Like many people, I served time in a college dormitory. Two years in college were preceded by eight weeks in high school as part of a National Science Foundation physics session for
smartasses “smart” kids. I have a few memories from those times long ago. In an act of self-indulgence, the likes of which have become infamous in this space, I’m sharing them.
I grew up in a backwoods, redneck logging town in northern Idaho in the 1960s and 1970s. My educationally inclined parents steered me away from dangerous jobs working in the woods and, ultimately, toward the academic life. Ergo the opportunity to spend a summer beyond sight of my racist, misogynist contemporaries at the age of 17.
Hot to hotter
From a region filled with white people, characterized by male white privilege, and dominated by fear of “others,” I flew to Greenville, North Carolina. There, I spent the summer of 1977 on the campus of East Carolina University surrounded by people who looked different from me. I shared a dorm room with an African American student as tall and skinny as I was. He hailed from Washington, D.C.
We studied physics, pursued the young women in the program, pulled ridiculous pranks on our peers, and played basketball all summer. Despite our obvious differences, we had a lot to talk about. After we parted ways, I never heard from or about Michael again. But, without trying, he changed my life for the better.
From campus we proceeded into downtown Greenville via the sidewalk along a primary street one sultry afternoon. Maria from the Philippines accompanied me, while clinging to Michael’s arm was Emily, a blonde, blue-eyed, Caucasian woman. We weren’t a block from campus when racial epithets came from a passing muscle car.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Hate wasn’t restricted to northern Idaho. Three of us were horrified. Michael, familiar with the experience, acted as if it hadn’t happened.
Awareness isn’t nirvana. It’s hell.
Driving as far as I could from my hometown while still availing myself of a generous scholarship from the state of Idaho, I pulled into Pocatello in late summer 1978. I’d been looking forward to maximizing the distance between me and Hicksburg. Yet I couldn’t fight the tears of fear and loneliness as I drove into the city and approached the campus of Idaho State University.
I was assigned a room with three seniors who’d roomed together for years. I was as welcome as
Deep Throat to Richard Nixon Bradley Manning to Barack Obama. I was sent packing before I unpacked.
A week and three dorm rooms later, I was frazzled down to my last, raw nerve. Trying to “fit in” while finding my way was posing quite the challenge. Nobody was particularly impressed that I’d been valedictorian of my high school graduating class (N = 37). Or that I’d been quarterback of the unknown football team, shooting guard on the obscure basketball team, shortstop of the pathetic baseball team, and member of the National Honor Society. Out of the kiddie pool, into the reservoir.
Not much later, the fun arrived. I spent most of the subsequent two years majoring in basketball and Women’s Studies: shooting hoops as a walk-on for the major-college basketball team and studying women. I didn’t exactly fail at either endeavor, although I received quite the up-bringing in humility. I was more intramural wannabe than Michael Jordan, more Don Quixote than Don Juan. And my extracurricular pursuits nearly cost me the aforementioned scholarship, too.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only major-college basketball listed on the official program smaller than my actual height. I was 6’3″ tall, but I was listed at 6’1″ because I played so much shorter than suggested by my height.
In a futile attempt to overcome my lack of talent, which included legs with no springs and the sluggish feet you might expect on somebody a foot taller than the shortest player on the team, I ate well and tried to sleep a lot. However, my sleep was often interrupted by a wayward cat that took advantage of the window often propped open by one of my roommates. Tired of the cat’s frequent attraction to my face on Pocatello winter nights, finally I grabbed him by the belly, took him into the hall, drew back my throwing arm, and started to fling him down the hall. Naturally, he latched onto my forearm with all four clawed feet as I released him. He landed a mere six inches from me, on his feet, as blood sprung from a dozen deep scratches on my right forearm. Adding insult to literal injury, he even dodged my swift kick. Add cat-throwing to basketball and women on my long list of mediocre pursuits.
I had something of a fan club at one point in a long-lost basketball season. When the game would get out of hand — as it often did — my drunken brother and his drinking buddies would begin chanting on my behalf. I did play a few minutes, and even earned a spot on the travel squad by the midpoint of the season. My total statistics for the single season I participated: 50% from the field (one basket in two attempts) and 50% from the free-throw line (ditto).
Missing 42 consecutive days of every class presented something of a drag on my grade point average. The fact that my dorm room was the campus hot-spot for partying probably didn’t help. Every weekend was a haze of blue haze. I had the opposite of the Bill Clinton experience: I didn’t smoke marijuana, but I inhaled.
From an academic perspective, the rare days I spent in class with my eyes open were disappointing on many levels. Having earned a solid F, I nonetheless received the only C of my collegiate career in my introductory macroeconomics course. At semester’s end, I attempted to negotiate a higher grade from the instructor I was seeing for the fifth time: I showed up for all three in-class exams after I picked up the syllabus during the first class meeting. I thought I deserved at least a B. She wondered who I was, and kept smiling as she shook her head. Despite rarely making an appearance in her classroom, the class contributed to my contemporary definition of waste: a busload of economists goes over a cliff with an empty seat.