Academics 101

The Reading Room in Bizzell Library, University of Oklahoma
The Reading Room in Bizzell Library, University of Oklahoma

Even forty years later, I hate to admit just how much thought I put into what I would wear for my very first college class. It will give you a feel for it when I tell you that I know exactly what I wore that day. I wanted to look cute, but not like I was trying too hard. And of course, I didn’t want to look like a freshman; I didn’t succeed in that. The final decision was wide-legged jeans, a favorite t-shirt style top made of a silky material in pale blues and greens and a jade heart pendant. Some sort of platform sandals to complete the ensemble. Jeans, some sort of shirt and, eventually comfy shoes became my regular attire over the coming weeks. Somewhere along the way I found a pair of Old Maine Trotters, the most comfortable loafers ever – they became my favorite shoes.

Before I had really settled on that uniform, I had one crazy day that first semester when, for some unknown reason, I decided to dress up for class. I headed out of Walker Tower wearing a matching sweater and skirt, pantyhose and high-heeled pumps. I hadn’t gotten far on my walk to class when I stepped off  the curb and fell full length into the street. Luckily, it was an empty campus street, not the busy city street that came next so I didn’t cause an accident or get hit by a car. My pride however was seriously bruised. First I checked and was relieved to find no one had seen me. Then I checked for damages – torn hose, skinned and bloody knees, scraped palms, scattered books.

Now I faced a serious decision – go on to class and sit there bleeding like a fourth-grader after recess or go back to the room, clean up and risk being late to class. It’s a measure of my discomfort with looking silly that I decided to go back to the room. It’s also a measure of how much I hated being late to class, that I had left early enough to be able to go back to the room, put on bandaids, change into jeans and still make it to class on time. It was a long time before I told anyone this story and it was even longer before I wore a dress and heels to class again.

My first-ever college class was a Monday, Wednesday, Friday (MWF) intermediate French grammar class taught by an assistant instructor – meaning she was a doctoral student who had full responsibility for the class. What was most memorable and unique about the class was that on Friday mornings she taught us French slang. Clearly it was a ploy to get us to show up for a 9:00 Friday class, but at the time it made me feel like I was truly in college. My genteel and adored high school French teacher certainly never included any of these phrases in her lesson plans!

My second class that day was supposed to be Honors English, a class of about 20-25 people, but that’s not what I found when I got to the class. I left the class and went to figure out how to make the switch. It was a very hot day, I remember feeling very confused and lost as I wandered from building to building trying to figure out how to fix my scheduling problem. It was frustrating and a bit overwhelming, but it was a first step in knowing that I could find my way around campus – both literally and managing the system. And the result was great. The Honors English Composition class ended up being one of the highlights of my first semester. I loved that class.

My professor was new to OU, from somewhere in the Northeast and she was amazed by the flat Oklahoma terrain, wondering out loud in class one day if it was possible to see from one end of Norman to the other.  What impressed me most was the breadth and depth of her knowledge about what we were studying. I left class day after day wondering if I could ever possibly be as well read as she was. I had met my first Ph.D., someone who was truly immersed in her field, who loved what we were studying and wanted to help us love it too. I was in awe.

As can happen with a new teacher, she had a little trouble with class management and we often ran a bit long. I wouldn’t have minded but after I changed English courses, I had two classes back to back and they were far enough apart that I needed to move briskly to get to that next class even if I had had the full ten minutes in between them. That class was Russian and the professor started class the minute he entered the room regardless of the time. To add to the challenge, the clocks didn’t match. (I’ve yet to be on a campus where the clocks match!) She ran late; he started early. I was always breathless when I got to the Russian class.

Studying Russian was interesting and challenging. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet added an entirely new dimension to the process. Our professor wasn’t a great teacher, but as a Russian immigrant, he told us amazing stories about life in Russia. His style of teaching was to work his way around the room one by one, line by line through the exercises in the day’s assignment. It was boring but at least you knew which number would be yours and had time to prepare the answer. It was a five credit class so we met every day.

I completed 16 hours that semester with decent though not spectacular grades. Mostly that semester taught me I could do it. College was tougher than high school, I was lonely and homesick and was slow making friends, but I made it through the semester. I only had two final exams that semester – the very first one and the very last one so I was there until the very end. I was ready to go home for the break, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go back for the Spring semester. I had passed Academics 101.

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