October 30, 20156
By Michael A. Calvert
I steered the Nash onto Fifteenth Street toward the oversized, stone gateposts flanked by exuberant black wrought iron gates that heralded the entrance to The Ohio State University on High Street. Fifteenth Street was fraternity row, lined with mansions featuring two-story columns and classical facades. Students in shorts and T-shirts were tossing frisbees on the lawns in the faint December sun. Frisbees were as foreign as rugby balls to me then.
My destinations were Long’s Books and its competitor the Student Book Exchange. I had submitted my registration fee, and I was doubling down on my commitment to start in Winter Quarter by investing in textbooks. My hat was over the wall, and I had to go over the wall.
I thought it might help me keep up with my professors if I reviewed my text books in advance. I went directly to the aisles marked “Used” and found long shelves with required freshman courses in English 401 and History Survey 421. No books to buy for ROTC or physical education. Two books were specified for the elective, Sociology 411. I flipped the pages and discovered some downturned corners, marginal notes and varying amounts of yellow highlighting. Initially I looked for books in pristine condition but decided marked up books might help me understand these college texts.
As I stepped onto the sidewalk with a shopping bag, chilly gusts whipped a light rain at my back. I zipped up my jacket, flipped up the collar, put my head down, and walked briskly toward my car. I didn’t own a hat. Glancing up, I saw an armada of black umbrellas sailing toward me on the narrow sidewalk. The points were tilted forward like lances and the stays were menacing. As a child I was repeatedly warned about things that would put my eye out. I stepped into a doorway to let them pass. I didn’t own an umbrella and couldn’t imagine carrying one any more than prancing under a parasol. I was dripping wet when I reached my car two blocks away. I thought how welcome a working heater would have been been. As the rain pelted down, I reluctantly accepted that an umbrella might be a necessity on campus, but I would certainly not open one my neighborhood.
The following week a thick gray envelope with a scarlet OSU shield arrived in the mail. In addition to more forms to fill out, the package contained the date and location for my day-long orientation, my class schedule, and a campus map. On the morning specified, I joined a mass of students shuffling into an auditorium in Haggerty Hall. It was bigger than the Palace, the largest movie theater in Columbus. I could see the form of a man standing on the stage. When the noise level subsided to a low rumble, he gripped the microphone before him and intoned, “Welcome to The Ohio State University. Lesson number one, it’s The Ohio State University, not just Ohio State. Lesson number two is don’t lose the fee card included in your packet.” He waved an envelope-sized card, and said, “It’s your passport on campus.” The sound of several hundred people rustling among papers to find their card pierced with tiny rectangles followed. It was the first computer punch card I had ever seen. My St. Charles report cards with grades inked with a fountain pen was quaint in comparison.
After introducing himself as Dr. Malcolm Maxwell, Dean of Freshmen, the man on the distant stage led us through the forms in our packets. Our final task was to write an essay on our goals in college and life on yet another form.
“Before you write your essay, I want you to know that many of you will never graduate from The Ohio State University. A great many young people have sat in this hall for freshman orientation and never become sophomores. Success will require hard work, self-discipline, scheduling your time, and focus. You are not in high school anymore. This is the first time you’ve been away from home. No one is going to make you read your assignments, study for tests, and write your term papers. The State of Ohio gives almost everyone a chance to become a graduate of The Ohio State University and an opportunity for success, but most don’t rise to the challenge.”
I wrote my essay on the promise of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, the Peace Corps, and his commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The optimism of these initiatives buoyed my spirits, but after I turned in my papers and began the long walk to my car, doubts rose to the surface again.
As an avid sports fan, I knew that college football stars occasionally didn’t do well in the NFL, and there were many stories of many baseball phenoms who received big signing bonuses sometimes didn’t make the majors. Some All-American college basketball players couldn’t adapt to the pro game. Scouts say identifying talent is an art. Sports writers can always see a failed player’s shortcomings clearly — in retrospect.
Maybe I would be one of those who didn’t make it in the big time. Although I told myself that I did well at St. Charles and scored high on the ACT, I entertained the notion that despite these promising signs, I could fail in college. Imagining the disappointment for my parents and family made me shudder. Grandmother’s hopes were heavily invested in my success. My friends and their parents would shake their heads in dismay. A few would take some satisfaction in my failure to escape the neighborhood.
Overconfidence makes highly ranked teams vulnerable to upsets. Coaches tell players that they could lose your next game even though the team is heavily favored. Coaches and players know it’s unlikely, but the threat of an embarrassing loss is a useful fiction that focuses them on winning. I employed this stratagem as coach and player of my effort to win in college.
