New Understandings

Scott posed the following question to his readers about a month ago:

That brings up my question, is there something someone said to you, or that you heard at some point, that opened up your eyes and made it possible
for you to achieve a new understanding or to change some behavior that was holding you back?

I’ve given this some thought and seeing that there has been a lull in my writing pending an event I’d rather be dragged across rusty nails than attend, I thought I’d tackle this question and answer by way of a long winded story.

When I graduated from high school, I had a few choices for colleges, but thanks to limited funds and even more limited brain power (darn you Harvard for shunning me – I know you’re looking back and regetting that slight) the road map to a degree was fairly clear – I lived in Austin, I would go to the University of Texas – just like everyone else. The problem was that even with the promise of 50,000 students, I didn’t want to see another single soul from my high school. And honestly 50,000 students spread 40 acres just wasn’t big enough. I needed a break. I needed fresh faces and a fresh start.

My best friend at the time had heard of some small school out in East Texas called Stephen F. Austin State Univerisity and since I didn’t much care to think on my own, and considering she was one of the two people I could stomach, the decision was made. I was going to be an East Texas girl.

There was one small hitch, though; I wasn’t a small town girl and my only encounter with a small town was when we’d go down the road to Buda to pick through the antique stores. You see, I was born in the Greater Dallas Metroplex. Big D. (God Bless Tom Landry and the Cowboys). All of my family was from Dallas and when we decided to pick up roots, we moved to the quaint little town of Austin – the liberal center of Texas. This is my legacy or my inheritance or something along those lines. My idea of a small town was about 1/2 a million people (something Austin used to be back in the day) and there I was heading to a town of about 28,000 – almost half the size of the University of Texas.

The first day we drove through town and I set foot on campus, I literally broke down and cried. In fact, I made it a regular routine, much to the chagrin of my roommate, of bawling every single day after class for a couple of weeks. I knew I’d made one serious mistake and really, the wretched little twerps I went to high school with were surely not as bad as this backwards hell town.

I mean, there I was in the conservative Bible belt of the state where:

  • despite the overturn of the Texas Blue Laws, you couldn’t find a single place open on a Sunday
  • there really was a Second Baptist Church (I just thought First Baptists liked the First title and had no clue that there could be a Second. Which begs the question as to whether there’s a third and honestly, what minority sunk so low they couldn’t go to one of the other two?)
  • you rarely found a person of color – the city was segregated – my take was that this was more out of habit than anything else, but you could feel it – this freaked me out, because I personally asked to be bussed to my school in Austin and was able to do so because whites were a minority – and I was put in situations in East Texas where clerks refused to help the minority who was clearly there before me – there’s nothing more awkward than one person giving you the “hurry up, let me check you out” face while the other is giving you a look that says “please, don’t make a scene”
  • While the city was “wet”, thanks to a huge turn out at the polls from the students , you still had to have a membership to get alcohol; you still do
  • a good time was cruising the Dairy Queen (I’m totally not kidding on this point – I got sucked into it once out of boredom – it’s what you do when there’s nothing to shoot and no one to have sex with – you say “hell, let’s cruise the DQ” and trust me when I say I like both shooting and sex… beats the hell out of another drive by a fast food chain)
  • the FIRST concert I went to was in the County Expo Center and it was washed-up Joe King Carrasco with his one hit song from the 80’s, Ozzy Osbourne was kept from performing in the area, and Sting (who was in the middle of his Dream of the Blue Turtles tour) was thought to be unpopular with the kids – however, our school did book Bob Hope to appear – thankfully, he cancelled
  • most of the kids came from small towns – and we completely didn’t get each other on some things and I was digging my heels in, because I was dead set against trying

… and frankly it felt like I completely missed going to college and had managed to fall into the 13th grade.

Plus, I have this one small problem that trips me up on occasion. I can be amazingly classist and arrogant when I’m in the wrong mood – and while some of that is where I was raised, some of that is also because, like everyone else, I can be a big jerk.

So, there I was hating just about EVERYTHING and feeling completely isolated in a sea of gator wrestling hillbillies and I was stuck there. My escape was becoming overly active in school activities. By my sophomore year, I was in charge of bringing speakers to campus and while I was digging the fact that I got to do things like ride in a car with Bobby Seale for well over an hour listening to his stories, I really wasn’t quite over myself.

The day came when I was in my weekly conference with my advisor and griping up a beautiful storm about the folks on my speaker’s committee. I hated them, every meeting was contentious and I was letting her know my exact thoughts on redneck conservative toothless hillbillies that I had to stomach weekly just to bring some decent speakers to this campus. I’m sure I was in rare form as I spewed out every vile thing I could think of regarding why I hated the small minded kids that I had to lead, the tiny little hick town I had to live in and how much I resented all of it. (That’s what she was there for – to counsel and get us all back on track and at this point, she was used to the rhythm of our weekly little tete-a-tetes. The joys of advising 20 year olds.)

And this woman, Beverly Farmer, the calmest, smartest, kindest saint of an advisor said, “Beth, you don’t have to like everyone you meet, but you need to learn to appreciate what other people can contribute.”

And while that is seemingly very simple and obvious, it was eye-opening to me. I had never thought about most of these folks as being able to contribute – I saw their accents, their upbringing, and how every meeting was a battle. Everything about them embodied all of my young adult anger and how they weren’t “Austin” – I didn’t see that they also had good ideas and contributions and they really weren’t trying to work in opposition to me or our goals for the committee (well, maybe the one time I told them NOT to give certain questions posed by students and written on index cards to Dr. Ruth when she was on campus, and they heard “give Dr. Ruth all the questions about deviant behavior, particularly bestiality please” – maybe that time).

At the end of the year there was an award ceremony to acknowledge the various committees (there were eight at the time) for the activities and events they brought to the campus. One award, “Committee of the Year”, was given to the group that worked the best together as a team and Ideas and Issues (my gang) were the proud recipients that year… all because of one moment in one room with one very smart woman – and a little work on my part to learn to appreciate people. Just an aside, no other committee won that award for several years; they didn’t meet the standards and the day Beverly told me that, I puffed up with pride as she laughed. Damn, we were a solid team.

That was my last year there and the day I left, I cried as hard as the day I got there. I was already missing my town, my people, my school because I truly learned to appreciate them for what they were and what they had to offer; we were no longer in opposition. To this day, I wish I’d graduated from SFA.

What I learned in Beverly’s office is something I still work on today – trying to see past the superficial and see people for who they are and appreciate their value; it’s not always easy.

Oh, and when I did get to UT with it’s 50,000 students thinking that I wouldn’t see a single soul I knew thanks to being an upper classman, I walked into my first class and two folks from high school plopped down next to me in a class of over 200. I didn’t like them in high school, but there again I decided to drop my guard and ended up with two new friends.

One thought on “New Understandings

  1. Charla says:

    Gail read this aloud while we sat at Scott’s bedside…all of us smiling and enjoying your story…beautifully written.Thank you daughter o’ mine.

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