When I was growing up here in the South in the valley near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my hometown of Knoxville seemed organized, adults had rules, my sister and I enjoyed a good many snowfalls, and I could stand in the floorboard of my parents’ car without bumping my head on the car’s roof. Grown ups couldn’t do that, and I was proud that I could.
That was the only time I remember being happy to be small. Besides being the youngest girl in my 1963 first grade class, I was also the shortest and was paired with Mark, the shortest boy, for the square dances we were taught. He was none-too-happy to be so designated and to be stuck with me, the shortest girl. But I loved square dancing, and Mama has pictures she took with her tiny, square Brownie camera of our skirts swirling as we twirled from partner to partner. It was great fun to know what we were supposed to do, and to do it so beautifully together.
We were taught songs from other countries, cultures, and religion. We were probably the only public school children in the 1960’s American South that were taught the Jewish Chanukah song Dreidel, Dreidel, Dredel:
I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay.
And when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, then dreidel I shall play.
Perhaps our teacher needed no more prompting to teach us a Jewish holiday song than the fact that we had two Jewish children in our otherwise Gentile public school. None of our parents were upset when we learned a Jewish song, our world was expanded to know that some children celebrated different holidays from us, and knowing the words to Dreidel helped my team win a song lyric competition years later at a holiday party. Ha-ha!
But my town no longer seems so organized, the decisions made by those in authority don’t always make sense, and I can no longer stand upright in the floorboard of my parents’ car.
With the help of government grants, scholarships, and tuition wavers (as I worked full time as a secretary at the University of Tennessee), I earned my bachelor’s degree in English literature and writing at what I felt then was a ripe old age of 29.
I was the first person in my family to go to college, and my parents, grandparents, and 7 year-old son were proud of my achievement. A failed early marriage made me older than the typical student, but as soon as I left my controlling husband–who would never have approved of my education–I re-enrolled in college. Working at the university made it easier to attend classes, and my parents kept my son, Justin, when I had classes at night.
After working my way up at the university in a series of jobs with more responsibility, I was hired as what they called “the writer” for the university’s fund-raising office. For 19 years I worked in a big, statewide family–dysfunctional at times no doubt, also occasionally crazy-making, bureaucratic, political, and dispiriting. But the university was my home. In some respects, it reared me from a 17-year-old, first-time student in 1975, a young divorced mother at the age of 24, a graduate at 29, and a mid-level administrator at the age of 34. I learned how the world worked and how I should treat people from my mentor when I was his secretary who told me, “Don’t call me Dr. anything; call me Bob.”
As a communications director, I polished our university’s face with prose. I shared the stories of the people who gave money to the university so our students could learn from the wisdom (and folly) of the ages; our colleges could hire and keep promising professors; our researchers could find better answers for the scourge of disease; our libraries could have the latest books; Tennessee could have more doctors, dentists, and veterinarians; our world’s farmers could have healthy crops; and our students could test themselves in athletics. The university researched and shared the length, breadth, and depth of our world’s experience. And we were proud to do our jobs for the people of one of the country’s poorest, but proud, states: Tennessee.
During one of the university’s ubiquitous reorganizations, a nearly complete set of the university’s yearbooks fell into my care. They were an entire history of all the giddy joy that our students experienced from the first yearbook in 1897; through the war years; into the rosy, GI Bill, post-war 1950s; into the turbulent, questioning ’60s, ’70s, and beyond. It was all there, and I loved caring for those memories: all the fresh-faced hijinks and world-made-new possibilities with every new freshman class.
In the early years of my time at UT, the university had long-serving and adept leaders who knew how to get the support we needed from the state, cared deeply and personally for our people, and inspired us to follow their lead. They were not particularly concerned about national rankings, but whether we were providing a good, solid education for our students and making a difference for our state.
By the time I left the university at the still-young age of 53, I had met my husband at the university, made lifelong friends there, and worked for 30 years in a place I loved and believed in. To be honest, leaving wasn’t entirely my idea. As a political organization ruled by a board appointed by Tennessee’s governors, the university is constantly buffeted by change as each succeeding board hires a president or chancellor who puts his or her stamp on the whole shebang.
When the vice president I reported to left UT, I was vulnerable and it was no longer the place of my youth where you might have a lower-paying salary than in the private sector, but you had good benefits and job security. The idea of loyalty going both ways at UT had changed during my 30 years, and the fact that I had led the communications team that made it possible for our staff to raise $1 billion for the university was ever so beside the point.
Now when I drive through the campus, it is clear the latest administration believes tearing down older buildings and replacing them with newer ones is their ticket to climbing the national rankings. If that were true, they could backslap themselves in a few years and call it a day.
Other universities that have earned national prominence have large student centers, new student dorms, and the latest research labs. And they don’t need to raze historic campus buildings and Victorian homes to do it.
And their decision-makers might seek to preserve the beauty and history around them by saving old-growth shade trees when they decide to demolish a campus building.
I can only conclude that my hometown and university have come up short as they aspire to compete for a larger piece of the pie. As I read in a review by Dominique Browning in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review:
The world is astonishing, mainly because of its persistence.
The traditions and history of my hometown will continue due to the decisions made by countless people who celebrate the unique qualities of this place. In some respects, however, our traditions survive despite the decisions of people who do not share or value them.
//Anna – 8/31/2015