I have a favorite picture. Taken at my high school graduation in Westfield, Mass., the picture shows me with three close friends, our heads tilted close, our mortarboards almost touching. We all look right at the camera even though there are girls everywhere. Somehow we all look acne-free. Somehow this picture, taken before I had ever laid eyes on Clemson University soil, screams Clemson University. Somehow I will try to explain.
The picture captures a moment of pure elation at the end of high school. But this picture is really about beginnings, for before it hands out diplomas, college hands us all shiny, clean slates.
A Chance Discovery
To this day I still cannot believe Clemson accepted me. I was immature, lacked drive, and had a visible disdain for all things authoritative. My high school grades were “good” (at best); my college entrance essay was titled “My Best Friend the Pen” (really); my community service was non-existent; and I had little extracurricular connection to my school, save four years on the swim team (one of the most individual of team sports).
Looking back at my high school self, I realize that my gregariousness rarely came off as genuine, rather as obnoxious, arrogant or both. This, compounded with my height (high), my hair (large), my voice (loud), my joie de vivre (too joie for most people’s vivre), was an equation that equaled loneliness. I belonged only to my notion of not belonging.
One winter afternoon my senior year, sitting alone in the Westfield High library, I came across a Clemson brochure, a glossy barrage of orange and purple, brick and Helvetica. That evening I typed “Clemson, SC” into MapQuest and learned it was exactly 1,000 miles from Westfield. So in secrecy I applied. I accepted their letter of acceptance sight unseen. In fact, I only told my parents about a week after I mailed in my response. My parents, not thinking much of the news because I had already agreed to another college, smiled and went back to whatever they were doing. Later, after some pleading I’m sure, my parents decided to send two nonrefundable down payments: one for Clemson, and one for the school everyone thought I’d be attending in the fall.
Finding Something We Could Agree On
In late April my parents and I took a tour of the “other” school and they loved it. It was small and insulated, beautiful and safe, quiet and quaint and picturesque with Jesuit monks walking the green grounds in their traditional brown garb. Even I had to admit – begrudgingly, of course – that it seemed quite all right.
Four weeks later, a week after graduation, the three of us took another drive, this time down to South Carolina. The drive down was long and hot, the air conditioner in the ’93 Mercury Sable working intermittently. As we drove onto campus, I paid more attention to my parents’ perusing of campus than of the campus itself. We drove past Death Valley, and a hush came over the car. Finally, my father softly said, “Wow.” I audibly exhaled.
Clemson took my parents off my hands and treated them like, frankly, I feel they’d never been treated before. I was busy registering for classes (fingers-crossed), hanging out in the dorms with kids whose accents I couldn’t understand, attending rallies and orientation lectures and, of course, learning the fight song. It was truly three magical days. It’s funny, there was never an “Okay, you can attend Clemson” conversation. Instead, on the last day, the three of us were all just standing together in the TigerOne card office and that was that. Before we left I bought an orange Clemson t-shirt. I wore it all summer.
Discovering Fast-paced Conversations and Fried Pickles
The day I left for Clemson, my parents walked me to the airport gate and wished me luck. My mother was bawling, my father stoic. He and I shook hands, but after a few pumps my mother pushed him towards me from behind and we embraced, albeit awkwardly.
It was at Clemson I discovered that I was a good student. Clemson calmed my nerves, awoke my intellectual mind and helped me discover my love of fast-paced conversations and questions without answers. It was at Clemson that I discovered my love for life, invention and fried pickles. It was where I strengthened my understanding of respect, friendship and love. It was at Clemson that I realized that up until this point I’d had it all wrong. I came to Clemson a Secondary Education major, but after one semester in Jean Kuehnel’s English composition class I knew that if I was going to teach, I was going to teach college. The four years that followed found me working to attach myself to the English Department. The young creative writers – Brock Clarke, Keith Lee Morris, Jean Kuehnel – with no books between them (now there’s nine and counting), sharing their passion and work ethic; the storytelling veterans – Harold Woodell, Bill Koon, Wayne Chapman, Beth Daniell – dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated; the brilliant new blood – Catherine Paul, Lee Morrissey – talking just over the heads of the students, yet low enough to still grasp at; and Mr. 3-hours of sleep himself, Mark Charney, stoking creative fires wherever they happened to burn.
I now teach in the English Department at The University of Colorado – Boulder, and every day at least one of these professors’ words, actions or wisdom blinks brightly in my mind, inspiring me to do the same for my students.
The Power of Yes
If you’re holding your breath for a detailed account of specific changes, you’re going to pass out. This is about the change – in my life, in the thousands of lives every year – Clemson makes by simply saying yes. Our experiences were individual, but their inception was the same. They all started with Clemson saying YES. All I can say in return is “Thank you.” Thank you for believing in me, Clemson. I believe in you too.
I graduated from Clemson University on May 11, 2001, a different person, humble but self-assured, questioning but confident. I didn’t return to Clemson for eight years. When I finally returned, feelings of thankfulness washed over me the entire weekend. My friends and I rented a lake house and filled it with our younger selves, our loved ones and our Coors Light. We visited all our favorite spots, watched Clemson blow a fourth quarter lead (“Just like old times, guys!”) and tried hard to relive our halcyon pasts. One late morning after our hangovers had worn off, we strolled across campus.
We admired the fact that while we were different, Clemson, guided by tradition but not glued to it, was still relatively the same. Same in the way that it still seemed in flux, still seemed to be growing, still finding itself, forever evolving, just like when we’d attended. Just like it inspired its students to do as well.
And all this for just saying yes.