Today I visited the campus of my alma mater. I hadn’t been here since the last reunion, and being here on a non-reunion day is quite a bit different, and being here between school sessions is different still. I was reminded of my first summer here – after a roller coaster of a freshman year, which included a crazy boyfriend and a messy adjustment to being on my own for the first time after a lifetime of living with a severely controlling father. Oh, and the death of at least a few adolescent dreams about what college would be like.
But, despite the difficulties of that first year, that first summer was redolent of hope – a sensation nearly as corporeal as the feel of that heavy Chicago summer air on my skin. I remember walking through campus on summer nights, with my roommates, out and about just to get a break from our sweltering and bug-infested ($425 a month) apartment.
Walking across the quads, the campus buildings humming in concert, sounding like a live thing, it seemed as if anything were possible, and it seemed as if all things were imminent. Tonight I took a walk down memory lane – the school is between terms, the air is heavy, the campus physical systems thrum and hum, just as they always did. Even close to midnight, lights were still on here and there – someone putting in late hours in some lab or office.
The campus has changed a lot since my days there, but we still have the 100+ year-old, collegiate gothic buildings and, when I walk among them, I still feel that old hope, despite the ways in which my life has turned out quite differently than I expected.
When I was 18 and involved with a very much older and very controlling man (Did I mention I had a controlling father? Ahem.) he wanted me to settle down with him, and I almost went along with it. The thing that stopped me was a vision that haunted me every time I thought about marrying him. It was vague, but I had an image of working in an office building, wearing a suit and high heels and carrying a briefcase. I knew if I married this guy and had the kids he wanted, I would never have that life. I didn’t know what work the life would entail, but I read magazines, and in the magazines, a successful woman wore a suit and click-clacked, briefcase swinging, across the gleaming marble lobby of a class-A office building.
My first real job was one I started while still in college – working the night shift at UPS in order to break free of that controlling father. Definitely no polished lobbies or smart business suits at UPS, but that job grew me up in a way that college alone never could have. I finished college at the tail end of a recessionary period, so for a while employment was whatever I could get, including a year working on fishing boats in Alaska. Eventually I landed at Microsoft, which had polished lobbies and free sodas and a lot of very nice amenities, but by that time career women came to work in jeans and sweaters. If you showed up in a suit everyone would assume you were job-seeking.
Having grown up in a small town, I dreamed for years about being an urban girl, and I was, for the years I lived in Chicago. I enjoyed it, and sometimes I think I might return to that intense urban life, at least for a while, but after Chicago I missed greenery, so I got myself to Seattle and traded a one-bedroom in a six-flat for a 2 bedroom war box on a sunny hill on the south end of the city. I never did buy the brick townhouse I dreamed of during my Chicago years.
And, of course, there’s my present fascination. I could not have imagined that about halfway through life, my love of airplanes was going to declare itself and compel me to drop everything and enroll in airplane mechanic school, but here I am. I have no complaints (well, maybe a few minor ones), about where my life has taken me, but I am often surprised.