After I was all moved into my college dorm, my parents took me out to eat before they braved the five-hour trip back to Long Island. My father made a little speech that I thought contained too much advice I wouldn’t need. Then they got in their station wagon, and I waved to them from the sidewalk. I was on my own, a college freshman, negotiating through one of the most turbulent years in American history — 1968. What could go wrong?
Once all the college orientation exercises were over — after we’d been on campus a few days — classes started. I was afraid that might happen.
Let’s be clear. I wasn’t against learning. I simply had other priorities, and there were just so many hours in a day. I seemed to be driving young men crazy, a new phenomenon for me. The more I attracted attention, the better I got at it. It was almost mathematical. Or — to put it another way — I probably would have been picked first or second in Square Dancing if such a thing existed in college. Definitely in the top five.
Although Cortland was still steeped in traditions like fraternities and panty raids, the undercurrent of social change was undeniable. I first noticed it inside the classroom. I’m sure my parents thought they could count on strict rules about attendance and grading in exchange for the tuition money they were shelling out. But the old rules weren’t resonating with younger teachers who were walking into class, their hands in their pockets and humming Dylan tunes.
One of them, a young man who taught English 101, would come in late and sit cross-legged on his desk and say, “So, what do you guys want to talk about today?” The answer was hardly ever subject-verb agreement.
Another started the semester like this: “I don’t believe in taking attendance.” Now this was a system I could work with.
Unfortunately, these same professors who seemed so cool still believed in midterms and finals. And in November, when that first exam loomed, I discovered it was much harder to absorb 250 pages of text in one sitting than I thought. I cracked the virginal binding of my Sociology book at 11 PM the night before my 9 AM exam. Within an hour, I was erupting in sobs.
My roommate, Randi, heard me — perhaps the reason I chose space in the hall, right outside our room. She padded out in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. She was taking the same course with the same professor but had chosen a different route early in the semester. At first her attention to detail had annoyed me.
After dinner, she’d say things like, “See you later. I’m going to the library.” Sometimes she actually used the word homework, and I’d want to shake some sense into her.
“Come on,” I’d think, as if she were a little sister who didn’t know any better. “We’re in college. There is no homework in college.”
This night made it Randi’s turn to talk. She sat down in one of the lounge chairs.
“I have outlines,” she said softly. They’ll help us. Don’t cry.”
And 47 years later I can see her fuzzy pink slippers. And hear her say, “Okay, so let’s start with an independent variable…”