Category: Georgetown

Thoughts from a Reunion

Though one cannot always remember exactly why one has been happy, there is no forgetting that one was. (from Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno by W.H. Auden)

I am writing this in the blessed coolness of my hotel room as I recover from a long, hot, and humid but nevertheless fun and illuminating day on the campus of Georgetown University, where we are attending John’s 30 year reunion

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I’ve written about other reunions here, here, here, here, and here, and I may yet write up this one in a play-by-play fashion, including all the many pictures I’ve been taking.  But this is not that post.

No, today I want to write about thoughts and feelings while they are still fresh in my mind.  I feel like I’ve been having a somewhat profound experience and since I’m not–alas–18 any more, I’m afraid I’ll forget it if I don’t write it down.

We are staying in the Key Bridge Marriott, which is relevant because 30 years ago I was a waitress in the restaurant here.  And now I’m staying in a room on the 7th floor, so I’ve both literally and figuratively moved up!  And of course I’ve told every single person I’ve interacted with in the hotel about my association with it–partly to explain why I am openly staring strangely at things (because a lot has changed in 20 years, y’all!).

Anyway, what I noticed last night as we were eating our late dinner in the hotel bar was that I was giddily happy.  Couldn’t-stop-smiling-happy.  And I remember that I USED TO BE LIKE THAT ALL THE TIME.

I’m not like that all the time any more.  In fact, I am hardly ever like that.  If I’m tipsy, maybe, or I’m excited about flowers blooming at the beginning of spring.  But being super cheerful used to be an intrinsic part of who I was to the point that I remember writing an essay about it. I’m always telling my kids (and other people lucky enough to be the object of my sanctimonious rants) that being happy is NOT the point of life.  And I do believe that, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t WANT to be happy.  Where did this dour person come from and how can I get that giddy girl back?

We spent most of today in lectures, because that’s how geeky Georgetown grads are.  We come back to school to have more school.  And also to remember when we used to sit around having smart thoughts and intelligent discussions for fun.  We had several such conversations with total strangers today which is a thing you can do at Georgetown because literally everyone is an intellectual and says words like hermeneutic and heuristic and expects you will understand.

I surprised myself by being able to stay mostly awake for all the lectures, even though I was actually sitting down in the middle of the afternoon.  They were all wonderful and maybe I will tell you more about them later, but for now I want to focus on some of my takeaways from the last two.

Professor Glavin of the English Department, whose classes I somehow missed when I was an undergrad, talked about a memoir he’d written and in that context told us that we shouldn’t berate ourselves for all our life decisions.  That most of the time we make good decisions, the best ones we can make with the information available to us.  That we just don’t have access to all the information, because that’s how life is.  That life is a series of parabolas, with upward arcs leading inevitably to failures, that maybe we learn from before we start the next one.  That was comforting, his next point less so:  that our lives are crossed by meridians–moments of before and after–and that we can never go back across them.  He was talking not just of his book but very obviously of what he expected many of us might be feeling as we attended a reunion at a very different Georgetown from the one we remembered.

From here we went to another lecture that focused on personal development and on finding your purpose.  We were asked to think about moments when we were happy, really in the moment, feeling a sense of “flow.”  Frankly I was getting a little sleepy so I didn’t get everything that was being said, but I was left with an impression that goes along well with some other work I’ve been doing lately on spiritual gifts (about which more later)–that everyone needs to be doing work that fulfills their special purpose.  If they don’t, they will never really be happy OR successful.

The first half or maybe more of my life is over (which is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time).  I can’t go back to my college days (obviously), but I need to figure out what I am supposed to be doing with the rest of my life–and even more important, how to find the time to do that.  Maybe that will bring some of my giddiness back too.  We shall see.

