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Lydia Hamessley

Professor of Music

I can’t recall a time in my childhood that I didn’t think I would go to college. My parents never talked much about it, and they didn’t have their own college stories to share with me, but they always valued education. When I was in elementary school and told my mother about kids who got a quarter for every A they brought home on their report card (I was prepared to cash in!), she explained that I should be getting A’s for the sake of learning – that everyone should be striving for good grades for a higher purpose than earning quarters.  And she backed up her words with her actions.

My mother was the eighth of 10 children born to tenant farmers in north Texas in the years before the Depression. I picture her childhood of the 1930s in the black and white tones of those familiar photos of the Dust Bowl and sharecroppers. She was an avid reader, and as an adult she aspired to be a writer, both of fiction and non-fiction. She took a writing correspondence course when I was about 10 years old, and I used to watch her typing and editing her work. The papers were always scattered on the dining room table, and occasionally I snuck a peek at her stories, sometimes shocked to find a different woman in those pages than just my mother. But I also noticed that whenever she read a book, it seemed to take her forever to finish a page. I knew she was a good reader, so I asked her why she read so slowly. She explained that when she was a kid, books were scarce. When she did get a book, probably from a library or a friend, she knew she might not get another one for months and she needed to make it last. She savored every word, and that didn’t change even when she had a house full of books.

My mom moved beyond her poor background through one of the few avenues of education that young women had in the late 1930s: nursing. She put herself through nursing school and did the equivalent of post-graduate study in obstetrics and gynecology. But I know she always wished she’d had the educational opportunity and money to go to college and become a doctor.

My father, born in north Texas to a family of farmers and carpenters, also valued education. I always thought of him as smart in math, a contrast to my mother who was smart with words. My dad was a career Navy man, having joined the service at the age of 17 in 1943. After his second week of boot camp, during which time he’d taken many aptitude tests, he was pulled out of boot camp early to attend an electronics training school. His buddies were shipped out, but dad went to Kansas to a Navy school and began his advanced training in mathematics, physics and electronics. He went from airplane mechanic, to flight engineer, to an electronics specialist working on experimental surface-to-air missile technology in the 1960s. He retired as a senior chief petty officer.

I have to admit that by the time I started college in 1975, I wasn’t technically a first-generation college student. When my dad retired from the Navy in 1969, he went to college with the help of the G.I. Bill and my mother, who worked full time as a nurse.  He majored in math and physics and is an alum of the class of 1973 at Texas Lutheran College. I am an alum of the class of 1979 from the same college!  While I was struggling with my algebra homework as a high school freshman, my dad was doing his college calculus homework. My mother became a writer, and she earned an M.A. in media studies and communication about the time I graduated from college.

My parents didn’t help me get into college in the way many parents do now (though they generously paid my tuition, and I never had to work while in college). I did all the pre-college research (very little actually!), filled out the forms, and went to the interviews by myself. But their pride in their own educational accomplishments, and their matter-of-fact expectations that I would get good grades meant that I never thought there was any other path for me besides college.

As a high school sophomore, I had already decided I wanted to major in music in college and become a high school choir director. But I recall one evening talking to my dad and saying that sometimes I wondered what it would be like to teach music in a college. I said I didn’t know what I’d need to do that, or if I could, but I thought it might be something I’d want to do. His answer was the only time he gave me direct advice or his opinion about my educational goals. He said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, then I don’t see any reason why you can’t do it.” Powerful words that I’ve never forgotten.

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