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Coming Home, continued

 

    By the spring of 1982 it was time for me to find a piece of history for myself, a topic for my senior thesis. Here again my memory fails me as I try to recall how I hunted down my research purpose. For what I remember best is the smell of the stacks up in Van Pelt, the way the sun squeezed through the miserly windows, how otherworldly the music was that crept in from the street. I remember how the shelf of books felt against my back as I leaned into it, how I filled so many spiral-bound notebooks with my notes, then tore them free. How I got up early and stayed up late, and thought myself magnificently engaged in a project that had merit.
    “Cooperative Engineering Education: A Study in Institutional Change” was the title I finally settled on for my senior paper, proof that I had, at long last, learned to set my purple prose aside. “What is the mechanism of institutional modernization?” I ask the reader, in the introduction. “Who perceives the need for change? Redefines organizational purpose? Encourages public and political support? Against which standards or norms may reforms be evaluated?” Well, I hinted boldly, I’d located the slice of history to manipulate the answers through. I’d found a turn-of-the-century engineer and educator named Herman Schneider who had founded an industrial training scheme designed to give America the skilled labor the new technologies and city forms demanded. “I have chosen to retrieve Schneider from the dusty shelves of history because I find him to be a potent and imaginative thinker,” I wrote, “a wonderful man, whose ideology of community cooperation and social unity is as powerful and meaningful to us today as it was to his contemporaries over eighty years ago.” And the onion skin rolled through my typewriter for days, and the clack-clack-clack of the keys was my music, and I was full of verve and sweet ambition.
    What is the point of a university education? What remains of the experience after we’ve let go of the data points, the hard-won facts, the strands of disparate particulars from which we wove our fragile fabrics? What does it mean, after all the neatly recopied notes are gone, and after we, shaking the dust off of our thesis just now, cannot be persuaded by our own ancient self-importance? Why did I work so hard, over the course of those 80 pages, to win over a reader of one, a fleet-footed, not-to-be-easily-persuaded Dr. Kohler, who thought best while stroking his wispy beard and refused to patronize?
    I did it, and on this matter my mind is very clear, because I was given a chance to belong. Because even now, as I read Dr. Kohler’s critique of my senior thesis, I feel the warm, wet rush of appreciation. I feel taken care of, listened to, on equal footing in a small community of people I respected. “This is a very fine piece of work,” Dr. Kohler’s typewritten response begins. “It is well thought-out, well organized, and gracefully written … That is how history should be done. Personal, but accessible to readers who may not have shared, at first, your particular passion.”
    That is how Dr. Kohler’s assessment begins, but indeed, the most important words come later: the education, the teaching, the insight, the goading to do better work next time. “I think you missed an opportunity to follow up with an analysis of why some engineering schools adopted the program and others did not,” he suggests, x’ing out his own typewriter mistakes and keeping the analysis coming. Likewise: “In general, I am glad you decided to do cooperative training programs at both the college and high school levels, but I do think it got you into a structural problem that you did not quite resolve.” And on and on, but most tellingly of all, most life changing, most catapulting: “You tend to stop with description and could have let yourself go a bit more with interpretation. Don’t be shy about shaping the past.”
    Don’t be shy about shaping the past. Don’t be shy … These words written to the student with the poems beneath her bed, to the almost-graduate who still didn’t know what she would make of the life that stretched before her.
    What does one do with a history and sociology of science degree? What does one get from all the semesters spent sitting around a battered conference table? One gets one’s footing, as I understand it now. One begins to take some faith in one’s self. One learns to settle in with the books she loves—the biographies of scientists, the histories of machines, the marvelous stuff that keeps getting written about dirt, about wind, about ocean swells and snails. One looks about and dares to shape what she can see. One retrieves the poetry from beneath her bed.
    A few years after I graduated from Penn, after I’d found myself a small career writing about architecture and engineering, I was taking a walk down Walnut Street, observing the sun as it played against the storefront windows. I was in my own thoughts, as I tend to be, and the crowd was just a blur, but then it happened. I caught sight of a familiar figure in a rumpled, sleeve-turned shirt, a man in baggy faded jeans, guiding a heavy metal bike up the populous sidewalk. The wind was in his wispy hair, his hand was in his beard. He was headed west, toward the campus that lay beyond the bridge.
    Hey, I almost called after him. Hey. For he was on the north slab of sidewalk and I on the south, and there were two lanes of cars coughing between us. I wanted to yell out, Thank you, wanted to stop him and say that I was still learning how to think things through, learning how to take my mind beyond description. But it seemed to me that there were other students waiting, other theses to be graded, other conversations he’d soon be starting with those who’d somehow found the place that they were calling home.

Beth Kephart C’82 is the author of A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage and a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Gazette. Her new book, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter, was published in September.

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