john and leslie at Georgetown Reunion

Standing in the spot where we first met

Back Home Again

. . . is where I am, after the 500-mile drive from Georgetown earlier today.  Everything was fine while we were gone, and I’ve already washed a load of laundry and cooked two pounds of bacon.
But I’ll back up just a bit to this morning, when we arrived on campus to attend the All Class Farewell Mass, which is always held in Gaston Hall.
Gaston Hall IS Georgetown to me.  It’s an ornate room that continues to impress me as much as it did the first time I saw it in 1985.  When I’m there, I think of all the other times I was there–for six (I think) Reunion masses now, but also for at least one Mass of the Holy Spirit, for Cherry Tree Massacre, for hypnotist Tom DeLuca, for the mandatory viewing of The Exorcist during Freshman Orientation, and more formal occasions that I no longer recall.  But it’s also always new to me, because it so richly detailed that I discover more every time I visit.
From the motto of the Jesuits emblazoned behind the stage to the many sayings of famous wise men that adorn the walls to the seals of all the Jesuit Universities from across the world, it’s a feast for the eyes and the mind.  It is a joy to be in the room, and more of a joy to attend Mass there, especially with John, who was not Catholic when he attended Georgetown and certainly attributes his openness to becoming one to his experience of the Jesuits.
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The Eucharist is the source and the summit of all that we do as Catholics, and the Reunion Mass is the summit of the weekend for me.  I worry sometimes at the naysayers who proclaim Georgetown is not “Catholic enough,” until I come back and see and feel how very Catholic it is.  Father Kevin O’Brien (a classmate of John’s), who had earlier given the lecture on the Church in the 21st century, was the celebrant, and a few other Jesuits joined in, among them Father Bill McFadden, who was my first theology professor and of whom I was absolutely terrified.  Jack DeGioia, the first lay President of the university, gave a reflection after Communion.
President DeGioia recalled a Gospel of a few weeks prior and reminded us that we are to be living stones, building a spiritual house, out in the world.  He said he wished that the most recent graduates could be with us so that they could see the profound impact their Georgetown experience will have on their futures.  When Father O’Brien dismissed us, reminding us that the word “Mass” derives from the Latin for sending forth, we were filled with the sense of mission that Georgetown attempts to inspire in its students.
We enjoyed a very nice brunch afterwards under the tent on Copley Lawn, and after a last-minute bathroom break to prepare for the long drive home, we spent our last few moments sitting right outside one of the doors to the Healy Building.  The year I graduated–Georgetown’s Bicentennial Year–a mosaic of the University Seal was installed in front of this door.  Apparently it has become a Georgetown tradition not to step on the seal, and you could tell the students and more recent (than me!) alums by whether they skirted the seal or walked across it.  It was sweet to hear one young guy explaining to his preschooler that “we never, ever step on it.”
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And then it was time to start for home . . . grateful for the weekend, and even more grateful for our Georgetown years.
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Swift Potomac's Lovely Daughter

So, no, we didn’t make it back to campus at 10 a.m.  And John wasn’t ready to leave and I was chomping at the bit.  So  left him at the hotel and walked to Georgetown by myself.
It’s about a mile to campus from the hotel in Rosslyn, Virginia where we are staying.  It involves crossing the Key Bridge, and that’s a trip I’ve made hundreds of times.  There’s no Metro stop in Georgetown, so any time we wanted to go somewhere by subway we walked to Rosslyn.  We also used to walk over occasionally to visit the McDonald’s, since there wasn’t one (still isn’t) in Georgetown.  But the majority of my bridge-crossing took place starting in the summer of 1988, for two reasons:  I had a job as a waitress at the Key Bridge Marriott, and John had graduated and moved into an apartment on the other side of the bridge.
So it was a nostalgic little journey for me this morning, and made even better by the extraordinary weather we are having.  Y’all, usually it’s in the 90s already by now and the humidity makes you remember that D.C. is built over a swamp.  But it was in the 70s today and breezy.  Good thing, too, because while walking across the bridge is easy, walking up the hill to Georgetown from there is a bit harder, and the first thing I did was stop at Wisemiller’s to get a bottle of water.
You know what I did then?  Absolutely nothing.  I planted myself on a bench in front of Copley (the last dorm I lived in) and sat for an hour soaking up the atmosphere and watching people walk by.

Copley Hall

Copley Hall


I talked to my roommate (who did not attend the Reunion) later in the day and she asked how it felt to be back and my answer was, “Not all that different.”  I think that’s one of the things I love about coming back–it’s exciting to be there but also familiar.  It’s a place I know and feel comfortable with, even though there are always some changes and some new things to see.  And of course it does take me back to that time and those memories, but I’m still the same person after all.  Right?
I did visit the bookstore to buy a t-shirt and pick up some snacks before John joined me, and then we went to another lecture.  This one was on The Church in the 21st Century, and was mostly about Pope Francis, which was great because you’ve probably gathered by now that I absolutely love Pope Francis.  Then we walked around and explored.  We went inside the oldest building–1792–on campus, which I think was used for storage in our day but is now a meditation center.  We also went into the Copley Crypt Chapel which for some reason I had never been inside.  And we visited the awesome new performing arts center which has two theatres and classrooms and offices and is a pretty amazing addition to campus.
Icon in Copley Crypt

