, then showed up half an hour early to pace the halls.

The word must have leaked out. Only one student showed up.

So instead of the stilted monologue I'd prepared, we pulled our chairs together and chatted about Poe, the earlier class assignments, life in general. I even managed to work in a few references to Charles Baudelaire. Afterward, I felt like I'd actually done something. If nothing else, I had managed to pass on my love of the subject. When he returned, Eric confirmed that my one student had really benefitted from the experience.

Since then, I've been at the front of many classrooms and lecture halls. The appeal of teaching—something I never understood when I was on the receiving end—finally makes sense. And even though I learned much of what I know outside the classroom, long after I'd walked off with my degree in hand, the time I spent in college remains a touchstone. The way I talk about it has changed. There was a time, when college was still visible in my rearview mirror, that I discussed it like ancient history.

"Back when I was an undergraduate . . ." I'd begin, referring to a point approximately eighteen months in the past.

Now, though, I feel like I never left. The influence of those years asserts itself more and more. Perhaps that's why, when I saw those students on television, wide-eyed in response to their close call with danger, I felt wide-eyed myself. I'd had a close call of my own, though in a different sense.

It's hard to make the claim, looking back, that I made the most of college. For all the secrets I learned, there were plenty I didn't. And some I only appreciated in hindsight. I'd like to think I did all right, but making the most of it? I'm only thirty-seven. It's too soon to tell. One thing I do know. Whether I made the most of college or not, college made the most of me.


J. Mark Bertrand is the author of three novels—Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and Nothing to Hide—Bertrand has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His non-fiction book Rethinking Worldview is used in several university and seminary courses, and his work has appeared in print or online at ByFaith, Comment, Books & Culture, and First Things. He writes about the design and production of Bibles at the popular blog