• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Live from Michigan

The college trip.


September 12, 2018

The Boy and I just returned from Ann Arbor, where we went so he could check out the University of Michigan. It was a discovery trip for him and a nostalgia trip for me.

My parents both went there; it was where they met. It was the early 60’s. He was a graduate student, she was an undergrad.  She embraced the U more than he did; to this day, she’ll break into a chorus of “Hail to the Victors” at the slightest provocation. When I was college-hunting, she laid out the ground rules: anywhere I wanted, but if I went to Michigan State, I’d get no help from her, and if I went to Ohio State, I was excommunicated from the family.  Anything else was fine. In Ann Arbor, that line of reasoning makes sense.

Shortly after I went to college -- a small liberal arts school in New England that didn’t trigger any alarm bells -- she moved back to Ann Arbor for a job close to her parents.  I spent several college summers there, sometimes working for environmental groups and once doing an internship in the Mayor’s office, where I discovered that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.  (Ruling out possibilities is one of the seldom-noted, but very real, payoffs of internships.) Although I was of traditional college age, and I was surrounded by U of M students, I was never a student there.  One group used to be based in the Michigan Union, so I spent a lot of time there, and I got to know the local bus system pretty well. Schoolkids Records and the original Borders Books were favorite hangouts. For a few years in the late 80’s, Ann Arbor was a sort of home base, if not really home.

When I share that with TB, of course, I might as well be talking about Periclean Athens.  He has been a fan of U of M sports for years, despite my near-total indifference to NCAA athletics.  As he prepared college lists, Michigan kept popping up. I knew from our Boston visit last year that there’s no substitute for actually seeing a place; Boston U didn’t live up to his expectations, but Northeastern exceeded them.  I didn’t want him to idealize Michigan, only to have another Boston U experience, so we planned a trip. His school closed for Rosh Hashanah, so we went.

Without knowing I was doing it, I spent the first hour or so of the visit pointing to various buildings and saying variations on “that used to be…” until it became clear that that was enough, thank you very much.  Point taken. This trip was about him.

One of my Mom’s friends who still lives there hosted us for dinner on Sunday, along with her kids and grandkids and a cousin who is a current sophomore at the U.  The cousin reminded me a lot of TB’s sister, The Girl, so there was a level of trust already. They spoke glowingly of the U across the generations, including the current one.  (The cousin referred to her membership in a student club called NERDS - “Not Even Real Drama Students” -- who put on plays. It was exactly the right note.) So far, so good.

We did the official information session and tour, of course.  It was a rainy Monday when classes were in session, so I thought it would offer a representative sample. 

TB looked at the facilities, listened for options, and tried on the place for size.  I looked for signs of vitality, and found them almost everywhere. (One exception was a kiosk outside of the Lorch building.  It had bumper stickers on top for political figures -- Perry Bullard and Lana Pollack -- I remember from the 80’s, as well as a few “Reagan-Bush ‘84” ones.)  We both noticed the cars parked along the various streets and in the parking garage. At BU, we saw a lot of Porsches and Mercedes; it was off-putting. In Ann Arbor, as in Pittsburgh, we saw a lot of Hondas and Fords.  Much better.

We had to do a few landmarks, of course.  We hit Zingerman’s deli, because that’s what you do.  And we stopped by the stadium and took his picture in front of it.  It holds over 100,000 people, and is apparently the largest stadium in America.  It’s not my thing, but he was thrilled.

I hadn’t really put it together until we were in the Detroit airport to head back, but we were flying on Tuesday, September 11, in the morning, on Rosh Hashanah. The airport was weirdly quiet. As we stood in the TSA line, everything stopped, and someone on the loudspeaker announced a moment of silence. Apparently, someone else with microphone access didn’t get the memo, because the moment of silence was filled with “This is the last and final boarding call for flight xxx...REPEAT, this is the last and final boarding call for flight xxx…”  As soon as the boarding call ended, so did the moment of silence. If you’ve never seen an entire airport roll its eyes at once, it’s quite the sight.

He was a little wistful on the way back, declaring that the senior year of high school is all well and good, but he’d really rather be in college.  He can’t wait.

Mission accomplished.


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