Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Academic incongruities

"And we kill just a little to save a lot more, the philosophy of loss."

To be honest, I wasn't the best student ever at Colgate University.

There are a million reasons and excuses, ranging from my immaturity, to lack of proper guidance and appropriate encouragement, to the very real possibility that Colgate wasn't the right school for me to begin with.

I desperately wanted to go to Cornell. I couldn't tell you why exactly. A lot of my high school classmates (at Hunter College High School) had their sights set on Ivy. Princeton. Yale. Harvard. Dartmouth. Brown. Columbia.

Cornell, in beautiful upstate New York, with its gorgeous gorges, captured my imagination. And I liked its Alma Mater anthem. I spent the summer there between my junior and senior high school years, taking two English courses and picking up six hours of college credit. It was a magical place for me. My first kiss, my first crush, my first best friend of the opposite sex (none of whom were the same person, by the way).

Although my heart was set on Cornell, I also applied to Princeton (a long shot), SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, and Colgate, a small liberal arts University that I'd never heard of until my high school guidance counselor suggested it. Based on what, I have no clue, as he didn't know me well at all. Colgate had this much in common with Cornell. Both were in upstate New York and both had seven-letter names starting with the name consonant.

I should pause here to say, I was a middle-of-the-pack student in a high school composed of girls labeled "intellectually gifted." I always thought my getting in was a fluke. You had to quality to take the entrance exam by being at least in the 90th percentile on the Iowa tests, and then only 10 percent of those who tested were accepted.

From Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.

[Thomas Hunter Hall was originally built in 1912-14 as a high school connected to Normal College (later Hunter College High School), and was designed by C. B. J. Snyder.]

I remember being twelve years old, walking out after taking the entrance exam and thinking I hadn't done well at all. But I was admitted and so I attended, from seventh grade through twelfth. At Russell Sage Junior High and Forest Hills High School I might have stood out, shined, differentiated myself. At Hunter I was just a bright girl in a sea of brilliance.

It wasn't enough. Twenty girls of the one hundred sixty-some in my graduation class applied to Cornell. Four were accepted. I was not one of them.

When the letter came from Cornell in April and it was thin I knew it meant rejection. I cried myself sick for two days. As I mentioned, I was quite immature. Then I fell back on Colgate, my "safety" school. Colgate actually was another extremely selective university, but it seems that not many Hunter girls wanted to go there. One girl from the year before mine was a student, and one girl in the class after mine chose Colgate. After that, I stopped keeping track.

From Wikimedia Commons.

[Colgate University is a private liberal arts college in Hamilton, New York. Colgate ranked 13th on the Forbes' top liberal arts colleges list in 2013.]

And all of this begs the question, with my ardent interests in English and writing, why wasn't a school like Syracuse University on my list? How did I wind up at a school that didn't offer journalism, public relations, advertising or marketing programs among its Bachelor of Arts degrees?

I was young and stupid, and my parents were operating under the supposition that it didn't matter where I went to college, as long as I went somewhere. It didn't matter what my grades were either, as long as I was passing, because they never really expected me to have a career. And if I did have a career, it would only be until I married and had children, so I could do just about anything, such as become a secretary or a bookkeeper, like my mom had been.

It was their world, their way of life. They didn't know any other.

One of the things I didn't learn at Hunter was how to study. I was naturally good at Math but it didn't excite me. I managed Social Studies, Spanish and Science without exerting myself too much, and I excelled in English, Art and the Humanities. I loved ninth grade Biology and even considered a scientific path until tenth grade Chemistry did me in. As a result of the Chemistry disaster, I didn't go on to Physics in my junior year, and there went my future as a rocket scientist.

I wanted to take French, but my parents convinced me that Spanish would be more practical - and easier too. I wanted to take German later, but my mom said it was such an ugly, guttural tongue, so I took impractical Latin instead.

Colgate was a shock academically. My high school aptitude for getting by without working very hard did not serve me well. Nor did being away from home, at a coed school after six years of girls-only academe. I discovered that I liked beer and wine. I discovered that I did not like drugs, but I tried my best to learn. I discovered the Grateful Dead and all-nighters and hangovers, and I learned that Astronomy is not about gazing at stars.

I struggled in English too, because my love of reading was not a substitute for disciplined study of the Canterbury Tales or Kafka. I am mortified to admit that I had to repeat my first freshman semester of English Lit in my senior year to improve my grade enough to graduate. (I am proud to say I got an A the second go-round.) About five semesters in, something clicked and I became a Dean's List student, but by then all my core courses were out of the way and I was taking primarily electives that interested me.

