Thursday, August 06, 2009

Thoughts of My Alma Mater

After graduating, I worked at my Alma mater for for ten years. There were, of course, some frustrations, but mostly I remember how great it was to work there -- recruiting students, planning orientation, watching students grow and graduate. Those are fond memories indeed.

A year before I left my senior capstone advisor retired. A northwest poet of note, he taught me a great deal not only about the language of poetry, but also about what it means to be a teacher, to love what you do and share that love with students. Under his guidance my own poetry and writing blossomed.

When he retired he wrote a poem for the faculty of the university and subsequently gave me a signed copy which now hangs in my office. As a student-turned-administrator at the university, there were images in the poem that frustrated me:

. . . The place was wind and cold,
the town ugly, press illiterate, people narrow, racist, poor,
our classes huge, pay low, library so small it hurt, bad puns
everywhere, the crazy roller coaster budget of the state.

. . . Eventually, we could love
that impossible class, arrogant colleague, dull test, even tolerate
committees, memoranda tons, ignore administrative jerks.
Was this the university I knew, not to mention loved? I wondered how someone could see this amazing place so differently than I.

During our vacation in Oregon I had a meeting with the dean of enrollment services at the university. As I walked into the main administration building where I had once worked, the walls seemed to close in on me. It was small, dark, cramped. The hallway that I used to walk each day between my office and the office of my VP that had once seemed so large and vital now seemed merely institutional.

Upon returning home I reread the poem. How had I missed it? I was now seeing the university and the town that my advisor wrote about. As I read, I wondered how I would feel, a new graduate full of passion for my field coming to a small college in a small town, so different from the one where I had established my academic life. It was all there: the poverty, the smallness, the constrictions of a small community and smaller university. The feeling confirmed what I already knew, I could not go back.

But the poem also opened my eyes to other realities. Wherever I go there will be frustrations, constraints, challenges, petty tyrannies. But they will be balanced with friendships, curious students, a loving family, good colleagues.
What opened you up? Was it that turquoise river carrying you
all afternoon, that one student who understood, that idyllic place
you knew was worse, antique tree giving apples year on year?

Slowly, our outpost became refugium, our old homes retreat,
winter beauty, valley peace, university mature . . .

In his inscription my advisor thanked me for my "years of finest attention to the languages of affirmation." Yet he is the one that deserves thanks, for his keen and honest portrayal of a place I love and for helping me see that even the most seemingly ugly and unfortunate place can be home.

1 comment:

Mrs. V said...

You're making me think of our alma mater as well. I had not seen that poem before, but your reflections are making me think about what I missed. I still love the school/community, but I also loved the feeling of being at URI when I was on exchange. I wonder if I will eventually want to go back if I get a Doctorate. Then again, maybe I will see it in a new light by then as well.

Also, when I went to our alma mater with my students for a campus visit, I thought of you because our tour guide walked backwards (gasp)!