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"Choose Your Own Adventure"
The perfect college turns out to be two of them.
By Mary Harris
I HAD LOOKED FORWARD to my 25th reunion in May
1997 with mixed emotions. At past gatherings, there never seemed to be
enough time to get past the "How have you been?/Everything is great"
stage, but this time the atmosphere was very different. I don't know if
it was the year -- could it be that a quarter century had really
gone by since graduation? -- or the reminder from our class president,
Alan Cotler, W'72, WG'74, that some class members were no longer
alive, but something brought home the reality that we can no longer take
life for granted.
Rather than a pat "Life is wonderful," the
question "So, how are you?" prompted something remarkable --
wonderful stories of the present and incredible sharings from the past.
At one point, as a number of us were sitting in Smokey Joe's, having begun
by talking about our children and moved on to dissect life at Penn, one
guy said, "I hate to admit it, but I'm having a better time than
I can ever remember at school." A slight exaggeration, but that weekend
I began thinking about what my Penn education meant to me -- an update
of sorts on why I want to go to Penn!
I continued to think about my undergraduate days when
my daughter Rachel started at Penn the fall after my 25th reunion. We
live in Philadelphia, and before she'd agreed to go to the University
I'd had to promise her I wouldn't set foot on campus while classes were
in session. I did help her move into the Quad -- co-ed dorms and every
room hard-wired. A far cry from my freshmen year at Hill Hall (now House),
when we still had parietals and the "computer revolution" was
unimaginable, though other revolutions -- in music, politics, and more
-- were being born all around us.
Ironically, one of my daughter's freshman seminars
was The History of the Sixties, taught by former Penn president, Dr. Sheldon
Hackney -- which, as it turned out, prompted more delving into my college
experience. I had to break my promise about never coming to campus when
Rachel required surgery to remove her gall bladder. Afterward, sick enough
to stay home rather than return to her dorm, she was still determined
to attend the seminar. I broached the subject of going with her -- just
this once. That way, I told her, if she passed out I could pick her up
and she could avoid being stepped on!
It was strange to be sitting on campus in a classroom
that hadn't even existed when I was a student, listening to young adults
pontificate upon the times I had experienced. Some of the discussion saddened
me: One student felt that the breakdown of the family was a casualty of
the era. In a discussion about the meaning of the word underprivileged,
one student defined underprivileged children as those whose parents
were divorced: These children were deprived and needed extra help growing
up today. These criticisms stung. As a family lawyer and writer in the
field, I know too well the pain of divorce, and I wasn't willing to accept
that my generation had caused the breakdown of the family. One student
felt that the way to solve "the problem" of poverty was to put
poor children in private boarding schools away from their families. He
saw no real use for Head Start or similar social programs. I felt as if
I were in a time warp -- refighting old battles. Some students spoke about
the women's movement, but complained about what it hasn't done -- it didn't
really lead to equal pay for equal work. They had no clue as to what had
been accomplished, how far we've come.
While many of the students' comments disturbed me,
I did enjoy listening to Sheldon Hackney's wonderful prodding and questioning,
designed to gently force the students into thinking. Maybe that's what
it's all about -- learning how to think. Penn is the place where we first
took quantum leaps into the world of thought (and other worlds, too).
And what a great time it was to begin that journey.
As Rachel's medical problems continued -- ultimately
diagnosed as the result of retained gall stones in her bile duct -- I
spent much more time in the Quad than I would have been allowed to otherwise.
Sitting in the dorms and other campus haunts, I began to realize that
much of who I am today had its genesis at Penn. I always valued my education
-- how the courses I took and the independent studies I pursued helped
to mold me -- but only recently have I really come to appreciate the impact
of my personal experiences and friendships.
What began at the University became a support that
helped me through what has turned out to be an extremely bittersweet year.
My daughter was at Penn, my first book -- What Every Woman Should Know
About Divorce and Custody -- had been accepted for publication. What
could be bad? Yet, also during this year, my father became quite fragile,
took ill, and died. The process of his dying was excrutiatingly painful
for me. I had had to go to law school 1,200 miles away from home before
I was able to see my relationship with my family clearly. I feel blessed
that my father was alive for almost 88 years, and that I was able to understand,
through time, how much he positively influenced my life and my children's
lives. His love never faltered. I forgave his overprotectiveness when
I became a parent myself.
Words were his life, but at the end he was a prisoner
in his own body, unable to speak or move much -- yet completely alert,
so that he was forced to witness the devastation. I spent time reminiscing
with him about Penn. He was a Wharton and Penn Law school grad, and later
a lawyer and judge in Philadelphia. When he introduced me to people he
would always mention it if the person went to Wharton or Penn Law with
him. In his judicial chambers, he kept a picture of his freshman football
team. Every time we passed Bennett Hall, he would remark, "I had
English class there," and now whenever I see the building I feel
a link with my past. A great lover of literature, he introduced me to
Dickens, Thackeray, and other authors -- yet, wanting to break away and
be my own person, as an adolescent (and beyond) I too often cut short
his reminiscences and reading suggestions. Now I was the one talking.
This is a story I told at his funeral: After the Kent
State killings in May 1970, when everyone gathered in front of Van Pelt
Library and marched into Center City behind a black-draped coffin to protest,
I saw my father across the street speaking to another man. "Daddy!"
I yelled and, wearing a short jacket that barely covered my skirt, ran
over to meet him. "This is my daughter," he told the other man,
who, I later learned, was Frank Rizzo, then chief of police -- to whom
my father had just commented, "I have a daughter at Penn, but she
would never take part in a demonstration like this."
My father died on a Sunday, so, in accordance with
Jewish law, he was buried Monday. What astonished me and gave me the greatest
comfort in this most painful of times was that without asking, without
notice, my friends -- many from Penn -- gathered around, changing busy
schedules to drop by, bring over food, or attend services at the house.
The shared history that started 29 years ago when I
was a freshman has continued to this day. Life at Penn did mean more than
all of the wonderful courses and all the fine literaure I devoured. I
built an extended family, too. Shared familial history builds on itself.
The learning, social experiences, and traditions my father received have
been passed down to me. If I don't want to become Jefferson Airplane's
"fossil of our time," I must resist being judgmental and remember
that a new generation -- my daughter's generation -- is embarking on its
own journey, trying to figure out just what they want and where to go.
They, too, will grow up with shared history.
And the link continues.
Gayle Rosenwald Smith, CW'72, (gaylersmith @msn.com) is a lawyer
and writer in Philadelphia. Her book, What Every Woman Should Know
About Divorce and Custody, will be published in November.
Previous issue's column | September/October
Contents | Gazette Home
1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/25/98