When I first arrived in Ithaca in 1954 to start my collegiate journey as a freshman at Cornell University I came from a farm in Central New York and a town of under 2,500 people. My high school graduating class was fifty-four students, and only three of us were going to college. To say that I was intimidated would be an understatement. I knew that everyone there was smarter than I was, richer than I was, already had friends there and instinctively knew exactly what we needed to do next, which I didn’t know if it wasn’t on my information sheet. Even if it was on my sheet I didn’t know where I was going because I was already lost. I was only seventeen, and I was lost, alone and scared. My fears were not allayed at all when the moderator at orientation told us to look at the person on your left and the person on your right and know that two out of the three of you would not be here in 1958 to graduate. I don’t know what the statistics were, but I have always wondered if they were actual or made up to scare us into making a greater determination to be the one in three.
Then, I met my roommate. You need to understand that I had two pair of Levi's, one pair of casual slacks, a $39.00 graduation suit with a vest and two pair of pants and a hand-me-down sports jacket that had already been handed down to my brother before me. It had a belt in the back and was out of style. My roommate was from Shaker Heights, Ohio, which at that time was one of the three highest per capita income residential communities in the United States. He had twenty-five Harris Tweed jackets just for starters. Freshmen could not have cars, so his dad had bought him a new Corvette and titled it in the name of a friend whose son was an upperclassman at Cornell, so my roommate could have a car.
Welcome to Cornell, farm boy. My roommate couldn’t believe me. It isn’t surprising that I did not see much of him on campus. We traveled in different circles and on separate campuses. Four years later I slipped into a seat at the Law School Aptitude Test and guess who was sitting next to me. He asked, “What are you doing here?" implying that an Aggie should not have the audacity to take the Law Apps. I was almost offended. It was worse when in response to this he said that he wanted to go to Cornell Law School. I told him that I also wanted to go there. He was incredulous. His manner was like, “What an uppity Aggie, doesn’t he know his place?” Two months later I saw him on campus and asked him if he had been accepted, and he mumbled that he had decided not to go. He walked away when I said that I had been accepted at Cornell. I have often wondered what happened to him — but not enough to look it up.
When I showed up for Law School Orientation the same four-year-old fears revisited me. My fellow classmates were from private schools from all over the country and were obviously richer, smarter, and better prepared for what lay ahead than I was. Orientation was not as bad because the law school had a smaller physical plant, so they were more selective originally. They explained that none of us would have been accepted if we could not do the work, so they put the monkey squarely on our backs. They told us that we all had the capability to graduate if we were willing to concentrate and do the work. That is a big monkey to put on someone’s back. No wiggle room in that. 96 of the 111 students in our class did graduate which is pretty good. I know a few transferred to other law schools so some of them may also have graduated. I do not know.
Since graduating from Cornell I have had a varied career in law, banking and real estate in Phoenix, Arizona. During all this time I have had recurring thoughts that I would like to take a creative writing class and have done some experimenting with writing. Nothing serious. When I received the brochure for the 2006 Summer Adult Program at Cornell I saw a class on Essay Writing/Family History and said, “What the hell?” and I signed up.
I said to myself, “It is now fifty-two years after my first Cornell orientation, and I am here prepared to subject myself, my writing, and my ego to the scrutiny of my peers and, horror of horrors, a college professor of English. What possessed me to do this and leave the security of my peers where my support base was? As I got closer to the day of reckoning I knew the answer — it was insanity.
Upon arriving in Ithaca, I was not prepared for the flood of emotions that overcame me. I was a seventeen-year-old freshman again with all the insecurities that go with being a freshman: The instructions were not clear, the campus had changed, they needed better signs. I got lost.
I had real doubts about my decision. Oh boy, did I have doubts! At least they did not scare me at orientation as we were not taking credit classes so I could not flunk out. However, after orientation, I met with our professor and my classmates for the next week. This is when I knew that I had been tricked. Of the eight students in the class, two were English teachers, two were English professors at the college level, two others had been published, and one had an agent. What the hell was I doing here?
I was the seventeen-year-old farm boy from Marcellus all over again. However, when the professor asked for volunteers to present their work for review the next day I volunteered, mainly because I felt that if they didn’t like my work, I would learn it early, and I could go home.
I was the third one to present the next day. We were told to read our work to the class, and then there would be a critique.
Finally, mercifully, it was my turn. It was a simple piece about my thoughts watching the sky at night and the planes coming and going, and I related it to my thoughts when I had done the same things as a kid: "No turning back now. Take a deep breath. Relax. Read slowly. Smile."
"Oh my gosh — no one tore up their copy or laughed at the wrong place. They were paying attention and seemed to enjoy it.
"It is over. Hooray! They liked it. Take a deep breath and read essay number two. It was longer. Don’t hyperventilate. Relax. Take a deep breath. Read slowly. It will be over soon. They liked it. They want to know more about my characters. I can do that. They gave me good ideas. They want me to expand it and resubmit. I can do that. I don’t have to go home. I have a private session with the professor tomorrow for more ideas. She is nice. I can handle that. She is a good teacher. This is fun.
"No matter what happens the rest of the week, there are two more days of class, I know that I will cherish this week for many years."