When classes began on January 2nd, I set out for my first class at University Hall, a Victorian structure on the Oval, a large greensward crisscrossed with walkways where the campus began in 1870. After climbing to the fourth floor, I found myself seated next to a student with ebony skin and a dress shirt and tie. “I am Matthew Aboo, from Ivory Coast,” he said as he stiffly extended his hand to me. “I come to study agriculture here. What State are you from?”
“Ohio. I am from Columbus. When did you come to the United States?” Before he could answer, the professor entered and we both gave him our full attention. I had never met anyone from
abroad, certainly not Africa. I soon met Jews from New York and Boston with their distinctive accents. I was not far from home, but in a different world.
I found all my classes around the Oval and discovered the Student Union. I was impressed that a building as big as a downtown department store was provided as an amenity for students. On the upper floors, students lounged in huge carpeted rooms with low-slung, colorful furniture, stone fireplaces, and a glass wall overlooking campus. A large gleaming cafeteria and a casual dining area (misleadingly named the Tavern) were on the first floor, and dozens of billiards tables filled the basement. A veritable country club for students.
I ran into people from my classes and some acquaintances from Columbus in the Union, and friends could always be found in one corner of the tavern, a place to have a Coke after class or take a break from studying upstairs. Most of us had part-time jobs and limited spending money. We struggled to fit our reading and assignments into our hectic schedules, but this became the norm.
One guy from the Bottoms neighborhood developed a technique for stealthily lifting submarine sandwiches from the cafeteria line and others followed. Their motto became “Run Silent, Run Deep” from a movie about World War II submariners.
Our table was mostly guys. We rated the coeds as they came into the room, argued about sports, and commiserated about our papers and midterms. Hours were spent lamenting the lack of time to study. As we shared grades on quizzes and assignments, I realized that I was doing better than most at our table. My doubts about making it in college, lurking in the back of my mind, receded a bit, but I continued to coach myself to press forward. Overconfidence lead to upsets.
The guys who were two or three years older knew that their draft deferment would end abruptly if they flunked out of college. “Greetings” from the local draft board arrived in days. Younger guys could drop our and enroll the next quarter, but draftees would be in basic training with crew cuts. There was no “shooting war” in 1962, but the movies showed how unpleasant drill sergeants and obstacle courses could be. Two years in the infantry was not in our plans. The reserves were no picnic and enlistment for four years in the Navy or Air Force was an option to consider to avoid the army.
One of the regulars at our table, Don, was right on the edge of flunking out. He was failing two courses, and if he didn’t pass both he would be out. In addition to the draft, his parents would be furious. When he was at class, everyone agreed that we had to help Don. Everyone agreed that
I should tutor him in sociology, and Tony would help him get through economics. When he returned, Tony and I took him aside and offered to help him. After an initially rejecting our assistance, he gratefully agreed. Tony and I took turns explaining chapters of his textbooks and drilling him on definitions in a corner of an upstairs lounge. When Don came in with a B- in his midterm sociology exam, several of us adjourned to the Char-Bar on High Street to celebrate. I privately rejoiced in my role as tutor.
The 10-week quarter sped by. I was at Kroger most evenings behind a cash register and on the overnight stocking crew on Wednesdays. I went to the supermarket with Mom and helped with errands. Of course, there was drama from Dad periodically. On weekends, I dropped by for coffee with Pauline and Joey. On Saturday nights, I joined guys from the neighborhood for some music at clubs. After a few beers, we danced, but only slow songs when we could shuffle and hold a girl tightly. On Sundays afternoons following our family dinner, I was back at the Union reviewing the highlighted sentences in my used books.
Term papers were due and finals were looming in the last two weeks. They would decide my GPA, the grade point average, that would define whether I was making it as a college student. I knew a poor paper and a bad exam could make my GPA plummet. The pressure was on. I vowed to stay away from the table where my friends gathered. I knew how a coffee break could become a half an hour or more. I found a corner of the top floor lounge where I could study without interruption from my friends. I was the quarterback in the final drive, the pinch hitter in the ninth inning, and the distance runner on the final lap. It was time to see if I could make it in this league.
After delivering one of my papers early and the others on time, I withdrew to my third floor hideaway and began to systematically review my notes beginning with the first class of each course. I paged through the textbooks noting the yellow highlights made by the prior owner and red underlinings I added. I paced myself to complete my review before each exam. As I walked to the room where the blue books would be distributed, I coached myself with a pep talk. It was game time.
A week later, I called home before my shift at Kroger’s to see if my grades were in the mailbox. The OSU envelope was there and my sister read my grades. All As and Bs. I exhaled heavily as I thanked her. I calculated my GPA on a brown paper sack. A 3.4 average! I could play in this league. I would be a graduate of The Ohio State University.