January 9th, 2017

Applying

At the moment, I am working an scene in which my fictional character, Reggie Haskell, applies to the University of Chicago. It is based on my own experience 50 years ago. Reggie’s experience is more interesting, but I thought someone might like to hear my version.

I got fairly high scores on the achievement tests kids were encouraged to take in the 60s. In my junior year of high school, a guidance counselor handed me a brochure from the University of Chicago. For some reason only known to the UC, they were recruiting students from small places like Ferndale High School. The UC offered to waive its application fee for Ferndale applicants. The waived fee got the attention of someone from a family that lived off a small milk check from Darigold, the cooperative that sold our farm’s milk.

No one from either my mother or my father’s families had been to college. The closest thing was an aunt who went to nursing school. My grandfathers stopped going to school at the third grade, the 3 Rs were all a farmer needed at the turn of the century and my struggling great-grandparents could spare no more for them. Eight or nine years was not too young to put in a full day on the farm. I heard stories of great uncles who quietly disappeared, never to be heard of again. My father was the third generation to struggle to clear enough land to raise crops that could keep a family alive. He and my grandfather finished clearing before I started grade school.

That I was going to college was by no means a given. I would be the first generation that did not have to fight the woods for crop land. My uncles and aunts graduated from high school, as did my parents. High school was all I could expect. My parents had no money for college and my father could use help on the farm.

My father was a small farmer whose security was owning his land. Cash had to be managed carefully to assure there was gasoline for the tractor, the cattle and equipment were maintained, and electricity flowed to run the milking machines and cool the milk. Income was uncertain. Sick cattle, ruined hay, a dip in milk prices all spelled a drop in the milk check.

It is easy to be nostalgic about the small farmer, but my father nearly bled out from a perforated stomach ulcer that he kept hidden by secretly vomiting blood into the manure pile behind the barn. Eventually, he could no longer stand and he was too weak to milk the cows. Then he admitted to my mother that he was sick. They went to the doctor the next day. The emergency room was for people who were really sick. The doctor wanted to put him in the hospital, but he refused because he had cows to milk. That was early spring. He was out plowing within the week. He got the crops planted but by summer he was institutionalized with severe depression. He convinced the psychiatrists to let him out for harvest. I was thirteen. It was a tough year. He had a lot of tough years. He called his two months in a locked ward in a mental hospital his vacation. He put no guile in the statement and he never left the farm.

I applied to the University of Chicago and was accepted. Chicago offered me full tuition and room and board. My parents wanted me to go to college but they were not sure what it would mean. It turned out that I didn’t either, although I thought I did. College did not take very well on me. I may have done better if I had not done so well. I graduated with honors and a prestigious fellowship to go on to graduate school, but for some reason, this did not make me a college graduate. I had slipped through without the university leaving a mark. The university had not convinced me that I could use my diplomas and honors to get the kind of job or take the kind of place in the world that college graduates are expected to take. I was lost. I did not know what to do. I was still a farmer for whom education beyond the 3 Rs was a poor excuse for not cleaning barns on the farm.

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