Icon in Copley Crypt


Copley Crypt Detal

Copley Crypt Detal


Copley Crypt Detail

Copley Crypt Detail


The next event was called Love on the Hilltop and it was a reception at the Alumni House held in honor of those of us who met our spouses at Georgetown.  They even gave us champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Isn’t that romantic?
And then we met up with my dear friend Tom.  Tom lived on the first floor of New North freshman year when I lived on the fourth floor.  He and Renee (my roommate) and I dyed Easter eggs on the fire escape.  We danced to Madonna’s Get into the Groove as part of a pre-exam ritual.  We cooked many a stir fry supper.  Tom and I spent a summer making beds together as employees of summer housing.  We have lots of memories and it was wonderful to see him.
John and I had dinner at The Tombs.  It’s a Georgetown tradition, but one that I didn’t take up until after a graduated, because I was kind of a nerd in college honestly.  So we’ve gone there almost every Reunion.  Do you know that restaurants up here are much more crowded and noisy than the ones back home?  I wonder why that is.
We meandered back towards the garage where we left our car last night, stopping for about an hour just to sit and talk and BE here.  And also to make that aforementioned call to the roommate and to tell her she MUST come to the next Reunion.  Now we are back in our hotel room for an evening of reading, quiet, coolness, and rest.  Tomorrow is the farewell Mass and brunch and then it’s back to Tennessee.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met . . .

If y’all don’t understand the title, it’s the first line of Georgetown’s fight song, which is the best fight song ever.  Seriously, it is.  One of my college housemates once went to some kind of Catholic Youth conference where everyone sang their school’s fight song, and everyone there agreed it was the best.  You can hear it here.
Why does that matter exactly?  Because as I write I am concluding the first day of my 25th Reunion.  I wrote about John’s last year–lucky us, we get to go two years in a row!  So at the moment I’m on the 14th floor of the Hyatt in Rosslyn, which is right across the Key Bridge from Georgetown, while my kids are back in Knoxville doing God knows what. (No, I’m kidding, I did make various arrangements for their care and feeding before I left.)
Words cannot express (won’t stop me writing lots and lots of words!) how much I love Georgetown.  Maybe everyone feels the same way about their Alma Mater, I don’t know.  But I just start grinning goofily the minute the place comes into view (a little different from the way I just about burst into tears when it came into view in August 1985 when my family was getting ready to drop me off there!).
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We fought through the 5 o’clock traffic (and if you live in Knoxville and think you know anything about traffic, you just don’t!) yesterday to arrive around six, with just enough time to freshen up and get back into the car to fight traffic some more to go have some wine at my friend Crystal’s house.  Crystal was one of my housemates sophomore year, which was when John and I started dating, so she was a witness to all of the drama and lovesickness of those early days.  We had a super time seeing her house and then eating dinner at a wonderful neighborhood restaurant and reminiscing as well as talking about politics.  Crystal actually talks about politics on CNN!  She has a blog called Conservative Black Chick and I’m more of a moderate-to-liberal white chick, but we get along all the same. 🙂 (By the way, if we ever talked about politics ONCE the year we lived together, I certainly don’t remember it.  We were too busy watching Moonlighting and drinking.)
We slept in this morning and got to Georgetown a little after one.  After we registered for the events we plan to attend (not many of them, because $150 EACH is more than I care to spend on anything that doesn’t last longer than one night, and that’s how much the big evening party costs) we headed for the first lecture, which was a panel on the History of Georgetown, which I won’t bore you with except did you know that Georgetown is the first Catholic university in the United States and that it was founded the same year the Constitution was written and that it was chartered by Congress?  We heard all about that and more, and then it was time for the second lecture.  This one was called The Problem of God, which is a course that is required for Georgetown Freshmen, and it made us feel so smart to listen to all this deep philosophical/theological stuff.  We went to school here and learned about all these things once.  We must have been pretty smart.  But raising teenagers will make the smartest person feel like an idiot, believe me.
After the lectures and a trip to see the newly renovated Dahlgren Chapel, we found a bench on the lawn in front of the Healy Building and just sat for a good hour, soaking up the atmosphere of the place where we were young.  So far, besides Crystal, I haven’t seen except in passing anyone that I knew from school.  I haven’t kept up with a lot of people, and most of those I have for one reason or another aren’t making the trip this time.  But it’s really enough just to have a Reunion with Georgetown itself.  Just being here does something for us, reminds us of what we were 25 years ago and what we still are underneath.

Dahlgren Chapel Window

Dahlgren Chapel Window


View of the Healy Building from Dahlgren

View of the Healy Building from Dahlgren


Finally we got up and walked to Wisconsin Avenue, to take a look around and get a bite to eat.  We went to Martin’s Tavern, an old favorite of John’s and one thing in Georgetown that is older than we are–it’s been here since 1933!  Then we walked all the way back to our hotel–just a beautiful walk with the sun setting over the Potomac and so many interesting things  to see in every direction.
My classmates are partying under a tent on campus, and I’ve chosen a quiet evening in the hotel, blogging.  That’s a real treat for me though!  We are supposed to be back on campus tomorrow at 10 a.m.  I will let you know if we make it!
Part II
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Scattered Pictures

Twenty-seven years ago (ACK!!), I moved into my first apartment at Georgetown with three classmates.  It was like playing house–walking to Safeway to buy groceries, making Quick Corn Light Bread from my mother’s recipe, using the carpet sweeper, fighting over whose turn it was to buy toilet paper, throwing dinner parties.  We had so much fun.  And of course it seems like it all happened yesterday.

