Brand building through storytelling

How the freshman blues changed my life

Early one late-August morning in 1968, while most people on our street were still lingering over their coffee, we Maynards set off in our elderly Buick, beating the traffic according to the family custom, chugging down all-but-deserted roads toward the Grandma Moses-worthy college town of Middlebury, Vermont. The trunk held my worldly goods: a wardrobe based on turtlenecks and fashionably faded jeans, a collection of scratched LPs (heavy on Bob Dylan and grizzled bluesmen), a record player housed in a neon-pink suitcase and brand new bath towels in a Peter Max palette. Middlebury College had been my third-choice school but the others turned me down. I had come to disdain the only one that said yes.

In all the words I’ve written about my early life—blog posts, articles, speeches, a memoir—there’s not a single mention of Middlebury College. The University of Toronto, where I fled after one lacerating year in northern Vermont, got all the credit for my education. Middlebury seemed to me a false start, a digression from the storyline that brought me where I am today. It has taken me all this time to understand that my forgotten, excised freshman year was in fact a turning point when I closed my mind to the possible rewards of staying put and committed to another path.

One dark, wind-lashed day that fall, my parents drove up for a weekend visit. In their hotel room I reeled off the case I had already built against Middlebury: too many spoiled rich kids from New York suburbs, campus-wide obsession with skiing, clique-ish sorority scene, blinkered little village with nothing to offer my culture-deprived urban soul. Not a word against the teaching: the school lived up to its billing as the kind of place where professors cared about nurturing students, not simply burnishing their own academic reputations. But I hungered for another brand of caring, one that could only be conferred by a dashing, witty upperclassman well versed in Jean-Luc Godard and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Too proud to admit my self-enforced isolation, I couldn’t hold back a wave of helpless despair like nothing I had felt since childhood. I threw myself face-down on the quilted floral bedspread and sobbed, “I’ll never belong here! I’m not one of those complacent ‘Midd kids!’ I’ve got to transfer somewhere else!”

That settled it. I would finish the academic year while applying to big-city schools. Then I’d put Middlebury behind me, like an ex-husband cut from a photo.

I wonder now why my parents made only token protests, why they failed to point out what now strikes me as obvious: that by resolving to leave Middlebury halfway through my first semester, I was closing the door on opportunities to make a life there. If I didn’t feel that I belonged, could I not have made an effort to find my tribe instead of bemoaning my fate? If I was in despair, why blame campus life instead of taking a hard look at myself and my assumptions?

Of the big-city schools to which I turned for release, only one agreed to accept me—and only on the condition that I start all over as a freshman. The University of Toronto equated my year at one of the most respected liberal arts colleges in the U.S. with the province of Ontario’s Grade 13, yet I embraced my future on U of T’s impersonal downtown campus just as swiftly and irrevocably as I’d written off staying at Middlebury. Weeks into my new life in Toronto, I had met the unwritten benchmarks of belonging: get drunk at a Friday night beer bash, achieve an altered state while gathered around a hookah, lose my virginity to a poetry-quoting rake. I never planned to stay in Canada; things just sort of happened. Canadian husband at age 21, Canadian baby one year later…so much for grad school in my native land.

If I hadn’t crossed the border in a fit of late-adolescent pique, I wouldn’t have my husband, my family or my friends–those treasured components of a life that feels as wonderfully, inevitably mine as the books on my shelf or the clothes that never let me down. I’d never have edited Chatelaine, a magazine that mothers had been handing on to daughters since 1928. And yet, while I don’t regret what’s come to be, I find myself intrigued, for the first time in more than 40 years, by the shadow life that might have been. On the brink of my sixtieth birthday, I look back at my sobbing 18-year-old self and wish I could shake some sense into her. I wonder what became of my zany misfit girlfriends in the freshman dorm at Middlebury (known to us alone as “Medievalbury”). Because they happened to be female, I took their company for granted.

A while ago I Googled my English professor from that lost year (thank goodness for unusual names). He was in his first job then, alight with that contagious enthusiasm not even great teachers can sustain. I found him reinvented as a motivational speaker, but full of memories from the Middlebury days and still in touch with a number of my former classmates—a remarkable bunch, he says. He hopes we’ll meet next time I pass through his city. Spoken like a true teacher.

 

Posted by Rona

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