When I was in college and homecoming weekend would roll around, I would observe the parade of middle aged alumni strolling across the campus with their receding hairlines, exceeding waistlines, and poor fashion sense and I would take pity on them; convinced that they were all probably fighting impending senility.
That was yesterday, and today I is one of them.
I attended the 30th reunion of my college graduating class this past weekend and I felt pretty good about myself. I’m only 50 pounds heavier, and I only forgot where I parked my car twice (it’s the schools fault for moving a lot of buildings around since I left.)
As with all such events, you spend a lot of time reminiscing about your favorite memories. When I hear many of my current friends talk about their college experiences it generally falls into one of two categories; either it’s stories about fraternity hijinks and campus romances, or it’s stories from people who are pretty sure they were involved in fraternity hijinks and campus romances, but they consumed so much alcohol during that period that they aren’t entirely sure.
On Friday evening I took a long walk around campus and then a drive around town and did some reminiscing of my own. I was a good Baptist boy going to a Baptist school and preparing for the ministry so there was no alcohol involved in my memories. There may have been some campus romances, but I’ll leave that part out because discretion is always the better part of valor.
In reality, my college years were a bit of a challenging time. About six months prior to leaving for college my father lost his job and money was very, very tight. My high school grades were not stellar so I didn’t qualify for many scholarships. However, I did score high on my ACT. This allowed me to do something I’m strangely proud of: attend college with a small academic scholarship while on academic probation. How’s that for irony?
The scholarship didn’t go far and to stay in school I had to work, and I worked a lot. During all four years of school I had at least two jobs and during my freshman and sophomore years I had three.
I would get up at 6:00 each morning and go drive a school bus route for Shawnee public schools. I would get back just in time for a day full of classes. After class I would drive my afternoon route and finish in time for rehearsal with the Bison Glee Club. After rehearsal I would grab a quick bite in the cafeteria and then go to Swensen’s Ice Cream parlor where I worked five nights a week from 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. After I got off from the ice cream parlor I would usually go with fellow employees over to Town Talk Cafe to have the breakfast special with Cecilia the mean but lovable waitress with flabby elbows. I usually made it to bed around 2:00 a.m. On Wednesdays and Sundays (the two days I didn’t work at Swensen’s) I drove to the small church I served as Music and Youth Minister. I survived the first two years of college on four hours of sleep a night, and this was before the days of the five hour energy drink. It was during this time that I became heavily addicted to Mt. Dew; an addiction, I’m sad to report, I have to this day. I needed the caffeine intake to stay awake. Even today, if my blood-caffeine level drops below 30% I immediately lapse into a coma.
The long hours were not really the challenging part, however. The challenging part was dealing with my mother during this time.
A few years earlier, my mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. My father had a difficult time dealing with her illness and took a job where he traveled extensively. Typically, he was only home two weekends a month. As an only child I had been the primary care giver for my mother for a long time. She did pretty well on her medication but there were many times she was not lucid and I was worried about what would happen to her when I was no longer around every day.
To my father’s credit, when he lost his job he took over caring for my mom. The issue was that I was the only person who could calm her down when she was not lucid. This meant that during my college years there were at least two to three frantic phone calls a week in which I would have to try and convince my mother over the phone that people were not trying to kill her.
One of my mother’s delusions was that every Century 21 real estate agent in the world was actually a spy trying to kill her. While this is a tragic delusion, it’s also kind of funny. When I think back about it, I always imagine an army of people in ugly gold sports coats moving through the countryside like zombies in a George Romero movie.
I didn’t really talk much about my mom when I was in college. Frankly, at the time I was embarrassed and I didn’t know how people would react. I tried to get home as often as I could during my college years which wasn’t often enough. My mom continued to get worse during my junior and senior years and often had to be hospitalized. She died not long after I graduated.
During this past weekend I heard people in my class talking about all of the extra curricular activities they were involved in and all the memories surrounding those activities. I didn’t have many extracurricular activities because of the circumstances I mentioned. I did, however, have one; the Bison Glee Club. Yes, I know, the name sounds like a herd of singing Buffalo, but it was an organization with a rich history that I was very fortunate to be a part of.
I saw many of the people I was in Glee Club with this past weekend. They did not know it at the time but they were my lifeline, my family, and my sanity through some very tough years. If any of you are reading this, including my roommate Bill Simpson, thank you. Thank you more than I could ever express.
When I was in Glee Club, during homecoming we would have to go to the rehearsal room and greet the old middle-aged guys who came back for Club reunion. It was always awkward and to make it worse, they blubbered a lot when we sang through the songs that Club had been doing for decades.
I was determined not to be one of those blubbers as I walked into the rehearsal room last Saturday. Of course, as I’m sure you already guessed, I lasted all of two measures before I was embarrassing all of the current Glee Club members. But that’s ok, I earned those tears, and they were happy ones.
That's why I'm not sad about my college years. They taught me a lot about perseverance, friendship, and faith. So...to quote the very last line of our Alma Mater that I sang with many friends this last weekend:
God bless OBU.