But here’s what ACTUALLY happened yesterday: yesterday morning, I received a Facebook message from one of my former housemates.  She was coming to Knoxville to speak at the University and wondered if I’d have time to get together.

Sometimes spontaneous fun is the best kind.  We didn’t have much time to plan, but we made it happen.  John and I went to her event, and then we went out to eat and drink and reminisce.

I had not seen Crystal in almost twenty years, when she met us at a friend’s home in Northern Virginia for a couple of hours.  My last visual memory was of her sitting on the sofa with my two kids crawling all over her.  And honestly I was a little nervous about seeing her again.  Because you can never be sure what it will be like to be with someone you haven’t known in so long.  And I was also nervous about attending her speech. 

You see, Crystal Wright is kind of famous!  She writes a popular blog, she makes regular appearances on television, and she has over 36,000 Twitter followers!   She was at UT to talk to the Issues Committee about race and the Republican party, and especially about her own experiences of being a Conservative black woman.

Now y’all have figured out by now that I’m not a Republican, right?  I’ve read some of Crystal’s tweets and I’ve disagreed with a lot of what I read.  Crystal was always a person of strong opinions. but we just didn’t do a whole lot of talking about politics in Village B 88 back in the day.  We were too busy watching Moonlighting, doing aerobics to the Jane Fonda cassette, and licking spilled champagne off the kitchen counter because who would want it to go to waste?

So I’d been a little surprised by Crystal’s vehement views and wondered if our differences would affect our friendship.

I shouldn’t have worried.  I actually enjoyed listening to the talk, especially when the kids asked questions afterwards.  (Crystal told us at dinner that she was very impressed by the intelligence of the UT students she met!)  She talked a lot about the failure of the GOP to engage minorities and what they should do to change that.  She explained the genesis of her own political beliefs.  She gave me some new ideas to think about.

We started talking while we waited for John to retrieve the car from where we’d illegally parked it and never stopped.  There was no awkwardness as we talked not just about old times but about politics and principles and what our lives are like now.  Memory is funny–there were things I remembered clearly that she had forgotten and vice-versa.  We were housemates during a pivotal year–it was the year I started dating my husband and as Crystal said last night “There was a lot of drama.”   

Crystal lives in D.C. and when we go there in May for the Georgetown Reunion we are going to go hang out on her deck and drink wine and talk some more.  Maybe I will bring a bottle of peach Riunite so we can relive one of our college adventures.

I wanted to share a picture of us back in the day but y’all know what happened to my pictures.  This one is the clearest one I have–Crystal is on top, with me at the bottom and Renee in between.  Christine, the fourth housemate, must have been taking the picture!  But as I look at the photograph of one happy moment in time, with rainbow swirls and smudges around the edges, imperfections and distortions, I realize the fire turned the picture into a metaphor.

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Going Home Part II

We had a big morning planned (two lectures and a tour) but we kind of forgot about it and slept in instead.  We had to take a cab to make it to Georgetown in time for the Family Picnic (which we would totally have bagged too except we had already paid for it).  The food was good, though.  We chilled (Or tried to chill.  It’s in the freaking 90s here and the humidity is around 85%.  I mean it is brutal.)  for awhile until time for this afternoon’s panel discussion: Cementing a Legacy:  Analyzing a Second Term President (do we Georgetown grads know how to party of what?).
This thing was held in the brand-new business school building which is all stone and old-fashioned looking on the outside and all glassy and modern inside, and the reason they were holding the discussion in the fancy building was because C-Span was filming it!  And you know, it was really an interesting panel but I woke up with a headache and the medicine I take for that knocks me out completely.  It just does.  So if you watch C-Span don’t think that sleepy woman in the audience isn’t FULLY CAPABLE of following the nuances of the conversation.  She’s just on drugs, okay?
One of the graduates in the audience asking a question was just completely obnoxious.  He made me remember that I went to school with a fair amount of obnoxious people back in the day.  How shall I put this delicately?  Let’s just say, there are not many folks of the Southern persuasion here.  And I am back to being used to my polite and friendly fellow Southerners, after twenty-five years away from this place.
And have I mentioned the heat?  Yes, it does get hot at home.  But it cools off at night.  And there’s less asphalt and concrete.  Or something.  We are walking along like we are REALLY old, just not kind of old.  I’m telling you, it is sapping all of our energy.  We’re longing for our hotel room at about eight, and when we were here in school we didn’t even START partying until after that.  Things are later here.  That’s something I forgot.  You can walk into a restaurant at seven and get a seat, no problem.  It’s at eight that things are busy.  That’s backward from Knoxville.
But different is good, right?  So after the panel we went for another walk, this time down Wisconsin Avenue.  Most things we remember are gone, but my favorite ice cream place–Thomas Sweets–is still there!  Then we retrieved our car from the parking garage where we left it over night at less than half the price our hotel wants–take THAT, Melrose Hotel! and went driving into Virginia to visit some of our old haunts there, including a favorite restaurant from the year we lived here after we were married.  Then we took the car back to Georgetown and took another little walk around campus–short walks are much more manageable in the heat.
We ended up in the library.  This is a place where I spent a LOT of time, folks.  Not because I was studying.  I never once went there to study.  I worked there, though, at the circulation desk, for 12-15 hours every week for four years.  It’s so fancy-schmancy that I don’t even recognize it now, but the reading room next door is EXACTLY the same.  I think even the furniture is the same–it sure looks like it.  And the books that line the walls–books I’m pretty sure no one even opens any more–are encyclopedias.  Encyclopedias about everything–art, music, history.  Also the Oxford English Dictionary.  And all kinds of guides to periodical literature.  The kids probably sit there and laugh while they look all that up on their iPhones.  But I’m glad they haven’t thrown away the books yet.
We took a cab back to the hotel and now we are trying to work up the energy to go back downstairs and take a hike to the White House–seven whole blocks away.  Will we make it?  Find out tomorrow . . .

