Monday, April 12, 2010

Forever connected by those long blue ties that bind

An offense almost changed the course of my educational journey – and quite honestly my life.

Those who know me well know that I’ve never been all that feminine. I’ve worn a dress or 100 in my lifetime, but it’s never an article of clothing I’ve ever enjoyed putting on my body. I’ve always said my material of choice has always been denim. And I’m glad that I attend a church that blue jeans fit so well into the dress code.

Because of many things I can't control and some that I can - my size, my heighth my short hair and my affinity for blue jeans - people have sometimes referred to me as “sir” or just outright called me a boy. Very little makes me as mad as someone doing that and, since I consider it very derogatory, I often return a similar remark by switching up their gender or just saying something like "I’m a girl, ugly!"

It may not be the nicest comeback for me to offer, but it gets my point across that they made a crucial error in judgment. Cause I am definitely a girl – have been since birth and always will be.

As a junior in high school, we would often have college recruiters come to our classrooms to talk to us about the colleges or universities they represented. One sunny spring day (yeah, all these years later, I still remember the time of year and the weather outside – it made that much of an impact on me), a recruiter from Mississippi University for Women came to our math classroom. After going through the spiel about the Columbus school, she began passing out information packets to the girls in the classroom. When I held out my hand to take a packet, the recruiter took it upon herself to quickly remind me that it was a “single-sex university” and men were not admitted there. I narrowed my gaze, looked her directly in the face, and explained in a not-so-nice tone that I WAS qualified by gender to attend her university. You could say that she had certainly sealed the deal for me ever wanting to go there.

Of course, she attempted to rectify her mistake and offered me not only the information packet, but some stickers and a MUW T-shirt as well. I never said a word to her, but the glare I was giving her finally sunk into her brunette head and she moved on.

Since I had known pretty much since birth that I was destined to attend Northeast Mississippi Junior College (what it was named back in the “dark ages” when I was a child), I never worried much about where I would attend school after high school graduation. And the fact that NEMJC had the best band program in the state at that time somewhat sealed the deal for where I would spend the first two years of my college career.

Oddly enough, I never really could get peace about where I would spend the remaining two and what college or university name would be on my diploma once I earned it. I dreamed of far off campuses like Rutgers University in New Jersey, New York University in the Big Apple or the University of Missouri at Columbia, the premiere journalism school in the country at that time.

My parents, who held the most control over this decision since they held the bank account at that juncture in my life, were not so keen about any of those choices. My father, who was one of the most over-educated people I knew and had attended at least 16 different colleges and universities at that point in his life, was quite convinced that a higher education experience in Mississippi was the best path for his younger daughter.

So convinced, in fact, that he could not stop touting how much I would get out an education from Ole Miss. No offense to my friends who have enjoyed going to school in Oxford, but nothing made me well, want to throw up more than to think about having to commit to two years there. I had visited the campus several times and knew that I did not belong there. It was too large and, in my mind at that time, way too preppy.

Still not certain where I would be transferring to in the fall, my friend Sandra and I decided to go to Mississippi State and visit a couple of our friends from high school one weekend so I could determine of Starkville could be the “right fit” for me. As we were leaving Booneville, though, Sandra asked me if I minded stopping in Columbus for her to complete some paperwork for enrollment at, yep, you guessed it, Mississippi University for Women.

Although I wasn’t happy about it, I agreed since she was driving and I still wanted to spend the weekend in Starkville.

Arriving on campus, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful The W was. It literally looked like something out of Southern Living magazine or some other coffee table periodical. The architecture of the buildings on front campus was amazing and the grounds were so well-kept it seemed you could literally eat a picnic dinner from them without a gingham blanket.

Stopping at the admissions office, Sandra was signing some paperwork when someone asked me the magical question: so where are YOU attending college next year? “I don’t know,” I quietly replied. And before I knew it, that someone had arranged for a student to take me on a tour of the campus.

Walking down the street, the student began to point out nearby buildings of interest and spouted of the history of them. I heard the first few sentences, but half a block into the tour it seemed as if the heavens has parted and God Himself spoke, “This is where you belong.”


Seriously … I heard it – first with my heart and then, seemingly, with my ears.

