My father got as far as the eighth grade before dropping out to get a job; my mother completed a secretarial track in high school. My grandparents had no formal schooling, and emigrated from southern Italy in the 1920s. We were a working class family. When I asked my father what he did for a living, he said he made money. I was maybe eight or nine before I realized he did not print money, but operated a turret lathe in a machine shop. My mother worked evenings in an insurance company. For most of my childhood Dad came home from work at 4:30pm and Mom left for work at 5:30pm. Dinner was at 5, and if you were late, you caught hell. Mom worked, I was told, because it looked like I might go to college.
After he graduated high school, my brother went into the navy. My history teacher, Carol Maturo, took an interest in me—whatever it was she saw in me as a high school student gave me the courage to make some decisions I had to make. She must have known I was not prepared for college and that the gulf between high school and the kind of college she thought I could attend might be one in which I'd drown. She arranged, in my senior year, for me to take one college class each semester at Wesleyan University, in an accelerated high school program -- a recruitment effort on Wesleyan's part I now imagine. I got B's in those classes but more importantly got the idea that I might be able to do this – the idea was somewhat delusional as I think back to how much tutorial assistance Ms. Maturo provided to get me through those classes.
I remember when I told my guidance counselor I wanted to attend Haverford College. Her protective instinct was acute. "You'll never get in, and if you do, you won't like it." Well, this was in 1973, and adult authority was at an all-century low. Ms. Maturo said I could do the work, my parents said okay give it a try, and I asked for a plane ticket for my January birthday so I could have an interview. I had never been on a plane. I brought a briefcase filled with examples of what I could do. I memorized a presentation. I never opened the briefcase or gave my speech, but I remember a discussion with a faculty member about the role of the Philadelphia Quakers in the French and Indian war, on which I had done research. And the admission officer seemed mostly interested in my (rather eclectic) extracurricular activities. Everyone seemed so serious about my future. I felt like I had a glimpse of Oz, behind the curtain, and wanted in.
Turns out that was the easy part. The guidance counselor was half right. In my first year, "liking" college was not the way I'd put it. My first lesson had to do with preparation — the things I knew nothing about, while others did, accumulated in that gulf. I had never heard of a prep school – I recall thinking one must go there for some deficiency. I had also never known anyone whose parents went to college, or who had what they'd describe as an intellectual relationship with their folks. These kids might as well have been from outer space. I entered an extended identity crisis. Bruce Spingsteen was involved, with the working class chic that he brought to bear on college. It was hip to be a worker in the 70s, and there were a few of us who gravitated toward that safe zone. I was drawn to political theory, especially dealing with authority and rebellion, to Marxist sociology, and to any intellectual grounds that would assuage the sense that there were worlds of experiences and knowledge that I would have missed entirely had I not landed at this college, at this time, by what seemed to be chance. But damn those kids and their advantages, I thought.
I was on college grants and loans -- and work study, which meant 10 hours a week in the library's acquisitions department. I worked for a staff member, a lifesaver, a woman from the deep south named Lucille. Lucille, an African-American woman, did not take kindly to the level of privilege and the abuses it produced in some students. She became my guardian angel, my advisor and confidante. The students to whom I gravitated and who became my friends were all in some sense searching for themselves in a strangely enticing environment: an Alabaman who felt similarly displaced; a woman who missed the West Coast and would only make it through two years before transferring; a son of Taiwanese immigrants; an exchange student from Japan; a preppy struggling with his sexual identity. As I recall it now, we were self-anointed into marginalia.
Rapprochement with place was reached sometime during my sophomore year. Over the summer I spent every hour available outside the 40-hour work week reading from booklists I had asked every professor to give me – what should I have already read?, I asked them all. I returned sophomore year committed to making this thing work. I was an R.A. I organized book auctions to help with library de-accession. I began a column in the newspaper. And I started getting A's on papers. In junior and senior years there was the pure pleasure of belonging, and owning. I even began to make friends among those who were intimidating to me a few years before.
Some of the characteristics I acquired as a result? Here are some indelible convictions, although, I realize, wholly relative to my experience: a belief in meritocracy; in a variety of types of intelligence; in the malleability of identity; in the infinite capacity of human beings to bridge divides; in the futility of certainty about situations, people, or experiences; and finally, in the necessity to employ compassion as a counterforce to fear. Compassion recognizes human struggle as endemic to human life; fear is blind to such complexity, either in self-defense, or as the basis of antagonism. Educational institutions, especially residential liberal arts colleges, are designed to alleviate fear through compassionate, collaborative endeavor. Upon reflection today, there's nothing else I could possible devote my life to so completely.