From the wall of the Intercultural Building, where the School of Foreign Service is housed

From the wall of the Intercultural Building, where the School of Foreign Service is housed


EDIT: Tomorrow never came apparently, because for some reason I never wrote THE REST OF THE STORY.  We did, however, go out that evening for a little walk and stared at the White House, and got ourselves a snack at Old Ebbitt Grill, which is one of those old places where the movers and shakers eat.

Going Home

Georgetown's founder Bishop John Carroll in front of the Healy Buiding.

Georgetown’s founder Bishop John Carroll in front of the Healy Buiding.


So this is where I am today!
Twenty-five years ago (yes, that does constitute an actual lifetime!) John graduated from Georgetown University, and we are here for his Reunion.  (He’s older than me.  We just won’t discuss when my 25-year Reunion will be.  Until I blog about it next May.)
This is the final installment of the two months of travel, celebration, fun, and stress that I wrote about two months ago.  (Did you notice I kind of stopped blogging for the duration?) But this is by far the less stressful occasion, and do you know why?  We are here BY OURSELVES.  Yes, we took advantage of the fact that three of our kids are adults, at least technically, and abandoned the little ones to their care.  So here we are, just like the old days.
Leslie's Graduation
Except we are older and fatter.
We aren’t staying on campus this time because it now costs–I kid you not–$180 a night to stay in a DORM ROOM and after all the time I spent cleaning Village C (a whole summer scrubbing toilets and making beds) they ought to be paying ME to stay there.  So I scored us a four star hotel on Hotwire for a two star price because we are GROWNUPS.  It’s a mile and a half away and we are busily coming up with ways to avoid paying $45 (yes you read that right) a NIGHT to park at the hotel, so we left the car at Georgetown last night and walked back, which was not so bad if it weren’t for my uncomfortable shoes and the 90 degree heat.  I used to routinely walk from Georgetown to the Mall and the monuments and the Smithsonians, and sometimes did round trips of ten miles, so I can handle this, right?
As grownups, we decided to go to the grownup restaurant last night too.  While all John’s classmates were attending a raucous celebration in the Tombs, we stayed upstairs at 1789, where we had never been.  It was awesome enough to make up for being older, fatter, and greyer, seriously.  It’s dim and old world and all the waiters have French accents which they are not faking.  Every item was exquisite, from the amuse bouche to the coffee. (Fair Trade, French press) Maybe by next year we will have saved up enough money to go there again.
On the agenda for today were lectures and receptions on campus.  Because this is Georgetown the lectures have names like “The State of Security: Balancing Foreign Relations with Domestic Concerns” and the receptions have free wine and beer and actual food enough to make a meal of (as some enterprising students have been known to do, since no one is checking your i.d. at these things).  We had three lectures planned but we slept in and then ate lunch at Mr. Smith’s instead.  And we did go to one of them.  It was held in one of the few big lecture halls at Georgetown (because most classes are small, y’all!).  This happens to have been where I took “Physics of Energy and the Environment” along with all the members of the basketball team and many other non-scientists.  Today’s lecture was much more inspiring, I promise.
Tonight we should have been at a tent party.  Except $100 PER PERSON is a lot to pay to party under a tent in 90 degree weather.  I can get drunk for a LOT less than that, should I want to.  I didn’t like tent parties when I was 21 and my opinion hasn’t changed.  It probably doesn’t help that the last one I attended as an undergrad ended with me vomiting in the grass and then returning to the apartment and passing out.  So we went down to M Street, had dinner, and walked back to the hotel where we will soon be passing out from heat exhaustion instead of drunkenness.
To Be Continued . . .

