So, You Are Really Going to College; I Think I’ll Just Cry


Why is it a big deal to be accepted for a Bachelor’s degree program? Why do I tear up when a good friend of mine shows me his acceptance letter to a university?

It isn’t all that much of a surprise, him being accepted. It really is a given. He’s bright, ambitious, and has been doing some serious academic weightlifting in his first two years of college course work. He hides most of his light under the proverbial basket, but we all know he’s going on to get a bachelor’s degree.

To actually see the letter, and see the grin on my friend’s face, spoke to my soul, and lightened up my heart. Tears came, and I choked on my words.

It goes back to my family, and the feelings I had when I received a similar letter, back when I was more that ready to leave home, and leave my little town, and venture forth into the world. It was a huge milestone for me, and marked the beginning of my adult life, when I could actually go out in the world and live my dreams.

My dad’s parents were hard working wheat farmers in rural Saskatchewan. My dad took me there when I was a teenager, and showed me the foundation of the family homestead cabin. The barn was still standing, but the house was long gone. A lifetime of cruel Canadian prairie winters had had its way with the clapboard house. My grandparents, their six children, and my great uncle lived there for about ten years, as they plowed and planted the wild Canadian prairie, raising wheat, oats, horses, and all of their vegetables.

The prairie wind whistled through the nearby trees, the ones my grandfather planted when they first homesteaded the place. It was summer, but I could only imagine what the wind was like in the dead of winter, with the snow and the forty degrees below zero nights.

The railroad was sixteen miles away, in the closest town. Every fall they hauled their wheat to the grain elevators at the railroad station, and hopefully earned enough money to buy their essentials for the next year.

When the kids were old enough, they would move into town for the winter, boarding with friends, and go to high school. Until then, a one room school house several miles away from their house provided their education.

My grandmother was tough. German, self educated, and the manager of the farm. She cooked all the meals, and also fed the neighbors at harvest time, cooking on a little stove that burned wood, if it was available. But, mainly she fed the flames with tight bundles of straw or dried prairie grass, or dried cow or horse manure. Winter brought temperatures down to forty below zero and blizzards that necessitated the running of a rope between the house and the barn, so you wouldn’t get lost and freeze to death when you had to go feed the animals and milk the cow.

They did all right on the farm, making money most years. They even added a room onto the house, so my grandparents could have a room of their own. Everyone else slept on rough planks laid across the rafters, above the little stove.

World War I broke out, unleashing a strong anti-German sentiment in Canada. The family spoke German at home. Commonly used German words in English became unpopular, and other phrases and words replaced them. Yet, my grandparents were proud Canadians, perfecting ownership in their homestead with their hard work.

One year, they made enough money that they took all the family to the world’s fair in San Francisco. It was quite the adventure, and my dad, the youngest at 6, told stories of the four day train trip, and the wonders of the world’s fair and San Francisco.

I think the trip made a big impression on everyone. My dad and his brothers and sisters all loved to travel, and were all students of the world.

The biggest impression, though, was with my grandmother. She believed, ardently, that in order for her children to get ahead in the world, they needed a good education. And, a boarding high school wouldn’t provide everything they would need to get ahead in life.

She had a dream that every one of her children would go to college. And, not just the boys; the girls, too. She studied, looking at options. She learned that Oregon had a number of colleges, and farming was profitable, land was available. In the 1920s, when their farm was earning good money and land values were up, they sold the farm, and moved to a smaller farm just north of Salem.

A good high school was less than ten miles away, and Salem was the home of a good university. A half dozen private and state colleges were within sixty miles of their new home.

One uncle became a doctor, the other uncle a forester, who would operate his own logging company and also teach forestry at Oregon State University. Two aunts not only earned their bachelor degrees, but also their masters’ degrees. My other aunt finished three years of college.

And this was in the 1920s, the decade where women finally won the right to vote. It was still unusual for a girl to graduate from high school. Women in universities were a rarity.

My dad, the youngest of the six kids, enrolled in the University of Oregon, and then went on to medical school in Portland. He worked nights washing dishes in a cafeteria, putting himself through medical school. His parents paid only for his books. All of his higher education was accomplished during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when farm income was down, and jobs were very difficult to find.

When I was growing up, there were a lot of books in the house, and going to school was seen as the job that my two older brothers and I had. Homework was a priority, and my parents took a keen interest in my schooling.

The talk around the dinner table was “when” we were going to college, not “if”. It was a given.

When I was seven, my mom and dad gave me some money. All of us went down to the bank and I opened up a savings account.

“This is your college fund,” my folks told me.

And, I was expected to put money into the account, from time to time. A bit of money I might earn doing some chores, birthday money, maybe even some money I might receive at Christmas. Later, I’d make a little money helping my mom’s folks on their dairy farm. Most of that went in the bank, too, except the money for a few school clothes and supplies.

My folks added money into it, too, making sure they wrote me a check, so I could make the deposit.

It never occurred to me to take money out of the account. I actually didn’t know how to do that. And, the nice lady who ran the savings accounts and note section of the bank would have made sure I didn’t make a withdrawal. She knew what the money was for, and she’d be on the phone to my mom in a heartbeat if I showed up to make a withdrawal.

My dad’s mother had a stroke when I was in first grade, and came to live in the hospital in my town. Nursing homes were pretty rare then, and my dad arranged for her to be a long term patient at the hospital. She would come visit us a lot, and I remember her urging me to study hard and to learn everything I could. The stroke had made her a woman of few words, but I still remember her preaching to me about school, the flame in her steel blue eyes conveying her passion and her command.

