You didn’t kiss me when I left.
I traveled two and a half hours over two-lane roads to arrive at this University, where I will spend six days a week this summer working on a research project, attending class, conducting research, and returning to my youth as a responsibility-free college student.
Except…. I’m not. I am not a college student, even though I feel very much the same as the teenager that I was then. The outside does not match the inside, and hasn’t done so for at least the last thirty-five years. Inside, though, inside – that’s pretty much the same person that walked the shaded footpaths at the University of Georgia, Athens in the late 1970’s. But this is Georgia Southern University, Statesboro in 2018, and the silver sparkles in my hair aren’t glitter, and I didn’t add them on purpose just for the wow factor, either.
The sidewalks don’t seem to be as shady as I remember they were, and the South Georgia sun is hot on my neck and shoulders, making me grateful for the travel size sunscreen I slathered on the back of my neck and the cheap sunglasses I’m wearing. Heck, everything I’m wearing is cheap. I visited Goodwill today for a pair of closed toe shoes and another pair of jeans, instead of the old lady teacher clothes I brought with me fully intending to wear while I am here. I probably will wear them, even though they make me stick out from the fresh-faced millennials like the sore thumb that I am.
The trees and shrubs that have been planted along these university walkways have been strictly pruned – this far you may grow and blossom, and no further. The flowerbeds contain lush profusion, all the way up to the edge, where a military haircut neatly ends the clipped foliage like an invisible force field. The expanses of mulched bed beneath the evenly spaced young trees are flawless. No weed seed would dare sprout to mar the unblemished field of uniformly aged, dusty grey-brown chips.
There is remarkably little human detritus to be seen, either, in the twelve minutes it takes me to purposefully walk from the student residence apartment I have been allotted to the imposing brick stateliness of the College of Engineering building. The paver blocks (two shapes, three colors) that make up the walkway I’m on were meticulously laid in a deliberately decorative pattern that required a concrete saw’s precise cuts to match up the paver blocks’ disparate shapes and colors at the edges to produce this ornate and ordinary walkway that borders this ordinary and unimportant side road.
I imagine the thoughts of the stonemason laboring in Georgia’s heat and humidity as he cut, set, and fit these walkway pavers so precisely that so few people will see and use. Perhaps he was missing his wife, like I am missing my husband. And then, why am I so sure that the person was a he? I chide myself on my thoughtless sexism. Probably was a he, though.
It occurs to me, after two days of College of Engineering workshop sessions and research laboratory tours, that these men (and most of them are men) are a lot like professional athletes. They come to work every day and pursue their own very narrow interests, playing at deriving better numbers in the same way a professional athlete seeks to shave a place value off their previous best number. Their projects have impressive sounding names (my brother and I christened one of our backyard forts “The Impregnable Kingdom of Fuller,” even though the rain later proved it not to be). Some of those research projects are probably going to be useful (some day), and maybe even affordable (one day quite some time after that). At least, unlike the athlete or the stonemason who paved the pathway to their building, they mostly work on improving their numbers inside in the air conditioning.
I am here at this university this long hot summer to narrow my own far-flung interests down to an Engineering research project on renewable energy, to construct a prototype, and to derive some numbers of my own that I can take back to my impoverished school district to perhaps ignite some youngsters who can dream and maybe believe that the world does not end at the county line the way their lives have shown them, repeatedly, is true. Perhaps some of them might then set their sights on achieving better numbers in air-conditioned comfort, instead of trying to win the professional athlete lottery against their own genetics, or instead of simply opting to labor outdoors in the hot sun, which they all know is a possibility, however unwelcome.
First, though, they have to believe such a future exists, that it isn’t just another fairy tale like the stuff they see on the TV screen and in the movies which they all know is just make-believe, of course. Then they have to believe it is possible, seeing beyond the effort it will cost and the money they don’t have. Then, the biggest stretch of faith of all, they have to believe they maybe, just maybe, they could do it themselves, instead of watching someone else do it who had more than they had to go on. Faith isn’t easy, and changing your beliefs isn’t encouraged, where they come from.