Training the Mind

“A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching.”
~ A. Bartlett Giamatti 
I am a BIG believer in Liberal Arts education.   I majored in English at Georgetown University, and rather obviously I did not choose that major with the thought of future employment in mind!  Later I was a Graduate Assistant at what was then the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Tennessee, and I grew very frustrated by kids who just wanted to know how to graduate as fast as possible with their only goal a job waiting at the end, kids who just couldn’t get the point of having to take English or Philosophy classes because that wouldn’t help them make money.  Me, I’ve always thought of KNOWLEDGE as the pot of gold at the end of that college rainbow.
Leslie's Graduation
And in my opinion, a good college or university shouldn’t just offer a smorgasbord of classes for kids to dive into without direction.  Perhaps they will gorge themselves on their favorites, while ignoring delicacies that they might fall in love with if they had to taste them.  No, a good school will guide its students and help form their minds.
So I was astonished and disappointed to discover that this very important role of a good school has been abandoned by some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in this country.  Although student guides at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton gave lip service to the ideal of breadth as well of depth in education, they also said things like: “We don’t want anyone having to take classes they don’t want to,” “We don’t have a lot of core requirements like other schools,” “You might not be taking any of the same classes as the other freshmen.”
What these schools espouse is the concept of core AREAS, and I won’t go into the details of each curriculum except to say they are similar at the Big Three.  Every student has to take one course from each of the areas.  Given the only four courses per semester a Harvard student takes, that means the average student spends a year on these courses.  The areas are so broad that at Princeton, for example, a Pottery course comes from the same area as a Literature course, so that you might graduate from what is supposed to be one of the best schools in the country without ever taking a college-level English class.
Many of the offerings the kids mentioned sounded fascinating as electives, but inappropriate as core courses:  Medieval Navigation as a science course, for example.  (I believe that was at Harvard).  My son thinks it’s great to be able to take whatever you want, and I’m sure most eighteen-year-olds feel the same.  After twelve years of being told exactly what classes to take and when, such freedom is intoxicating.
But most freshmen in college don’t have a clue about what classes they should take.  How could they?  How many of them have ever taken a class in Philosophy or Theology?  How would they know whether they would enjoy these classes?  How many of them equate boring experiences in a class in high school with the same subject in college which may be very different?  A good college should be making sure that its students are exposed to all these subjects so that they can make an educated decision about what they pursue on an upperclass level.  A good college should be trying to turn out well-rounded kids who DO take some of the same classes as their peers, both for collegiality and in the interest of turning out adults who share a common foundation of knowledge.
I am happy to report that Jesuit institutions apparently still value the concept of a core curriculum.  Although Georgetown’s curriculum has loosened up a bit since I attended there, apparently in the interests of multi-culturalism, students there will still find themselves taking core classes for two full years, and many of them are specific classes that everyone will take.  English, Philosophy, Theology, History, Science, Math, Languages, and Social Sciences are all covered.  Additionally, Georgetown still has what we called the Sophomore Rule, stating that you cannot take two classes in the same discipline in the same semester until your junior year, a clever way of preventing people from trying to get a jump start on a major at the expense of exploration.
I had two friends in college who switched from Foreign Service to English majors because of their experience in their required English courses.  After my required Theology courses, I chose to minor in Theology.   Because I took the Liberal Arts Seminar my freshman year I got out of a lot of the required classes (although not the subjects) and as much as I enjoyed the Seminar I have always been a little regretful that I did not share the experiences of the majority of my classmates and that I did not get the same basic grounding that they did.
“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
~Albert Einstein (a Princeton Professor, by the way, 1921, on Thomas Edison’s opinion that a college education is useless; quoted in Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, p. 185.)
What do you think?  Am I over-reacting?  Did any of you end up liking a subject you never would have explored if you hadn’t had to?  Talk to me in the comments!