We subscribed to the daily paper, and Time and Saturday Evening Post. There was another national newspaper we also read, and talked about at dinner. We had a big set of encyclopedias and my dad subscribed to the Book of the Month Club. I read most of that material.

In the first grade, our class paraded down to the town’s library and I got a library card. I’d always check out books, and was a big reader in the summer reading program. My mom would read books, too, and I saw my dad reading every night, and also studying medical journals, and listening to tapes of medical lectures.

Having one’s nose in a book was just a normal event in our evenings at home.

My older brothers went to the University of Oregon, and during our visits to them at school, my dad would make a point of walking around the campus with me, letting me get familiar with the place.

When one of my aunts would come for her annual visit, she would bring a book for me and talk about education. She had her master’s degree, and would stay up late at night talking with my dad about science and math, and physics. She became an expert in botany and would go out on hikes with us, and related the Latin names for the plants we saw.

When I was a junior in high school, my folks started taking me to colleges to “look around”.

I picked a different college than my older brothers — Lewis and Clark, and my dad astounded me during the first visit to the campus by asking the admissions staff about their masters’ degree programs.

During my first year and a half in college, my dad would write letters to me, encouraging me, and urging me to study hard. It was a rare letter than contained anything else.

One of my aunts died suddenly in my first year of college. She was the one who would come every year from Texas, or New York, and later, Illinois, to stay with us. She always brought me a book then, and always sent me another one for Christmas. She would read with me, and ask me questions about what I was learning. She had moved to Salem, about a year before she died. We drove to her funeral, which was the day I was going back to school for winter term. Somehow, it seemed like a good way to honor her, remembering her at her funeral, and then going back to college. I studied extra hard that term, just for her.

My dad had a heart attack in the middle of my second year of college. I was home for the last week of his life, and then for the funeral. And, all of my family made a point with me to get me back to school before the end of the term, and even to work on my homework those awful and sad couple of weeks.

Getting an education has just been a part of my life. When I was a kid, any kind of road trip or venture into the big city somehow involved learning something. I always had a book to read in the back seat, and we would stop to read all the history and geography road signs. We’d go to museums, see a play, or a movie, and talk about what we were seeing. I’d be expected to know my way around a road map, and to give a short briefing to the rest of the family on some point of history or geography of the area.

When I got married, my wife and I scrimped and saved, putting a little money away each month for my stepson’s college fund. We bought a set of encyclopedias on time, so he’d have some reference material at home. There was always homework hour after dinner, and we both went to his school conferences.

We did the college visits with him, too, and one summer when he was in high school, we arranged for him to attend a week of living on campus, participating in an enrichment program.

Our foster sons heard the speech, too, and knew we were serious about homework and school. Some of our best conversations occurred during my drive to school every morning. And, our road trips had some good conversations and study questions, too.

Later on, I served on the local school board. And, my wife, the high school teacher, was always promoting opportunities for young people. She organized several trips to Europe for her students, exposing them to a wide range of experiences and cultures. She expanded on her own French classes in college, and spent a summer in France, returning fluent enough to teach French. Later, she learned Spanish, enrolling in another immersion program.

Every year, I find a college class or two to take, and, a few years ago, even took a serious run at a master’s degree in counseling, until I realized the program and my goals were at odds.

We laugh at how many books we read, and the coffee table and my bedside table are usually piled high with books. My favorite gifts to give at Christmas are books, and my favorite store is a book store.

I just retired, but the first week into that adventure, I started a guitar class, and a weightlifting and fitness class at the local Y. Taking some classes seems the right thing to do as I begin a new part of my life.

I’m now president of the local community college’s foundation, working to improve scholarship resources for young people around this county who are working to earn a college degree. One of my tasks is to write an article in the local paper about the benefits of scholarships and endowments to our kids’ future, and our future.

I’ve counseled, encouraged, and mentored dozens, if not hundreds of young people over my legal career here, to make something of themselves, to improve their lives, and to use their brains to get ahead in life. I’ve taught some classes, and tutored a few neighbor kids. I’ve given a few speeches on the power of education.

My wife and I are mentoring young men in prison now, supporting them in their work to improve their lives, use their brains, and get ahead in this world. And, a big part of that work is education. We bring them books, pay for music lessons, challenge them, and have serious discussions about their lives and their goals.

So, when a young friend of mine shows me his letter of acceptance to a university, all of this comes full circle to me. Yes, there are tears. Tears of joy, of gratitude, even tears of grief for those who have passed on.

A few more people show up in the room with us: my grandmother who moved the family halfway across the continent so they could get an education; my aunt, who would make it a point to bring me a book and read to me each summer; my dad and my mom, who helped me save, and encouraged me to use my brains; all the young people I’ve worked with, encouraging them to move ahead with their lives. My younger me is in the room, too; a young man hungry to move out into the world, make something of himself, and get an education.

That young man who is handing me his letter looks a lot like me, at that age. A little shy, and a lot happy, deep inside. There’s a lot of pride and joy inside of him, and he’s not quite sure what to do with all of that.

I’ve seen the result of all this seed planting, and I’m old enough to appreciate the harvest of what these seeds have grown. We aren’t done yet, with all of this work.

So, let me tear up a bit, and choke on my words, and remember all of the good words and many years of quiet, persistent support for others to move ahead and make something out of themselves.

1/10/2013

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