The View From Away: There's school, and then there's education

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The college drop-off was less traumatic than I anticipated, and the trauma was self-inflicted.

He was ready. His room is excellent. His roommate is a responsible student/athlete. I thought the closest thing to a jock the University of Chicago had was a student/mathlete, but there you go.

Parent Orientation was a two-day program culminating in a memorable walk with your kids toward a large wrought-iron gate, literally a rite of passage. Orientation workers passed among the crowd offering Kleenex. My wife and son walked arm in arm, then hand in hand, then side by side until he passed through the gate to the cheers of schoolmates. I won’t say he sprinted, but he didn’t walk backwards to get a last look at us, either. His final words to me were, “’Bye. See ya at Christmas.” I know. It choked me up, too.

I hope he has an experience worthy of a commemoration like that walk across the quad. I hope he wants to go to his graduation. I wouldn’t have said that before my invaluable experience at the Stonecoast School for Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine.

Before Stonecoast, I had no interest in graduations. I graduated from a fairly fancy boarding school (scholarship boy, so hold your judgments, please), a well-known university, and a not-very-well-known law school. I attended my boarding school graduation because they made me. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged me to the other two, but I found that wild horses couldn’t have kept me away from Stonecoast’s. I think it is because Stonecoast was the first place I felt like I got a real education.

It wasn’t the first place I learned anything. In boarding school I learned that as a scholarship boy I could be among the elite, but I would never be of the elite. At Michigan I learned that drugs are really bad for somebody with low self-esteem. Fortunately, I learned this lesson before I did any irreparable harm to myself or others. As for law, well, it’s trade school, isn’t it? I learned where to look for the law and that the person who’s paying you is right.

Before Stonecoast, I was rarely asked to challenge the accepted wisdom, to look at a phenomenon from an unorthodox point of view, or to create something unique. Stonecoast demanded all of these right from the beginning. I thought I knew what I was doing when I applied. After all, how many new students did they get who already made a living as a writer? I chose creative nonfiction as my major because I thought it would be easy. Memoir was either public self-flagellation or blaming somebody else for your problems, right? Since I did both regularly, I figured I was golden.

That lasted about five minutes. My first workshop leader handed me a couple hundred pages of everything from Joseph Campbell on the mythic hero’s journey to deep explorations of life by people who knew how to turn their pain into art. As opposed to me. I knew how to get laughs, the literary equivalent of knowing where to poke the dissected frog to make its leg twitch.

According to my first academic supervisor, who annoyingly (i.e., accurately) described my writing as approximating “the blather of a raconteur on a bar stool,” if I wanted to learn anything valuable, I had to stop making glib, snide remarks about stuff I didn’t like and whining about my parents. My first thought was, “Oh, really? You want to compare house sizes, Mr. World Famous Poet? Because mine is big and yours is small.”

Fortunately, I didn’t succumb to my pen envy. I submitted to the process and found myself in a community of teachers and students committed to genuine learning. I received praise when I deserved it, constructive suggestions when I needed them. I was brought up short often. I had to stop using tricks I had relied on in my previous life. I spent two years re-experiencing a life I wasn’t too crazy about the first time I lived through it. I had conflicts with individuals and with the school at times. The residencies – two-week-long full-immersion seminars when everyone was together – were enriching, but exhausting. The six months in between residencies were a blur of deadlines, of revising the old material while generating new.

Getting through that program was an accomplishment. I wanted to mark it. I wanted one more shared experience with all the people who had lived through the experience with me. And so I found myself excited to be looking slightly ridiculous in a black robe that made me look like a circus tent in mourning, standing in line with my classmates, acknowledging our parallel journeys, wondering what was next.

Parent Orientation felt like we were glimpsing the beginning of a similar journey for our son. I hope so for his sake. The professors who spoke at the convocation talked about the school’s rich history of creating the kind of atmosphere I valued so much at Stonecoast.

At the very least I hope he doesn’t call us and say what I told my parents: “No, I’m not going to graduation. … Because it’s stupid, that’s why.”

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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