College Search 2012

Twenty-eight summers ago, my family took me on a college-shopping trip.  Much of our recent vacation was a re-enactment of that journey, with the college-shopper this time around being my 17-year-old son Teddy.   The memories of that long-ago journey overlaid this one, giving it a faintly surreal feel.
We started with Georgetown University, which is only an hour from Baltimore, where we were lodged.  This was a highly-anticipated moment for John and me, since it’s our alma mater and we had not been back in several years.   When we drove across the Key Bridge we more or less spontaneously broke into song, starting with the Alma Mater and segueing seamlessly into the fight song, which is the most awesome fight song EVER.
Once we parked, Jake and Emily struck off on their own while the rest of us went to the Admissions Office for the information session. (That’s how college visits mostly work–an info session led by officials, followed by a campus tour led by a student.)  The session was overcrowded so the little people and I waited in the lobby, where I enjoyed talking to the student at the desk about how things have changed and some of our past escapades.
Georgetown is a noisy place, with airplanes flying overhead regularly, lots of people, and delivery vehicles chirping as they try to back up (The only roads are access roads–it’s not a driving campus.)  So although the tour was by far the most comprehensive in terms of the buildings we saw, it wasn’t the best because we had a really hard time hearing our guide.  Things that struck me:  Georgetown has the world’s largest student-owned and operated business; it encourages internships and has many available all over the country; it places emphasis on studying abroad.  Getting an opinion out of Teddy is like drawing blood from a stone, but I know that he approves of its awesome location in our nation’s capital.  If I were going to pick, I’d send him there.  But I’m not going to pick because I am not a helicopter mom.
What do I remember from my own visit to Georgetown was my father sweating through his shirt and therefore having to keep his jacket on in the intense heat (we were luckier with our weather this time and missed the Knoxville heat wave too!); being told that there were Masses offered every 45 minutes all day long (this time around we also heard about the rabbis and imams on campus); and that it was my favorite from the moment I set foot there.

Georgetown’s founder Bishop John Carroll in front of the Healy Buiding.


One of many student-run shops on campus, its name a play on “Hoya Saxa,” the phrase whence Georgetown’s athletic teams get their name.


Jake posing where many presidents have given speeches on campus, most famously Lincoln, in front of Old North.


From the wall of the Intercultural Building, where the School of Foreign Service is housed


A favorite professor, now resting in the Jesuit graveyard on campus


Our next stop was Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.  We drove up from Baltimore for their afternoon session and tour.  Teddy and I went to Nassau Hall for the info session while everyone else went in search of snacks.   It was a grand location for an information session with a lot of history–it was briefly our nation’s Capitol.  Emily and Jake joined us for the tour (and brought the snacks!) while John rested and let the little kids play behind the Frist Student Center (yes, it is the Frist you think!).
It was a really good tour and I think all of us were impressed with the beauty of the campus.  Also notable are the residential college system (think Hogwarts) and the upper-class eating clubs.  From my first visit I remember thinking that the campus was beautiful but the town was too small, and my opinion remains the same (30,000 people in the town).  They told us back then that New York and Philadelphia were close and accessible by train, and they said that again this time, only they admitted what I suspected from the first, that people mostly don’t do that.

The main library from a distance


Some of that famous ivy



The chapel at Princeton


Teddy with a Princeton tiger


We drove straight from Princeton to New Haven, in preparation for our appointment at Yale University first thing in the morning.  That visit started out extremely well, with our finding two parking places right on the street in front of our destination.  Emily and Jake took Lorelei and John, William, and I accompanied Teddy to the information session, which was held in a lecture hall to accommodate the crowd.  For the tour, we were divided up into smaller groups so that we were able to hear our guide very well.
Me, I don’t like campuses with actual city roads crossing through them, but Teddy didn’t seem to mind.  Yale’s architecture is the prettiest–which I remember thinking when I saw it last.  It’s modeled on Oxford so there is lots of stone.  A highlight of the tour was one library which houses the rare book collection, including a Gutenberg Bible.  The main library is styled like a cathedral, with a large collection of secular stained glass (Yale was determinedly secular, which naturally turned me off.  No mention was made of religious opportunities on campus, although there is a large Catholic church on the street where the tour began–the only non-Yale building on the street.).
Teddy liked the “shopping period,” a two-week time during which you can attend any courses you want before you commit, even coming late and leaving early.  Yale also does the residential college bit.  I like the sound of that better these days–it didn’t appeal to me when I was applying to colleges.  New Haven was downright scary back then, which was a major downer.  I can see that it’s been revitalized quite a bit, but I understand that it’s still considered a high-crime city.   But, hey, D.C. was the murder capital of the country when I attended Georgetown.

Rare books cube


Gutenberg Bible


Interior of the main library, a “cathedral to knowledge”


Library exterior


So, finally, we headed for Harvard University.  It wasn’t one of Teddy’s favorites to begin with, and the tour didn’t change that.  He and I went to the information session while everyone else went to find parking ($27!).  The session was held in a theatre also used as a lecture hall, and was unique on the trip for having student commentators along with the admission official–a good tactic, I thought.  The rest of the family were wiped out and thoroughly tired of colleges by this time, so they did not come on the tour with us either.
Our guide was fine, but the tour covered the least territory of any that we went on.  At some colleges, there is a definite sense that they are trying to “sell” themselves.  At Harvard, you feel that they know they’ve already made the sale, because they are, you know, HARVARD, so they don’t try as hard.  The points that stood out to me about Harvard were negative points.  They are so secular that they don’t mention religion and so “diverse” that they don’t officially sanction any single sex organizations.  Cambridge is great and lots of fun I’m sure, but you are constantly crossing streets and I just don’t like that.  The architecture leans brickward which just isn’t as pretty as the stone on other campuses.  They de-emphasize studying abroad or doing internships during the school year, because who would want to miss a semester at Harvard?  And you only take 32 classes to graduate!

