Grad school wasn’t easy for me. Nearly all the students were twenty-two; I was eleven years older. Moreover, during the fifties, I’d attended a small Catholic college in Kansas. Now it was 1969, and I was still a hick, totally out of my element.
One story suffices to illustrate this. For each of four quarters, the American studies program required all graduate students to attend a weekly seminar. The text we studied contained essays by a wide variety of philosophers, social scientists, and other pundits from varied disciplines. They examined the ideas, inventions, and happenings that had influenced American culture.
Mary Turpie, head of the program, facilitated these roundtable discussions. I greatly respected her. Unsure of myself, I longed for her approval. Despite that, I seldom spoke in the seminars. The other students proposed concepts that were beyond me. They argued passionately, with great certainty. I felt like a bumbling child in their midst. And so, not wanting them to see just how stupid I was, I said nothing.
This went on for nearly a year. Then, at a seminar in the third quarter, one of the female students made a definitive statement about the essay we’d read for that class. I listened closely to her argument. When she finished expounding, I felt sure I understood her point of view.
Across the room, a young man began to speak. Ah! I thought, what he’s saying is the exact opposite of what she said. What a discussion we’ll have!
As he ended his monologue, I prepared myself for a debate about the differences between these two opinions. To my amazement, the young woman said, “That’s just what I was saying! We’re in sync.” The other students nodded their agreement.
I sat, befuddled. I’d listened closely, thought I heard two different viewpoints, expected a great discussion—and all along their positions had been the same. Unquestionably, I wasn’t meant for graduate school. I didn’t have the necessary brain cells.
The next day, Ms. Turpie summoned me to her office. I was sure she'd suggest I drop out of grad school. What a disappointment I must be to her. Always before, I’d enjoyed sitting next to her desk to discuss the next classes I’d be taking. Always she spoke softly. Listened intently, her head slightly tilted. She reminded me of a true lady.
At these meetings, she never offered a snack, but in my imagination I saw her sitting forward on a floral couch offering me a cup of oolong tea and a warm scone, oozing butter.
That day, she wore a straight gray skirt and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Over that she wore a forest green cardigan with the top button fastened. On her feet were brown low-heeled shoes.
We looked at one another for a moment. Then she quietly asked, “Dee, why don’t you ever speak up in our seminars?”
“I have nothing to say.”
“My dear, you have so much to offer those younger students. You’ve taught in all kinds of classrooms. You’ve been in the convent. You’ve worked at editing and publishing. You been in the inner city and taught students there. You have a great interest in black history and linguistics. And you have, I think, a fierce sense of justice.”
All she said might be true, but in my mind it had little to do with knowing what to say in her seminars.
“You have so much to offer,” she continued, “so why don’t you? You could help these students understand life in a broader sense. Their experience is narrow. Insular.”
Sighing, I reminded her of the seminar the previous day. She nodded encouragingly as I recounted the exchange between the two students.
“And what did you conclude from that?” she asked.
“No, you were right. They did make opposite points.”
“Then why did they say they agreed?”
“I think she wants to date him.”
My mouth fell open. I’m sure I gaped at her. Dating? That was a reason for denying what you’d just said and agreeing with some boy? Dating?
“Why would you think you’re stupid?” Ms. Turpie asked.
“Well listen to them. They use big words. I don’t even know those words.”
I gave her examples. She nodded and then, this woman, this lady, who looked as if she ate scones and drank tea and read Agatha Christie mysteries, said, “Dee, what you need to realize is that all they say is mostly b-s.”
Again, I gaped, then giggled, and finally guffawed. To hear that lady use that term made my year.
Ms. Turpie grinned. Then she, too, broke out laughing.
I stayed in grad school. Who could resist the lure of such a program director?
Room by nokhoog_buchachon
Scones by Clare Bloomfield
Both from freedigitalphotos.net