CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…
GOOD ENOUGH TO BE IN THE CATALOG [F, 5-4-18]
I love college catalogs.
I was standing beside our old gray Chevy, in a gravel parking lot, outside Oak Grove Church, in the open country, on a humid summer day, waiting for my little sister, to drive her home from Vacation Bible School. It was the summer of 1954, before my senior year in high school.
The windows on the car beside mine were down. On the front seat was the catalog—five by seven, plain white, with a round seal in restrained red, which I later learned was crimson, and underneath, in simple but elegant type, Indiana University. I reached through that car’s window and pulled out the catalog.
As I leafed through it, I knew my life had changed forever. I saw those pages a world where no one in my family had even visited, but I knew it was a world where I wanted to live. If I could get into that catalog, I would no longer be a simple country boy. I would be a college man.
One of the greatest sacrifices I ever made was putting that catalog back into that car when Margey came running out the church door to show me the picture of Noah and his ark and his strangely shaped animals that she had drawn.
The idea of me going to college made no sense. My father was blind. We were on welfare. There were three other children. No one on either side of the family had ever gone to college. I was already working part-time to help support my family. But when Iva Jane McCrary, our high school Home Economics teacher, asked me what I would do after high school, I said, “I’m going to IU.”
Iva Jane was a large and forbidding woman. In addition to Home Ec, she taught biology to the girls. Because of scheduling problems, I had been in her biology class, one of two misplaced boys. She looked at me strangely and finally said, “Yes, I suppose you are college material.”
Suddenly I was not sure about that catalog. Iva Jane had given me her imprimatur, said that I was college material, more or less, but I had never before considered that I was not. Sure, I knew that I did not have the right clothes or the right money to go to college, but I had not considered that I might not have the right stuff.
I had been class president for three years. I was editor of the school newspaper. Only James Burch did better in class than I. But maybe I wasn’t college material. Ann Turner, the doctor’s daughter, was going to IU. Bob Nation, who was going to be a doctor, went there. So did Shirley Black, the cheerleader, whose father had his own business. Was college for the likes of me?
When I heard that the factory in the next town was hiring, I applied, set the record on their aptitude test, [which James Burch later broke], and quit high school to go to work.
My forewoman said that I was their best adjustor of electrical relays and got me a date with her very attractive daughter, but I think she knew my heart wasn’t in the factory. They didn’t have a catalog.
Because classmate Jim Shaw said to me, in the middle of July, “On your day off, let’s drive up to IU and see if they’ll let us in,” I did go to college. I went to graduate school. I got a doctorate. Altogether, I did ten years of higher education. All the way, though, Iva Jane’s grudging acceptance of me as “college material” pulled sideways on me, trying to get me to write dim and shaky answers on the pages of life’s Blue Book.
I think one of the best things I did as a minister was expecting people to be better than they wanted to be. I said, in any way I could, “Yes, you are Christian material.” I was sometimes wrong, but more often, people who had little faith in themselves learned to have great faith in God, because their pastor expected it.
I suppose I’m thinking about college catalogs because tomorrow granddaughter Brigid graduates from The James Madison College at Michigan State University and starts a PhD at The University of Chicago in the fall. Later this month grandson Joe graduates high school and starts college at The University of Iowa in the fall. I get excited when I think about what treasures are hidden in the catalogs of those universities for them. I know for sure that there is no catalog big enough to contain my pride.
I still love college catalogs. I regret, though, that they are now usually electronic instead of paper. It is unlikely that some poor girl or boy will see a CD on the seat of a car with open windows and pull it out and stick it into the computer that just happens to be sitting there in that gravel parking lot on a humid summer’s day.
I used to keep a careful index of stories and ideas used in CIW. That became cumbersome, though, so I gave it up, figuring that when one writes a blog for old people, they won’t remember if they’ve read it before, anyway.