Memorial Hall, where our tour began


Interior of Memorial Hall


In Harvard Yard


Interesting building sighted on the way to Harvard Square


So where will Teddy go to school?  I suspect he will narrow it down by 1) Where he gets in and 2) Where he gets the best deal financially.  We shall see.  After my college tour, I made exhaustive pro/con lists (Georgetown won!) but still ended up applying to all of them (plus Brown, which Teddy did not want included on his tour–he is also considering Vanderbilt and Notre Dame).  I got into Georgetown early, was wait-listed at Brown and Princeton and outright rejected by Harvard and Yale.  Which was a blow to my ego but for which I am forever grateful, because I feel like you just don’t say no if you get into Harvard and I am so, so glad that I went to Georgetown.
When Emily looked at colleges, she loved Spring Hill right away and knew it was the place for her, just like John and I knew about Georgetown.  So I asked Teddy, “Did you get a special feeling about any of them?  Did any one place make your soul sing?” He responded, “Mom, I’m not a girl.”

A Quarter of a Century

That’s how long ago it’s been, as of today, that John and I have been a couple.  On February 16, 1987, he asked me if I would be interested in going out with him, and I bet if he could have seen the future, he would have run the other way instead.  But I guess if any of us could see the future we’d run the other way, right?
I went to college with the express intention of finding a husband.  I also said he would be a lawyer (because I thought all attorneys were rich!) and that we would have a lot of children (I wanted ten) and I would stay home with them.  I got what I planned for, although it doesn’t always look exactly the way I thought it would!  John went to college to prepare to join the Foreign Service.  He was going to live a wild bachelor existence until he was at least 30, and he wasn’t really interested in having children at all.  He also got what I wanted. 🙂  I think he’s not sorry, most days.
Our early courtship was . . . shall we say . . . complicated, because John had been dating my roommate first.  But we worked through that, and all the things that followed.  We were best friends first, and I know that helped (still does).  We also enjoyed one of those romantic, chemistry-charged beginnings–and we can usually recall those feelings when we need a boost, even if that kind of intensity cannot be sustained non-stop for 25 years.
We’ve always celebrated this date with the same fervor as our wedding anniversary–which is probably why Valentine’s Day has never been a big deal for us.  The first year we were dating, we exchanged cards on the 16th of every month!  John planned to pop the question on August 16, 1988, which would have been our 18 month anniversary, but once he had the ring he just couldn’t wait, so he asked on July 16 instead.
I have an exceptionally clear and detailed memory of my whole life up until I started having children.  Ask anybody.  And I’m glad, because I can conjure up not only the feelings of those early days (not wanting to eat, seeing John’s face floating above the Platonic dialogue I was supposed to be reading, being able to think of nothing but our next meeting . . .) but the actual details (what happened each day leading up to the 16th, where I sat and waited for John to meet me after his class, him playing “Only the Good Die Young” whenever I came over– and no, it did not work!).  This is more important than ever now.
Because normally today I would go to my dresser drawer and pull out a sheaf of love letters and cards from the first year of that courtship, still in their envelopes, many addressed not to “Leslie” but to “Pumpkin” or whatever the pet name of the week was, neatly arranged in chronological order.  It embarrassed John to hear the things he wrote back then, but I treasured them, and realizing they were reduced to ashes was the post-fire moment that brought me closest to tears.
Which brings me to a happier story that I don’t think I’ve shared yet.  When I tell people that our house burned down, the thing they all are most upset by is the loss of all our pictures (we will be the last generation that can lose pictures to fire, thanks to computers).  Now, honestly, I was more upset about a lot of things.  That’s because I made triple prints of every photo and sent one whole set to John’s family in Baltimore, so I knew that most pictures of our kids survived somewhere.  I thought, though, that our pre-kid pictures were gone for good.
One day John went over to the ruins to get our fire proof box, which had all the negatives for our pictures, including our wedding pictures.  Sadly, fireproof does not mean waterproof, and everything in the box was ruined.  But John also came home with a photo album with some salvageable pictures.  I sent him back to look again and he returned with most of our photo albums and the baby books too! Somehow, amidst the utter destruction of the room they were in, the built-in cabinet they were stored in provided some level of protection.  The albums are singed and many pictures are ruined.  But many can be saved.

I can’t do it.  Looking at the destroyed ones upsets me and so does the very strong smell of fire.  But Emily worked on it at Christmas time and will finish the job this summer.  And because of this little miracle, I do have a couple of courtship pictures to illustrate this story.

My 21st Birthday


Diplomatic Ball – Georgetown 1988

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