And all this lead-in was to say how incongruous it is that I'm now so utterly transfixed by this Colgate course I'm taking online, The Advent of the Atomic Bomb. I can't keep up with the textbook, but I've watched every video, studied all the supplemental material, done independent research and participated in every discussion. About 400 alumni signed up for the course but only half a dozen or so are weighing in. It's possible that more are lurking but that isn't the point. The point is to create a dialog among current students and alumni.

So I've been voicing my views whenever I have them. And I admit I'm curious whether Dr. Harpp, the professor, has seen my name in the discussions and wondered, who is this Elizabeth Bunn? If she goes back to my college records, she will see that I had an undistinguished Colgate career. If she cares to investigate, she will learn that I've never been to a class reunion. I've never been active in any alumni association. I haven't donated money in the annual fund drive for many years, and never more than $50. I haven't even been especially friendly on the phone when students have called asking for pledges during the fund drive, but I don't suppose anyone keeps a record of that.

In my post Colgate life, to the extent that I'm an open road on the information highway, Dr. Harpp would perhaps find out that I had a 30-year career with an energy company, but not that I spent most of those years as an assistant or a specialist or an analyst, and never rose high enough in the company echelons to get discretionary stock options. In the wider world, I've won honorable mention in a children's story contest and had two personal experience stories published in the city newspaper in the 1990s.

When I introduced myself in the course discussions, I called myself an artist, writer and cat whisperer. In other words, a most unlikely candidate to be taking the first ever edX course offered by Colgate. I have no credentials in science, history or politics, but there I am, taking a position on whether the attack on Pearl Harbor should have been foreseen, and pointing out parallel themes in Saving Private Ryan and Edward Lawrence's reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Go me.

I just finished this week's movie, Letters from Iwo Jima and I'm pondering what I can add to this weeks discussion about the differences in the European and Pacific Theaters in WWII.

All I knew about the movie was that it was "a Clint Eastwood film," so I wasn't expecting the movie to be in Japanese. Nor did I know that it told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, following the fortunes of a reluctant, conscripted soldier, Saigo, who deduces the hopelessness of the Japanese position and fathoms the inanity of war in general.

I was dripping tears for the last half hour as the Japanese forces are eviscerated, and especially when Saigo's friend Shimizu, after coming to the realization that Americans aren't savages as he had always been taught, is gratuitously shot by a U.S. Marine after surrendering, contrary to the "rules of warfare."

And in between all this, I'm doing the usual, making beads, walking on the treadmill, taking a brick and mortar digital photography class, operating my online bead and frit business, and cat whispering.

Remember the cat who bit me on Christmas Eve? Godzilla? He's been back in the cattery for about three weeks now. Today a shelter staffer, Shay, was cleaning cages and I was socializing each cat while its cage was being cleaned. I had no intention of interacting with Godzilla, and when his turn came, Shay put him up on the window shelf where he could look outside.

What did he do but jump down, come over to me and jump into my lap? What could I do but give him a good petting? He snuggled in and enjoyed the strokes, and I have to say I was surprised and a little moved. And glad he didn't take a bite out of my other hand. He stayed with me until Shay put him up in his clean cage.

I'm not afraid of him and I'll go as far as to say I've raised my estimate of his being adopted from slim-to-none to pretty good. There's someone out there who will want to give a forever home to a big sweet gray cat named Godzilla.

"Welcome to why the church has died
In the heart of the exiled, in the kingdom of hate
Who owns the land and keeps the commands
And marries itself to the state

Modern scribes write in Jesus Christ
Everyone is free
And the doors open wide to all straight men and women
But they are not open to me

And who is teaching kids to be soldiers
To be marked by a plain white cross
And we kill just a little to save a lot more
The philosophy of loss

There are a few who would be true
Out of love, and love is hard
And don't think that our hands haven't shoveled the dirt
Over their central American graveyards

Doctors and witch hunters stripped you bare
They left you nothing for your earthly sins
Yeah, but who made this noise, just a bunch of boys
And the one with the most toys wins

Who is teaching kids to be gamblers
So life is a coin toss
And of course what you give up is what you gain
The philosophy of loss

Whatever has happened to anyone else
Could happen to you and to me
And the end of my youth was the possible truth
That it all happens randomly

Who is teaching kids to be leaders
And the way that it is meant to be
The philosophy of loss."

(Emily Saliers)

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