by Judy Chaves '74
I used to roam the streets of Oberlin when I was an undergraduate. Elm, Park, Morgan, Forest: these were the streets that were just beyond campus, quiet, sidewalked, lined with private homes. I would walk them slowly, peering into an occasional window, lingering long enough in front of an occasional house to take in the layout of a room. A wonder, really, that no one ever called the cops to have me arrested.
I was recently reminded of these walks by an essay that arrived with this year's annual-fund letter. The essay, by Michael Dirda '70, was a belated thank you to his Oberlin professors, full of the reminiscences and realizations to which those of us who graduated 25, 30 years ago suddenly find ourselves prone. Like Mr. Dirda, I, too, look back with heightened appreciation of the professors with whom I studied, but I find that I cannot separate from my appreciation an additional, perhaps contradictory awareness that what remains with me most from my Oberlin education is not a result of the classes I took, but of things outside academics. Cooking with confidence for large numbers of people, backpacking, folkdancing, feeling at ease as a social being, learning what it was to fall in love; these are the things for which I will be forever grateful to Oberlin. These are the things that form a direct link between my undergraduate years and the person I am today.
But what of my academics, the purported reason I attended college? Excellent as my classes were, I cannot look back at them with the same awareness of a link. Indeed, it is as if those four years of courses had been selected for me by a stranger--if not by random lottery. To be honest, there was one semester I seriously considered registering for whatever courses the catalog fell open to at random. And really, as far as quality went, it wouldn't have made any difference. All the classes would have been excellent. Quality was not an issue; guidance was.
I came to Oberlin in the fall of 1970 at the age of 17. My first encounter with a member of the faculty was with a German professor who had been assigned as my advisor. Our first (and only) meeting was an awkward ordeal. Had I read Martin Burber's I and Thou? he asked me. Did I know the derivation of my last name? I was mortified by how dull and inept my answers sounded in response to his impressive questions, I felt embarrassed for this clearly brilliant man who had to pretend to be interested in the likes of me. I hovered on the edge of my seat so that he would know that I knew he was doing this only out of obligation, that I would be out of his hair as soon as he said the word. At the end of our meeting, he invited me to a social gathering he was holding for all his advisees. I thanked him politely, fled the building, ignored his invitation (which, again, I knew had been extended only out of duty), and never went back to him again.
Here, then, was the beginning of a pattern I was to repeat all four of my years at Oberlin: a well-meaning professor would extend an offer that I was too inexperienced, too insecure to even recognize, let alone accept.
"Your ideas are worth exploring," wrote an education professor on a term paper of mine, sophomore year. "Come talk to me." I never went. "This is excellent!" wrote Ellen Johnson on an art critique I'd written senior year. "Come talk to me." I never went. I told myself they must have written such comments at the ends of hundreds of papers, that they might as well have had rubber stamps embossed with the words "Come talk to me." The few times I did have to meet with professors in their offices, I assumed my hovering-on-the-edge-of-the-seat pose, letting them know I had no overblown notions of who I was; I was ready to leave at a moment's notice.
And I roamed the streets of Oberlin. It was the stately houses, the brick houses I lingered in front of longest; solid-looking, manicured, old, well-established.
What would it have taken for me to have gone and spoken to those professors, even just one of those professors, whose notes only now so clearly meant what they said?
Sometimes I think it would not have taken very much; a second, more insistent invitation, delivered, perhaps, in person, with an awareness of my insecurities, with an awareness of my propensity to flee. Surely I was not unique, surely my behavior was not opaque. Indeed, sometimes I think all it would have taken from my professors would have been a sensitivity to, and a determination to get beyond, the fragilities of the undergraduate psyche.
Yet other times I think nothing could have gotten me to go talk to those professors, short of an additional few years of life under my belt. Maybe no amount of sensitivity or insight would have reached me; I simply went to college too young.
And what would have happened had I gone to see those professors? Oh, there are times when I envision nothing less than the mysteries of life being revealed in their offices. ("Here," says Ellen Johnson, handing me my future on a golden platter--or no, hammered copper; something designed by Frank Lloyd Wright--"Here, this is for you.")
More realistic are my fantasies of being asked a few pointed questions, being shown the particular strengths of my work, being given some advice concerning possible directions, possible contexts for my future course work. Was I aware, for example, that my writing was good? Had I considered taking additional art courses? Did it occur to me to wonder why I was spending all of my free time reading Victorian novels instead of additional readings in my major subject area, biology?
I'm not saying, neither am I wishing, that such advice would have altered the direction of my life. I am simply aware, now, 25 years later, like Mr. Dirda, of the exceptional education to which I was exposed, yet aware, in addition, of how little use of it I made, how far afield it was from my pursuits as an adult. I am aware, not only of the excellent education I received, but of the excellent, more pertinent and nourishing education I might have received, had I known how to evaluate what I was studying in light of my own strengths and needs and desires. I went through my undergraduate years awakening to who I was as a social being, yet remaining blind to who I was intellectually and artistically. I received a fantastic liberal arts education, yet with little idea of what it had to do with me.
Maybe, for me, this was inevitable. Maybe I simply had to get the social stuff figured out before my brain could kick into gear. One thing at a time. I'm still that way.
And yet I roamed the streets of Oberlin. I cannot help but look back at those walks and wonder if some part of me knew what it was I needed, yet had only the vaguest idea where to look for it, and hadn't the confidence to know when it appeared. "Come talk to me."
In four years my older daughter will be the same age that I was when I entered college. I know it is futile wishing for things in her future, and it is not necessarily even wise wishing for her a more direct route than mine, into adulthood. Still, I find myself hoping that the invitation, "Come talk to me," is extended a little differently these days--a little more personally maybe, a little more persistently--just as I find myself hoping that my daughter will arrive at college with maturity and confidence enough not to linger in front of strange houses, but to recognize those doors that are being held open for her, and to go in.
J udy Chaves is a freelance writer who lives with her family in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont.