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Circling Excerpt 3: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (Second Section)

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

The ingenuous sophistication of high school and overseas travel continues through college. Unlike many other students at Bennington College, I have little money and thus avoid standard forms of trouble (wild partying, profligate sex, and dangerous driving). Further, I hail from a public high school in the dull hinterlands of Washington, D.C. rather than from a fancy prep school in New England. Fortunately, the year abroad has given me confidence to hold my own.

My education is helped by the fact that I can’t handle marijuana. As with most people, there is no effect whatsoever the first time I try it. The second time is a different story. A dear friend once called me “half Victorian spinster and half flower child.” Weed proves him right.

I am sitting with friends passing a joint around when suddenly my right knee rises up in time with the music. This isn’t part of the plan, so I hold the leg down. But then, my left knee starts twitching. So I restrain it with the other hand. A mistake. My arms are now engaged, which makes them decide to flap like a bird. A duck, to be exact. As this is happening many years before I realize that I want to return in my next life as a great blue heron, I am quite perturbed. Watching me quacking with hands on hips, elbows flapping, and knees bouncing up and down, my friends start chuckling.

It is funny and I am laughing too, but I am also upset at myself for wanting to fly like a bird, so I alternate the guffaws with statements chiding myself and scolding my friends for aiding and abetting my outrageous behavior. “Stop it, Felicity. Put your arms down right this minute. You are not a duck. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. But I am really very funny, aren’t I? I really haven’t ever been this funny before, have I? Felicity, shame on you, you’re making such a fool of yourself. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Now don’t laugh at her – I mean me – you’re just leading her on – I mean me…”

One episode is no big deal, but it gets a little scary to morph into a schizophrenic duck every time you smoke dope. Eventually, I surmise that all of the marijuana in New England is laced with heroin or some such thing, and opt not to smoke again. Free spirit though I yearn to be, I’m not totally stupid.

 

Bennington’s great gift is that people take each other seriously. My graduating class includes about a dozen famous writers, artists, and dancers – a surprising number for a college with fewer than 350 students. People are attracted to the college because of its small classes and dedicated professors. But I wonder if there would be such a large proportion of successful people without the gift of their being valued during a time of their lives when they most need it.

This becomes clear to me in the first month when Rush Welter, a professor of American history, returns my first paper considerably thicker than the five double-spaced pages he received a week earlier. I see suggestive comments like “bah,” “ugh,” and “NO!!!” in the margins, followed by eight pages of his handwritten notes; I am both disturbed and impressed. He asks me to come to his office to discuss the expectations of college work and “to develop a way of thinking about the material you are reading.”

I do, the next day. We spend over an hour, in which he queries me about my irregular preparatory education. He also shows me how to approach a writing project – to highlight the key issues, then examine the supporting data for possible explanations, then develop a conclusion, and finally to write a paper in which one clearly states the arguments and uses the data to make a case. It sounds good; I am beginning to get the idea.

He is called away for a telephone call, and I stand up to examine his books and gaze out the window to the pastoral scene a mile from campus. Upon returning, he asks whether I can identify the statue that rises up from a distant ridge along with the obvious spire of the Congregational church. It is clear that he loves the community and is happy to introduce its delights to newcomers.

“Oh yes,” I answer. “It’s Old Bennington – that’s the monument to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.” I had walked around there a week or so earlier, and recognize the 300-foot obelisk surrounded by a one-story colonnade.

I watch him ponder, expecting him to quiz me on Ethan Allen’s dates or battles or some such thing. After all, he is a professor of American history and I am a student in his class.

He chews for a moment on his bottom lip, clearly wondering whether he should or shouldn’t. Will she be offended? Will she understand its meaning? Is she so dumb that she will just be embarrassed? Then he blurts out, “Yes, and we also call it the Bennington phallic symbol.”

I laugh out loud and – for the first and last time in my life – come up with the perfect riposte at the right time. “Well, I come from Washington, D.C., and our phallic symbol is bigger than your phallic symbol.”

He roars with delight and then apparently gives me another chance in the is-she-worth-spending-my-time-with department. I continue with his course and then take two more from him, gaining confidence each time. I learn more from him than any other professor there. I enter as an uneducated rube and leave with the assurance that I know how to think – thanks to a dirty mind and an affection for architectural phallic symbols.

 

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