I choked back tears and thanked the student for the tour after it was completed. She smiled and said, almost knowingly, “See you soon.” Convinced that I might decide to go to school there, the admissions officer we were dealing with sent home a packet of information with me.

It was a very silent ride to Starkville. For the first five or so miles, I looked out the passenger window trying to sort out in my mind what had just happened. “I think …” I began, breaking the silence in Sandra’s car.

“You think what?” she replied.

“I think I might belong at The W with you,” I said, as a tear starting to trickle down my cheek. The offending comment made by the college recruiter years prior, oddly enough, never really entered my mind for longer than a millisecond and definitely never played a role in my sudden desire to go to school there.

All weekend I worried how I was going to tell my parents I wanted to go to school in Columbus. I wanted to call them and just get it over with, but I knew that kind of discussion really needed to be done face to face. So I waited until we got home on Sunday.

Gathering my parents together around the kitchen table – where so many other family conferences had been held before – I slowly described how The W looked and how I felt on campus there. “I just feel like I belong there,” I ended my tale. “And that’s where I would like to transfer this fall.”

My mother never said a word. She had never been too convinced that Ole Miss was the place for me either and worried her youngest child would spend more time conducting extra-curricular activities rather than finding herself in the classroom. It was my father who spoke up and said, “But I really think Ole Miss is the better choice for you academically.” I gathered my thoughts for a second and replied, “Daddy, it’s either The W or McDonalds – you make the decision.”

Knowing he had very little to argue with, Daddy said that he trusted my judgment and agreed to let me go to The W. We filled out the proper paperwork and got the financial part settled. I went to orientation that summer, met with my advisor and got a schedule filled out that I could live with.

Being the last one of our little group from Northeast to decide to go to The W, I was the odd one out when it came to a roommate and I had to take the luck of the draw. And boy was that not so lucky! I survived that semester, though, and convinced my parents prior to Christmas that I would function better in a private room. Since I’d obtained – on my own initiative – a scholarship from The W, they allowed me to try the next semester without a roommate. It worked so well that I didn’t have one my senior year, either, except for the first few weeks a girl I knew from Northeast was on campus before she went home to Ripley to student teach.

There have been numerous decisions that I’ve made in my lifetime that, in retrospect, weren’t the best decisions I’d ever made. But my two choices of where to further my college education don’t fall in that category. I’ve never, ever regretted going to Northeast for the first two years of college. I loved being a part of the Show Band from Tiger Land so much! I made some of the best friends ever and have managed to maintain contact with many of them over the years. A few of us have taken a short hiatus in our lives, but not totally in our friendships and we have managed, after time, to reconnect. But even still, regrets – yeah, Frank Sinatra – I have a few …

I enjoyed being elected Northeast Student Government Vice President and taking over the office from someone I literally idolized at the time, Cathy McCommon. I enjoyed the somewhat popular on campus at Northeast. I knew lots of people and felt as if I had lots of friends there in Booneville. I never really felt that way in high school and it was a truly nice feeling.

Transferring to The W where I literally knew six or seven people on campus, I really wasn’t scared because I totally felt it was where I belonged. Even though people in my junior class pretty much had their established groups of friends, I did manage to break into a few of them. And I also managed to make friends with the underclassmen – especially some of the freshmen who were newbies on campus just like me.

Oddly enough, there was never a time that I felt like I didn’t belong at The W which was something that was one of my biggest fears about going to the University of Mississippi. I pledged the Dixie Belle Social Club and found a place not only in that group, but made friends with members of the other social clubs on campus. I sang alto for two years in the Baptist Student Union Girls’ Ensemble and became close to the other singers. I even became “bestest buddies” with another member of the group during my senior year – a friendship I regret not cultivating on into adulthood.

The campus newspaper gave me plenty of experience with feature writing and photography. And I was asked by the editor to put my photography talents to work with the yearbook as well during my senior year. A good percentage of the photographs in that book were taken with my old Minolta XGA.

Throughout the years I have remained as connected to my alma mater as life would allow me. It’s helped that I’ve never lived too far away from the quaint little campus in Columbus that I couldn’t get back for a day trip or a weekend visit.

