College memories*

Last Friday was Friday the 13th. It was also grade card day for my kids. Given those two facts, it was almost guaranteed that somebody would end up grounded before it was over.

I would have put money on it, in fact.

But fortune shone upon them, and they each brought home improved or consistent grades. I had to admit that I was impressed with all three of them and their academic efforts.

Someday I hope my kids will be college graduates. It will be quite an accomplishment for a Collins clan with only one generation, specifically me and my sister, of college graduates in the extended family.

I still remember the day that my Pop came home elated with a letter from Carson Newman College announcing that my sister Melissa had not only been accepted but offered a partial scholarship.  We had family in town visiting the day the notice arrived, and he beamed as he read its contents aloud to everyone, expressing his pride in her accomplishments.

It was a moment that marked a reality of the world to me. My sister had always been disciplined, made exceptional grades, studied hard and was now reaping the rewards of her efforts.  Her success was cause for celebration. No Collins had ever been to college.  Not Pop, his father or mother, nor his brother, nieces or nephews… nobody until Melissa, that is.

I vividly recall the tears and excitement as we drove her to the University of Tennessee, her final choice for its excellent business college which would facilitate her long-chosen goal of becoming a CPA.  She was a driven young woman.

I was not nearly the student Melissa was, but a few years later she helped me complete my college application and essentially held my hand through the student loan process.  We sat together in Sevier County Bank as she introduced a timid boy to Jerry Latham, who approved a loan to cover a considerably larger portion of my college costs than for my sister a few years earlier.  And just like that, I was following in her footsteps.  She had left a well-marked path for me.

Melissa lived in Sophronia Strong Hall, just across Cumberland Avenue and my room in “Granny” Greve Hall.  “Sophie’s” cafeteria was on the ground floor and was frequented by students from nearby residence halls, so my freshman year, I would dine with a group of friends and see my sister off at another table with hers.  It made college feel less distant knowing she was nearby.

As a dutiful brother, I tried to repay her help by making it equally homey for her.  The lack of air-conditioning meant windows in both dorms remained open, so I made a habit of hollering pesky brother sounds at her 2nd floor window every time I approached the cafeteria.  To date, she has never expressed her appreciation for that but I am sure it warmed her heart.

My first day on campus was in 1988, and I spent the entire day registering for classes.  Back in the day, one didn’t simply log into a website and pick classes from a dropdown list.  We had to scour the physical catalogue of classes, make our selections on a sheet of paper, get it approved by an adviser, and then stand in line for hours at the shiny, brand-new Thompson Boling Arena with thousands of other kids.  The line ran around the entire arena, down into the court area, and further back into nether regions not seen by most arena visitors.  It was probably literally miles long, and it started outside on the concrete in the hot sun.

Melissa had tried to prepare me for things I would not have been exposed to in the hallways of Sevier County High School.  Most of her advice served me well, but she had failed to mention the possibility that I might stand in a registration line for hours behind a gorgeous, earthy female in a tank top and hiking shorts.  One might think a male Sevier County High graduate should not have needed preparation for this experience and would be thrilled at the prospect of standing so near a gorgeous, earthy woman for hours on end.

Well, let me complete the scene by offering that this particular gorgeous, earthy female was one of several participating in an on-campus shantytown protest by living in tents and shacks.  In August.  They were raising awareness of….something?  I was never really sure what, but I am certain it was not the benefits of hygiene, deodorant, or Epilady razors.  The odor emanating from her was outdone only by the length of her armpit hair, so full and robust that I was torn between disgust and envy.

If Melissa had just once come home in such a condition, perhaps I could have overcome the cognitive dissonance of “gorgeous” and “earthy” to comprehend the importance of their cause, but apparently that was beyond the scope of Melissa’s commitment to my success.  Or maybe she just didn’t want to discourage me from attending college at all.  As it was, I was thankful my classes were pre-selected or I would surely have majored in Public Health and invented classes in “Personal Hygiene and Public Persuasion” or perhaps “Stench and Consequences.”  I had a mental syllabus prepared for teaching both by the time we reached registration.

I will again follow Melissa’s lead and try to prepare my kids for the new experiences of college, but some things, they too will just have to learn the hard way, on their own.

© Michael L. Collins

*Originally published under the name “A Sister Leads the Way” in the November 18, 2015 edition of The Mountain Press

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