The moment she stepped on campus, she told me, she felt like she was, for the first time in her life, at the right place at the right time.
This was where she belonged.
She could never be casual or contemptuous about this place, like the rich kids; nor treat classes as perfunctory, like so many others. This was it, this was learning, this was knowledge — this was the world she’d dreamed about since she was a little girl. And she wasn’t going to waste a moment of it.
Like all long-lasting institutions, colleges and universities mean widely different things to different people. To some, they are places of intense and wild socializing; to others, they are best known for the pageantry of sports and graduations; to still others, they are weigh stations between the servitude of living at home and the inevitable drudgery of a career. To her, though, this was a time for learning, and that was enough. Classes, professors, the library — this was what the university was, and she had only the vaguest awareness of things like sororities, sports, or, for that matter, eventual career concerns.
I went to an entirely different school, and was visiting a friend when we met in her school’s library. I was on a George Eliot kick, reading that library’s copy of “Scenes from Clerical Life”. She happened to sit at the table next to me to look through a copy of “Middlemarch”.
How could we not speak? Two people reading books by the same Victorian author, in the same place, at the same time, when neither was required to for any class was an event rare enough to merit comment, even among the shy — which she certainly was. But speak we did, and the conversation ended up lasting hours, and involved us leaving the library to drink coffee at a place she suggested.
It was a dark and wet fall evening as we approached her dormitory, and I had no thoughts of anything like kissing her before she stopped, put one hand on my shoulder, and looked me straight in the eyes.
I knew the signal.
Her school was only 45 minutes away from mine, but it seemed like an ocean. We were both over-carrying classes at that time; in addition, I was working three nights a week. I gave what I had to give, but, with her, it was like she had stored up a lifetime of passion and was letting it all loose on me, in those rare moments we could speak on the phone, or, maybe once a month, see each other. The moments were rare, as I said, but I was loving every minute of the ones we got.
It’s strange, looking back, how much of our time revolved around discussing literature. Neither of us had a lot of friends near us at that point in our lives, so, along with doing the things couples do, we talked, endlessly, about our other passions. On the few weekends we’d find, we’d spend virtually the entire time in the library or in my car, as I was not allowed in the dorm. And then, I would go back to my school, and it would be a long, long time until we’d see each other again.
The change (in us) probably happened gradually, but back then it seemed sudden. One day, when I had a chance to call, I didn’t; another day, when I did call and she had time to talk, she didn’t want to. Being the guy I was at that age, I thought maybe she’d met someone else, or an old love had returned to take her attention. That last part turned out to be true.
That old love was learning. We’d had our fling.
I had already graduated and moved away to start working when I got a graduation invitation from her. She had sent it to my parents’ house. I decided to go. When I had answered her note (giving her my actual address) she had let me know by return mail that she would meet me after the ceremony in front of the library.
It was a warm day in late spring as I drove on to the familiar campus. Signs pointed visitors towards the graduation hall. I sat down amid the many family onlookers, not knowing where she might be when the graduates came in, but there she was in the program, Summa Cum Laude in the College of Humanities.
When the graduates did come in, I spotted her easily.
The guest speaker at her graduation was a former United Nations ambassador who said that the time for learning would never truly end, but that, after graduation, a new time, one for action, would begin. There was music, and there were student speakers, and there was the slightest hint of lilac blossoms in the air.
I walked next door to the library after the ceremony, and waited. I figured she would need some time with her family first, but, to my surprise, she came out almost immediately. She smiled when she saw me, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
I congratulated her on her accomplishments. She told me that she was staying on, with a full teaching assistantship, and the path was charted for her to get both her her Masters and her Doctorate.
Her family hadn’t come to graduation; they really didn’t see a need to spend the money for the trip, especially since she wasn’t coming home after. I realized that, on that occasion, I was her surrogate family; possibly because none of them understood what that place meant to her, and I had at least come close.
We spoke awhile about what we’d each been reading and various nothings. When I asked her, after a time, if she didn’t need to get back to her friends, she said that she probably did, so she thanked me for coming, and said goodbye. I watched her walk back into the crowd, the sun setting over the graduation hall.
A young couple walked past me, hand in hand, laughing.
The time for learning truly never ends.
For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.