The first time I went to college was right after high school graduation, in the early 1980s. My mother, sole supporter of three children, could offer little more than her co-signature on my student loans.

Turns out the social aspects of Northern Illinois University compelled me more than its academic offerings and I failed out my second semester.

Now that is a facile explanation.

The truth is, the failing out was caused by many factors. I fretted about leaving my longtime boyfriend—my chief source of emotional support—behind at home, knowing there was a good chance we would grow apart (we did).

I wasn’t yet mature enough to live on my own. I went to kegger parties on weeknights to try to assuage my craving for connection and belonging. I skipped most morning classes because in a lecture hall of 200 seats no one noticed if I went or didn’t, and besides it was brutal waiting outside in the DeKalb winter for the Huskie Bus to take me to campus.

The classes were rigorous and I didn’t know how to study. Somehow I had survived K-12 by the drawing from the body of knowledge I learned through recreational reading and applying innate pattern-matching skills. My Protestant upbringing did not prepare me to ask for help. It never occurred to me to approach the professor or to seek out the student tutoring center that must have existed.

There was a pall hanging over everything that I saw only in hindsight. In November 1983, I watched on TV the premier of the nuclear holocaust film, “The Day After.” Now people laugh at its outdated SFX, but consider it in the context of the mid-1980s. President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies inspired optimism in conservatives and dread in liberals. People were dancing their hearts out to Prince’s “1999,” a song about partying the night before Judgment Day, and “I Melt with You,” Modern English’s love song about the demise of the human race, on their album “After the Snow,” snow being a reference to nuclear winter.  It would be a few years yet before Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the policies of glasnost and perestroika that would eventually end the Cold War.

I returned to college in my mid-twenties, motivated by limited career prospects but also the fact that my fiancé had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and I didn’t, after all, want him to think I wasn’t smart. Never dismiss vanity as a motivating force.

Smaller classes allowed me to ask questions of the instructors, a strategy to remain engaged that still serves me today. Seeking the help of a tutor who taught me to study, The very Life Experiences that revealed to me that my career prospects were limited also forced a need to express myself in words. I needed to remind myself I existed. That I mattered. This need to write surprised me because I’d had a checkered past with writing assignments in school.

Despite it all, I was determined to study creative writing. But I was intimidated.

I’m glad I didn’t know my first creative writing professor, Samuel Maio, was a respected poetry critic and contributor to the literary journal The Formalist (1990-2002). I may have had farther to stretch than my classmates. My earliest encounter with poetry was not Shakespeare, Chaucer, or William Carlos Williams but a chant popular on the school playground in Hoffman Estates, the middle-class Chicago suburb where I lived during my tender formative years. It went like this:

Artie Fartie had a party;
Everybody was there.
Tutti Frutti let a beauty;
Everybody out for air.

Understand, I am not disparaging its classic abab rhyme scheme and faithful quatrain structure; I’m just saying, from such humble beginnings one’s aesthetics can only be refined.


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