She was so unsatisfactory in so many ways that for many years I looked back on my time with her with resentment, almost hatred. True, she had a lot to teach me that I very much craved to learn, and I gloried in learning it. Under her tutelage the thinking side of me grew by leaps and bounds.
But my emotional side languished. At an age when a person’s life revolves around relationships with others — how to start them and develop them, how to handle the details of them, and how to deal with the depth of emotion they can cause — I came on the scene too stunted to pursue that side of my development and left it just as stunted.
Major depression ensued — not surprisingly. And for years after it went into remission I couldn’t remember my time with her without also remembering the loneliness that had been my only companion for most of that part of my youth.
That mental association became automatic with me, and always painful, so when she tried to communicate with me over the years I didn’t want to hear from her. I threw away all her letters. And when she needed help I said, in my poverty of wealth and spirit, ” Go get it from your foster children who’ve got rich. I never developed the social skills needed to get wealth and power, and I blame you for that, damn you! Fuck off!”
Yes, my alma mater presided over a bad, bad period of my life! Through the luck of my having had a martinet mother, I had gotten straight “A”s through all my school years. And when in 1966 (!) Columbia University sent a representative to my little town looking for graduating seniors who could help it put together a class not made up just of kids from New York City, I was ready to accept their offered scholarship and join up. I shook the dust of little East Texas town off my boots and headed East…
Only to discover, aside from the contents of a truly terrific education…my own sweet self. For reasons I now understand, but couldn’t then guess, I couldn’t relate to anyone I met in that New York City college. I didn’t make friends and didn’t date. The reasons for those deficits had nothing to do with Columbia and little to do with the people I met there. They are buried far further back in my past.
It’s all still the same with me 40 years later. I retain, and still cherish, most of the contents of that great education; and I still can’t be close to people except under very special circumstances. For decades this intellectual/emotional lopsidedness caused me great sorrow. But now, in the twilight of my life, the way I see my great deficit has greatly changed. I don’t need the ability to bond with others very much anymore, but I feel that I need to understand the world around me now much more than ever before. And I’m trying just as hard as I can to understand as much of it as I possibly can, drawing upon my Columbia education, all the learning I’ve built on that foundation since, and the vast world of information to be found on the wonderful new Internet.
Understanding the world is my way of embracing it prior to leaving it, I guess.
My old alma mater is one of the two factor in my life that have made that embrace possible. Thanks Columbia! I love you for having made it possible for me to relate fully to the world in the only way I ever truly could have done. I believe that if I had never known you I would have turned out just as emotionally limited as I am now, and, more sorrowfully, no less ignorant than the poor redneck I was otherwise bound to be.
So please start back sending me those glossy alumni magazines. From now on I’m going to read every page!
Here are some pictures of the Columbia campus. It’s unchanged as far as I can see. Now at last I can feel nostalgia for it.