I still remember the night in 1979 when I looked out the window of the Oberlin Inn and watched snow fall on Tappan Square. I felt a peace, and a rightness about my audition for the Oberlin Conservatory earlier that day, and about the little college, the town, and the world in general. Unfortunately, when my acceptance letters arrived in the spring of 1980 I decided to attend a conservatory in Boston because it was more prestigious and had the cache of being East Coast as opposed to keeping me in the Midwest for another four years. As it turned out, it was a bad choice, and within two years I was fighting my way back into Oberlin not as a potential cello student at the Conservatory, but hoping to be an English major in the College.
Its not nearly as easy to transfer into a good school as it is to get in as a freshman, and its even harder when you want to pursue an academic degree and you have spent the past two years studying nothing but chord progressions and the evolution of the symphonic form. I was “summoned” to Oberlin for an interview based on the mixed feelings of the admissions panel about my prospects. The head of admissions told me that they were “on the fence” and would like me to go to Oberlin and persuade them that I was a good fit with the school, notwithstanding my atrocious high school math grades and my recent history of picking The Wrong School. I took a day off from my job as a waitress, drove the four hours to Oberlin, and managed to convince the panel that I deserved the fresh start I so passionately wanted at the school with the town square, the Conservatory where I could still play my cello, and the fantastic English department.
Recently, my husband called me from Oberlin. He is a salesman, and his territory includes Ohio. He had never seen my alma mater, and called to tell me he was in Oberlin, wondering “where the college was.” Since we live in a town with a gigantic, sprawling, state university, it is understandable that he failed to identify the small, compact college whose Gothic spires emerge from the middle of country roads and cornfields like something out of a pop-up book. There are, I believe, dormitories at our local university that house the equivalent of Oberlin’s student body.
There aren’t many buildings at Oberlin College, but I lived, and learned and loved and cried and wrote and did a lot of growing up in most of them. I ate at Dascomb, played quartets in the Conservatory, dropped off papers at the 11th hour in Rice, and learned to love Edith Wharton in Peters. I lived in a beautiful single room in a turret in Talcott, ditched fetal pig dissection in Kettering, read Northrup Frye in the “moon” chairs of Mudd Library, and ate blueberry whole wheat doughnuts with my roommate Joan in East Hall. I ate in the vegetarian dining hall my senior year, and choked down baked tofu squares and lentil cheddar loaf while debating whether it was really music if you were just breaking a vase on a piano and then plucking the strings.
Every year I fell in love with one of my gay friends (First Larry who composed to the poems of Sylvia Plath, then Andrew who acted scenes with me for Shakespeare 301, then Jeff who played the viola in my quintet), and every year I realized that they were going to persist in their gaiety but were the dearest and most loving friends I could hope for. I was a classical DJ at the radio station, climbing up three flights of stairs once a week to spin carefully-themed programs. Every year I watched “Its a Wonderful Life” before going home for Christmas, and “The Graduate” before going home for the summer. I watched “Ghandi” at the tiny Apollo Theater off campus, eating toothpaste I had just purchased at the Ben Franklin because I had no money left for popcorn. When the time came to graduate, I was so despondent about leaving that I could not enjoy the lovely illumination ceremony that takes place in Tappan Square the night before commencement. I was convinced that there was no other place on earth that could be so right for me, and that I would never really be happy again.
Its funny to see my beloved school through the eyes of my husband, who is willing to be persuaded because he loves me, but who sees only a small-ish group of buildings in the midst of the cornfields instead of the complex, bustling, big world I have always described. “If Talcott’s on your right, then the Conservatory’s on your left,” I babbled to him excitedly “I lived there my last year! If you park in the Con lot you can get out and go to the Oberlin Co-Op, or you can drive out and see the Museum and where I took Art History classes.”
It was love at first sight for my school and me; it was my Camelot. Although I’m a little teary just at the moment thinking of a crisp fall day on Tappan Square with a weekend of Dreiser ahead of me, I feel tremendously blessed that there was such a time in my life. We should all be so lucky.