The day that I departed my home town of Pineville, Missouri to attend Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri began as many other long trips in my family. My Mom got up about 3 am and fried a chicken to go with the potato salad, coleslaw and yeast biscuits for a picnic lunch on our long journey. I suspect I was the only new student who began her day that way, but it was the way things were done at home. Fast food was exotic. I remember that later I saw the Columbia McDonald's sign that said “Over 1,000,000 sold”. It was beyond comprehension.
My freshman year of college was a time of “firsts”. I had to learn a lot in a very short time. I quickly realized that I was different from the other girls in background and experience, but rather than feel inferior, I was profoundly interested in getting to know them and learn about them. I had come from a homogeneous background in the Ozark Mountains, and I moved to another homogeneous situation—a finishing school for girls (perhaps in today's world, it would be “young women”, but in those days it was “girls”.
In 1958, there was a sprinkling of foreign students—no black students; there were two Asians (a Thai Princess and a Korean girl whose father was on the International Olympic Committee) a Greek and a Swedish student who became a good friend. Most students were middle and upper middle class girls from all over the US. I had led such a sheltered and isolated life that on Palm Sunday, I carefully told a girl that she had a smudge on her forehead. I had never known a Catholic before. She wasn't offended, just surprised that I didn't know better.
I met black people for the first time because they were workers at the college – cooks and cleaners. Columbia, is in the part of Missouri known as “Little Dixie”. The plantations and slave owners in Missouri were along the Missouri River corridor. Jim Crow customs were still alive and well and limited job opportunities for blacks even if they had a college education. I found that shocking.
For a girl who had never seen a test tube, taking organic chemistry was very difficult. I wasn’t accustomed to any school subject being hard. My professor took me aside and said “I would rather teach someone who knows nothing about chemistry than someone from a big city high school who thinks they have nothing to learn. ” She also urged me to see a counselor to help me adjust to college life. My first experience with a long sequence of counselors and therapists, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
I tested out of freshman English and took a creative writing class. I found some of my stories a few years ago (my Mom had kept them) and was surprised that they were pretty good. Yet, writing did not seem to be something to pursue. Too frivolous. I needed to study something that would enable me to support myself. My goal at that time was to be an Extension Home Economist and work in a rural area like the woman who was one of my role models when I was in 4-H.
Stephens offered many opportunities to learn and was the best educational experience I would ever have. I bought season tickets to plays, saw my first opera, ballet, musicians like Dave Brubek and Count Basie. I took a literature class that had a class size limit of four. No hiding on the back row. Homework had to be done.
I sang in a Bach Chorale in phonetic Latin and took classes in “humanities” that offered further background in the arts. My professor heard me recite Milton's “On His Blindness” in class and suggested that I try out for the Stephens Playhouse. He was knowledgeable as his brother was a professional actor and he had once been William Inge's roommate, but I didn’t feel that I had the time to do so, and that is one of those crossroads that I have wondered about. It might have led me to a whole different life, but again I felt that I had to be practical and concentrate on academic subjects.
Today I wonder if that young girl who went to Stephens would be if she had made different choices, but like Frost, I took the road less traveled and have had a very good life. For that, I am grateful.
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