I was a lousy high school student. I graduated ranked three spots from the bottom half of my class, half-assing even my underachievement. I never had much interest in high school academically and so, I thought, no interest in college. And I didn’t go to college right away, not really. I took a few meandering courses at the local community college and worked for $6.50 an hour in a local camera shop. But after six months of that work, barely covering expenses in a shared rental house and all the while hearing about my friends’ college experiences, my motivation changed. I wanted to go to college, but was still anxious about whether or not I could hack it.
I applied to several colleges, all with a mind toward getting very far from my home in Virginia. One of the places I applied to was the University of Iowa. Generously, my mother bought me a plane ticket to go visit the university in February. I had never even been to Iowa before. Just prior to my departure I told one of my former high school teachers about my upcoming trip. She suggested that I should look up an old colleague of hers who had once worked at my high school during my visit to the University of Iowa, where he worked at the time of my trip. I said I would and didn’t think much of it. It was one of those things you say you’ll do to be polite, but without ever really intending to follow through.
The time for my trip arrived. I had never flown alone before and dozed on the plane during the trip to Iowa, but I woke suddenly when the pilot announced our descent into the Cedar Rapids airport. Cedar Rapids? Where was that? I knew that the university was in Iowa City, and had, in my naiveté, simply assumed that I was arriving in Iowa City. The airline ticket had listed my destination, somewhat ambiguously, as simply Cedar Rapids/Iowa City. I hadn’t made any arrangements ahead of time except to reserve a spot at a hostel for the nights of my visit.
When I startled-to on the plane, my knowledge of Iowa geography was so absent that I didn’t even know how far apart the two cities were. Three miles? Three hours? My worries amplified when I began to consider my budget. I had about $100 in cash to pay for my lodging, my meals, for anything that might come up, no credit or ATM cards. An expensive cab ride or shuttle trip would bite into my already meager funds.
Somewhere in between disembarking from the plane and the baggage claim I figured out, I think from a wall map, that the distance between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids was about 30 miles. That was the distance I needed to cover. I took stock of my options. A 30-mile cab ride was out of the question. I would inquire about shuttles after I grabbed my bag. If I couldn’t find a shuttle, I decided that I would hitchhike. I had no appointments scheduled until the next day. I also had never hitchhiked before.
At the baggage claim most of my fellow passengers were rumpled businessmen in rumpled businessman clothes. While I waited, I struck up a conversation with a young woman who looked to be about my age. It turned out that she was a junior at the university, and had been on the same connecting flight that I had. She was an actuarial science major (I nodded knowingly but had to look that one up later) and was returning from Boston where she had been interviewing for an internship.
In the course of our awkward waiting-for-bags conversation, I managed to bring up my transportation dilemma.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
I told her about the makeshift hostel in the Methodist church downtown. Unsurprisingly, she hadn’t heard of it. I must have seemed worthy of pity because, to my shock, she offered to give me a lift all the way into Iowa City. Naturally, I accepted. We left the baggage claim after an airline worker informed me that my bag had been left behind during my connection in Chicago and would have to be delivered to me later.
En route to her car, which was parked in one of the long-term lots, we made polite conversation, which primarily consisted of me asking questions about the university and the city. At one point she, having learned where I was from, asked what it was like growing up so close to Charlottesville, Virginia and the University of Virginia.
I told her that it was great, particularly if you stayed the hell away from the fratty parts of town. I launched into an abbreviated (for me) tirade against the entitled, east coast "Greek" culture that galled me when I was a townie high school student. (Still galls me some.)
Thus began an important lesson for me in knowing one’s audience before responding pointedly to an innocuous question.
The young woman stopped, turned directly to me, and glared. Despite the numbingly cold Iowa winter day, I thought for a moment that I could feel piles of plowed snow in the parking lot melting behind me from the heat. "I’m the vice-president of my sorority," she said slowly, deliberately, before turning away from me completely and continuing toward her car.
For a moment I didn’t know whether or not to keep following, but I did. Her initial congeniality never returned, but she still gave me a ride into Iowa City, and we returned to talking mechanically about the university for the duration of the 35 minute ride. Once in Iowa City, she dropped me off in front of the Methodist church where I was staying and wished me luck before I thanked her for the ride and we went our separate ways.
The hostel was really just a bunch of cots set up in the church’s activity room. During the day the cots were folded up, packed into a corner, and the room was used for various church activities. So, the "hostel," while accommodating my budget, wasn’t a place I could go crash at during the daytime. Those of us staying there were only allowed in during the evenings, basically during sleeping hours.
Even though I was only in town for two full days, I had a lot of open time to fill, and not much money to help out. And it was very, very cold, at least to my thin blood.
For lunch one day I went into a little pizza joint that, unbeknownst to me, was an Iowa City institution, at least among students, named The Airliner. It was a little past the normal lunch hour and nearly deserted. The hostess seated me in a booth next to a family. The father looked vaguely familiar. Red, balding hair, and an unmistakably obvious limp when he rose to go to the restroom. Then it dawned on me — he was Dan Gable, the collegiate and Olympic wrestling legend and the then-recently retired coach of the Iowa wrestling team. I waited for what seemed like an opportune moment to interrupt his meal, and found it as he and his family were finishing up and preparing to leave.
