Some of my best-remembered college memories are of my freshman creative writing class where, on two or three afternoons, our Marlboro-packing professor David Walton led us out to the lawn next to Carnegie-Mellon’s Fine Arts building to stimulate our discussion of words, ideas and life.
The warm grass, our circle of classmates, the encircling buildings. Our open-air enclave. Students walking by, out of listening range, barely in recognition range. A young woman named Motoko Inoue makes an earnest observation as the rest of us earnestly try to listen. Walton taps the ashes off his nth Marlboro. This is one of those experiences I can see as if I had videoed it. (Motoko had made a positive comment on one of my assignments, which surely helped me remember her.)
This was in my 17th year. In lower-numbered years, I had done Cub Scout field trips and family road trips and Sunday evening drives to the Forbush frozen custard stand halfway to Ellwood City and that was pretty much the extent of my travels as a college-bound teen. Despite this, Carnegie-Mellon chose to accept me while Harvard, Yale and MIT did not. Good thing, too, as I would have been toast in an Ivy League school. Unlike Ivy Leaguers, I had neither the money or the arrogance to compensate for my sheltered upbringing and provincial ignorance. Pittsburgh would turn out to be the right place for me: big enough to open my eyes while not blinding them.
And so, having class outside on the CMU lawn felt very adult and transformative, at least to me. (Was Motoko already worldly and so took our class outside in stride? Or did she also taste the freedom?) Up to then, education had been administered like communion, with us sitting reverently in tidy rows and columns. But now we were being entrusted to sit in a circle, an irregular circle at that, face-to-face with our peers, of whom our professor was now just one, all poised to absorb whatever insights our mutual curiosities unleashed, surrounded by massive brick buildings enshrining the pursuit of artistry and knowledge, from whose confines we had just exultantly escaped.
• • •
Class outside was like taking your first decent baseball glove onto the field at age thirteen. You found you could catch balls you couldn’t catch before. You suddendly felt legitimate. You thought of yourself as more capable and your confidence helped make it so. You lived in the moment of anticipating the catch and nothing beyond.
• • •
Class outside was like, 25 years later, crossing the street from Gare de Chalon-sur-Saône to the tile-roofed Hôtel Saint-Georges on my first-ever overseas business trip. Historically, Kodak’s U.S. technical grunts rarely left the Rochester mother ship: if and when it was absolutely necessary to collaborate with an international site, it was always the English or the French or the Australians or the Brazilians who made the pilgrimage to Rochester. And so Guy English, our lab head at the time and who not incidentally was from England, decided it was finally time for a few U.S. process engineers, including me, to visit their counterparts in Europe and exchange ideas. Looking back, I wonder how he justified this trip to our management, but to his credit he prevailed.
I vaguely recall a few meetings in bland conference rooms, not unlike those in Rochester, but my most vivid memories were of the camaraderie and the restaurants and the espresso and the wine — it was all like having class outside. I found an eye-opening world beyond the U.S. and, more importantly, understood that we were not the center of it.
• • •
Inspecting my room at Hôtel Saint-Georges, I noted how the shower area was simply an extension of the bathroom floor, with no curb. How, I thought, could the French be so lax to allow one’s shower water to flow wherever it would? Shouldn’t it be contained?
No, there was no need. It was free to explore its space, as now was I.