The W is one of those places that is hard to explain to those who have never experienced it – and often misconstrued by them. But, for the most part, the loyalty of W Girls to our alma mater – and to one another, truthfully - is fierce. And we are all knit together by a thin blue thread that connects all our hearts – whether or not we attended classes on campus at the same time. And we might not always agree with one another, but you let our university or one of us become threatened in some way and well, you really don’t want to see the fury of a W Girl who thinks she or her fellow W Girl has been scorned.

Some of my closest friends throughout my life have been people I either attended The W with or have met since then. I’ve sought advice from many of them and obtained the sagest. At the more difficult times in my life, it’s my fellow W Girls who have been the first at my side whether literally or just a phone call away.

This week as I anticipate celebrating my “Halfway to Golden Girl Status” Homecoming, there are a handful of women who are going to be in Columbus who I literally cannot wait to see. Lots of time has passed since we shared late night dreams of our future sitting on half beds in our dorm rooms, sang class songs in the cafeteria together, pledged our loyalties to our social clubs and walked down the sidewalk in front of Callaway Hall, sidestepping to that old tune and holding tightly to the traditional chain of magnolias we carried on that sultry May 11 morning. We have all had heartbreak and successes, goals achieved and plans shattered. We’ve loved and lost. Yet, just as our alma mater has withstood the sometimes meaningless and often merciless attacks throughout the past 25 years, we, too, have survived.

And, for the most part, we all are stronger because of the challenges we have faced.

Although some folks may argue that who I am was formed within the first few years of my lifetime, I think that who I am – and who I am becoming – should be credited to a hodgepodge of variables. Whether you think those from The W who have influenced me the most and helped me to become the person I am today should be chastised or praised is up to you.

What’s my supposition? The best parts of me are because you loved me, you believed in me and you even – unashamedly and fiercely - supported me. You even protected me when I needed it and were unafraid to reprimand me at the times when I needed that, too.

And for that I am eternally grateful.

I’ve struggled today to find the exact words to tell you how much. Although this is a good try, I don’t think it quite captures or defines what a difference you have made in my life. And, once again, I’ve turned to the written word to express myself. Although some people think I hide behind written communication, I’ve just always felt it was the best way I could express what is truly in my mind and definitely in my heart.

So, if our paths cross this weekend and I look at you as if I want to say something profound and, instead, hug you a little tighter and hold the hug a bit longer than normal, please remember what I’ve written here.

And know you’re one of those whose influence has developed me into me.


Bridget said...

I really loved reading this tonight. It made me think of the first time I came on campus, and I thought, "This looks like a college movie set---it's gorgeous." I also remember how proud I was to be going to the school my three aunts had graduated from. You're right; it's hard to explain to someone who isn't a "W Girl" what the W does for her alums. But WE know!

Cheryl "Sherrie" Jackson Cooper said...

Kim, Friday I will be driving to Columbus with my W roommate and we will be staying with our W suite-mate for the weekend. I never visited campus before arriving from Florida for my freshman year, and I admit that there were times when I wondered if I was in the right place. But I was - and I am - and it's because of my W days.

Jill Wood said...

Kim, your story and mine are almost mirror images -- I was already registered at the U of Missouri when I accompanied a classmate to the W because her Dad didn't want her driving from Jackson to Columbus alone. The W is a magical place that transforms people's hearts and instills in it's daughters and sons a loyalty that transcends time and change. My W days made me who I am today--for better or for worse!

Vicki said...

"Thy loyal daughters sing to thee, our college beyond compare..."

Thank you, Kim, for putting into words what so many of us are thinking as we prepare to hit the road for the weekend in Columbus. It really is hard to explain to non-W people WHY it's so special, but I can't imagine my life without it. I had to laugh at my husband last summer, when we went to Jekyll and watched Judge Mary Libby Payne's graduation video. It showed the Mag Chain and spontaneously all of us, spanning nearly 50 years of graduation classes began to sing the mag chain song, at the same time. He said "It was weird. Like a group mind thing." I think it was the closest he'll ever come to understanding our long blue line.

MissHippie said...

Wow Kim, this is so full of every emotion I also feel as a W girl. My story is a bit different: The W was my choice from day one of elementary because of my Mom. But now that I have felt the strong sisterhood - well, your blog almost made me cry. You have quite a way with emotions and words.