"Excuse me, are you Dan Gable?" I asked.
"You must be a wrestler," he said, knowing both the scope and the limits of his own fame.
"I used to be," I replied, knowing that I didn’t have the talent to walk-on to a team like Iowa’s. Wrestling might have been the only thing that kept me from dropping out of high school, which I seriously considered at one point.
Gable graciously introduced me to his family, including the hostess, who turned out to be his oldest daughter. He signed an autograph on a paper napkin for me to take back to my old high school coach. Then, creaking out of the restaurant on his mostly-destroyed hip, he followed his family out into the street. I paid my check and went back out into the Iowa cold and wind a few minutes later.
After two days of wandering Iowa City in the bitter cold, I had done everything constructive I could think of. I had met with advisers in the English department, as well as a university admissions officer. I had wandered through bookstores without buying anything for slightly longer than was polite, and walked around the city bundled up against the cold for as long as I could stand. I was such a rube, in fact, that I didn’t even realize that, simply to stay warm, I could have hung out in the university library’s periodicals room for hours. I didn’t know such places existed, and that you could just walk right into them.
Partly out of boredom, and partly as an indoor project to stay warm, I decided to go in search of my high school teacher’s grad school friend and former colleague.
I knew he was in the School of Education, and went to the education building, Lindquist Center, which is a rat’s maze of a university building, vexing even to some of those who know it well. After some time navigating the building’s counterintuitively arrayed halls, I arrived at the office that had been listed as James Marshall’s on the directory in the lobby. The office door was open. A man was hunched over several boxes of books in the middle of the floor, either packing or unpacking. I couldn’t tell which.
I knocked on the frame of the open door. "Excuse me, Dr. Marshall?"
"No," the man replied, with a look that must have reflected my own confusion. “He’s in the dean’s office now,” he said with a tilt of his head, both of his hands still full of books. He gave me directions for navigating to the other office.
I, of course, had no idea what a dean was. My ignorance was my shield, and I continued down the hall to the dean’s office, not only unaware of who or what a dean was, but also unaware of the fact that many people typically work in a dean’s office, which is more like an administrative compound than the more humble faculty office I had just visited.
When I entered the much larger dean’s office/compound, no fewer than three faces of the secretarial/admin variety turned from their work to look at me. “Could I please see Dr. Marshall?” I asked, quickly, and I thought cleverly, deducing than none of these three women were him.
“Do you have an appointment?” their leader asked.
I stammered. "Uh, no, I just want to talk to him."
This, judging from her reaction, was an answer that does not typically win one an audience with busy, important folks. Luckily for me, Marshall’s office door had been open the entire time, and he had been listening in.
"Is that a student?" he nearly shouted, still unseen to me. "Send him in." The captain of the secretaries nodded in my direction. I proceeded forward.
I went into the office, and gregariously, Marshall asked what he could help with. Little did he know, he was already helping — his office was heated.
Falteringly I explained that I was visiting the university and had been a student at Western Albemarle High School, and that Kathy Sublette had suggested I look him up.
He beamed. He asked me about my high school, where he had once worked, almost 20 years previously.
I had to talk around those questions, for, with a few notable exceptions, like Sublette’s class, my experiences hadn’t been very good. In the course of our conversation I told him about my mixup at the airport and the young woman who had given me a ride into town.
"How are you getting back?" he asked.
"Well," I told him, "I heard there’s a shuttle, but it doesn’t run early enough to make my flight. So, I figured I’d go up tonight and just sleep in the airport."
He grimaced a little. "The Cedar Rapids airport is pretty small. They close at night. They aren’t going to let you sleep there."
"Oh." As I said, I was pretty naïve.
"What time is your flight?" he asked.
"Hm, United? You connect in Chicago?"
“Yeah,” I responded.
"I’ve taken that flight a million times. Brutal. Where are you staying?" he asked.
I told him about the weird hostel in the Methodist church.
"Tell you what," he said. "Be ready at 5. I’ll pick you up."
"Really?" I was incredulous.
He assured me that it was no problem, and we made a bit more small talk before I left. Things were looking up.
Right on time the next morning Marshall picked me up. During the ride in the morning dark, our conversation was a bit more earnest, and I opened up about my anxieties as to whether or not I could hack college work.
Marshall told me about his own experiences as a first-generation college student at Indiana University. He assured me that Iowa was a really down-to-earth university, with really down-to-earth students, like the one who had given me a ride. I could hack it, he assured me.
At the airport I thanked him repeatedly. I had a lot to think about. He made a good pitch, but, my god, that cold wind.
Iowa was the only university I was accepted to as an undergraduate. I began attending the following fall.
I’m hesitant to try to draw a lesson from any of this. I don’t want to suggest that what Marshall did for me should be a standard by which we measure ourselves. It was so above and beyond, such an act of generosity, that few of us could live up to such a standard. As important as the ride was, the conversation we had during it, about college life and my own fears, which were based on my mostly horrible high school experiences, was even more important.
What I do know is that both acts of generosity -- a ride offered by a student, another ride and some sound advice offered by senior faculty member -- were emblematic of everything that happened for me at Iowa over the next three years. Everywhere I turned, someone helped me out, from staff in admissions and the registrar’s office to the faculty in the English department, as well as faculty in other departments.