Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Life Story: Textbooks and Tubs

College was fantastic.

The minute I walked onto campus my world shifted entirely. Here was the freedom and liberation, excitement and stimulation, responsibility of self I had craved for so much of my early life. My professors were like guides into this new world of ideas, influencing me to challenge everything I had previously known. They were the first people in my life to introduce sparks of liberal-leaning suggestions and I trusted their intelligence.

Some of my favorite professors were women. Strong women, smart women, women who would fix their children breakfast and head out the door with them, everyone to their proper campus. I took a History of Civ class from a woman who laughed at some of the culturally-bound stereotypes I had never even questioned before. I fell in love with  my biology teacher, her white lab coat always draped over her broad shoulders, teaching me about the basics of my natural world. And my Brit Lit professor couldn't have been more different from the women I knew, she talked about the complicated aspects to human nature--jealously, seduction, joy, pain--as if there was no one looking over her shoulder, judging her actions.

I was so hungry for all of it, I ingested like I'd been starving my entire life.

During my first winter semester Page's husband Vance got a job in San Fransisco. They had just built a home at the mouth of Slate Canyon, a few miles south of our house. Page had also just given birth to their third child, Olivia who looked just like a little bird with bright orange fluff on her head. Vance had to move immediately, leaving them with not a lot of time to sell the house or find a new one in the Bay Area. The decision was made that Vance would move to San Fransisco and find a suitable house for his family while Page stayed in Utah trying to sell. It worried me to think of my sister, alone in her big copper-trimmed house with three little children for an undetermined amount of time, so I offered to move in with her.

Page had graduated from BYU with a degree in nursing. She married young, nineteen years old, went to college and worked. In my extended family I didn't have a lot of examples of women who sought out education. There was a definite path: meet a boy in high school, wait for him while he finished his church mission, marry him, have babies right away. There was nothing wrong, certainly, with this lifestyle choice. I loved watching my aunts and uncles with their families, bright offspring running all over their happy homes, I just didn't have the foresight to see all the available options until my sister showed me.

My own mother had started college--BYU and then the University of Utah--but put it on hold to have a family, she returned to it some time during my elementary school years and suspended it again when her life couldn't afford her the time. And something about that made me sad for her, I could see how much she loved being mentally challenged and I remember it made me feel safe--like my presence in her life wasn't holding her back from her pursuits. My mother showed me, that even for a brief moment motherhood and education could be a tandem experiment.

Why not?

Why not? Because I had somehow bought into the idea that college was just a vehicle for marriage. Every class at the start of every semester I'd look around the room and speculate which boy I could see myself marrying. And if I were to find this husband of mine, and he wanted to start a family right away, I had no problem dropping all of it for this domestic life. As much as I loved learning, I couldn't shake that deeply held belief about myself: the younger I got married, the more valid I was as a woman.

But Page, with her unapologetic style of living, her audacity to trailblaze wouldn't allow me to think so little. She encouraged me to be serious about my education. We'd stay up late at night in her room studying and writing. Sometimes I'd get so stressed about a test I couldn't sleep and I'd vomit all night long. But even in those horrible nights I embraced the excitement that finally, after feeling so angry all the time, I was doing something that really mattered to me. Everything I read, wrote and felt from Humanities to World Religion made me feel passionate and important.

And so, for the first part of my college experience, I'd go to school in the morning, hauling books in my arms, a pen stuck in the nest of my hair, eager to absorb. Then in the afternoons I'd head back to Page's house, help her feed the nephews I thought of as my own children, put them in the tub, washing away the accumulated dirt from time in their unlandscaped backyard, hold the baby while Page read them books and left them in bed to dream about snakes and swords. Then we would eat bowls of ice cream and laugh a lot because everything was funny to us somehow. I'd fall asleep listening to Page talk to Vance over the phone and I'd think about how much I loved this domestic life as much as I loved the one I explored on campus. I was relieved to know that one world didn't have to cancel out the other.

At some point college graduation became as natural a goal as anything else. It was something I hoped for as much as falling in love with a good man and having his children. In fact, it became imperative to those experiences, and sometimes it felt so wonderfully indulgent I wondered if it was the only investment I would ever make just for myself. I could also see why my church was so pro-education, teaching me and my fellow young women of its importance--economically and spiritually.

The truth I discovered was that nothing--no cultivated wardrobe, no weight loss success, no amount of tanned skin--could make me feel as beautiful or attractive as education be it formal or informal. Nothing arouses me, I observed, quite like learning.

And with its social and intellectual opportunities college gave me three invaluable skills I don't think I would've attained anywhere else: I read with a greater sense of comprehension, I can think critically and clearly, and I enjoy a view of the world never offered to me before, a view filled with beauty, belief and compassion.