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College Talk

The daughter of my next-door neighbor recently left for college.

“There’s SOOOO much reading!” she texted me a few weeks into the semester. “And there are so many people you wouldn’t expect to meet.”

At college, most students are not involved in a never-ending party, contrary to depictions in movies. Most college students are sitting around studying most of the time. Somehow, though, it is the opposite of boring. College is all about surprises.

The lectures, discussion sections, labs, and yes, the massive reading material, infuse the very air with little tiny particles of “For Real?” and “No Way!” At college, you learn just from talking with other students because those little idea electrons are just jumping everywhere. People are talking – not just in required discussion sections, but at coffee shops, on buses, in locker rooms. People are talking while they wash dishes at their job downtown, people are talking while they play Frisbee golf or walk to their drumming circles. People are talking when they are supposed to be studying.

When I went to college in the mid-1980s, it was as though I had stepped out of a door into the world. Suddenly I was surrounded by incredible people. Students were talking about protesting apartheid in South Africa. One of my friends traveled to help Cambodian refugees in Thailand. I met a student who had gone to Nicaragua to help harvest coffee beans in support of its “revolution.” One campus play I attended was about experiences of Chinese peasants.

People were debating whether the campus newspaper should have a Women’s Section. Members of the LGBT community were talking about coming out to their parents. New Age philosophies were in the air, and I remember arguing with a date about whether individuals are really wholly responsible for their situations in life.

Then there were the really important topics: Should so many clothes be made for Barbie dolls? Who is more original, Madonna or Cyndi Lauper? Should a person jog before, or after, yoga class? What is the best food to bring to a three-day music festival?

As I was trying to select courses for my senior year, I remember talking with my dad. I told him that I had satisfied most of my requirements for graduating and for my major, and I was thinking rather guiltily about taking an elective – Creative Writing 1.

“It would be just for fun,” I said. “It doesn’t satisfy anything.”

“Anything except, perhaps, Susanna,” my dad said.

I took the course.

I never became a famous fiction writer as a result, but something else happened. I met a young man in the class who seemed to be my soul-mate. We talked and talked. That “young” man and I are now coming up on our 25th wedding anniversary.

Maybe the day will come when all classes are online. In that case, no one will have to take the bus to school, or buy coffee in the coffee shops. No one will be marked “tardy” or “absent,” and no one will need to worry about falling asleep in class. But still, I hope not. I hope that college continues to be about meeting people you wouldn’t expect to meet.

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