By Faith Ellestad
College just wasn’t my thing. Come to think of it, neither was high school. My brother, one year older, was a focused, stellar student and valedictorian of his high school class. An unenthusiastic student and younger sister, I was under no delusion that I could compete with his accomplishments. Instead, I strove for mediocrity, and in that endeavor, I earned high honors.
Obviously my attitude, combined with my lack of maturity, did not prepare me well for the start of my college career. In fact, I had passively ignored most of the college application process. Eventually, my parents sat me down in front of a blank application and insisted I fill it out or start applying for a job immediately. Filling out a form for something in the distant future seemed much easier than looking for work, so I complied. Apparently, my facility with essay writing was better than I realized and to my dismay, I received a letter of acceptance to UW Whitewater. I had hoped that I could attend the local community college with my friends, but that was not to be.
At the end of August,1965, I said goodbye to my friends and was summarily shipped off to school. Knowing no one and stuck with a socially gifted and suave roommate whom I barely saw, I felt lonely and awkward. My deliberate and prolonged avoidance of study skills had left me at quite a disadvantage in class, so I sought solace in campus activities, excelling in three areas; no sleep, no study and no sense. By the end of first semester, I was on probation. I swore to my unhappy parents that next semester would be much better, and that I had learned from my mistakes. Nose to the grindstone and all that. However, over winter break, I had met my first serious boyfriend and made the rather unfortunate choice to pursue romance over scholarship.
Shortly after the start of second semester, I was sent home with the curse of college freshmen, mono. A week later I returned to school, again swearing my fealty to the pursuit of education. Not a quick study in the “learn from your mistakes” department, I promptly took up my old ways, and what I thought would be a hilarious, nose thumbing disregard of dorm rules turned out to be my downfall. My boyfriend and I had decided to take the screen off my window and allow him and a friend to climb into my room. My new roommate and I would help them in, and share a beer before they climbed back out. Naturally, someone tattled, and we were caught. I would have been expelled immediately, had I not seen the Dorm Assistant, sneak her own boyfriend into her room on more than one occasion. I was able to use that helpful information to save my ass from the humiliation of parent notification. But still, I didn’t study as I had promised, and at the end of the semester, I was notified that I’d flunked out.
Now, I would have to tell my parents. I tried to think of a way to explain this to them without sounding as though it was any big deal, but in my panicked state, I did not choose the most soothing terminology in my call home.
“Hello, Faith, how are you?” Mom replied.
“Uh, well, I’m calling to tell you I’m in a bit of trouble,” I explained shakily.
“What? Oh, how could you! Jim, Jim, come take the phone! “she shrieked. “Faith is in trouble. How could she do this to us!”
Hmm, this wasn’t going the way I had visualized. Mom had immediately decided I was pregnant. Maybe I could have phrased things a mite differently.
Dad came on the line.
“Faith, it’s Dad.” (Oh, really?) “You’d better tell me what’s going on. What kind of trouble? Your mother is terribly upset.”
“Well, it’s not that bad,” I said. “Its just that I won’t be going back to Whitewater. I sort of flunked out”. I thought it was best not to mention that I was almost kicked out.
“Charlotte, it’s not that kind of trouble. She just had poor grades, and didn’t pass probation.” Dad’s explanation made my news almost palatable to Mom.
“Oh. Well she could have said that.”
Lesson learned. I’m a good student l when I have to be.
I spent much of the ensuing summer talking my way into the local college I had wanted to attend in the first place. That first semester, despite my initial resolve, I ended up spending the majority of my time in the student lounge majoring in Canasta. It takes a lot of practice to learn to play Canasta well. But that didn’t help my dismal GPA, and I was let go.
I thought it might be wise to find a job before mentioning this debacle to my parents. Having learned that words matter, I chose them carefully when the time came. I explained that I didn’t feel mature enough to continue, and wanted to work for a while before I tried again. They were intelligent people and read between the lines, but aside from disapproving sighs and pursed lips, they didn’t say too much while I toiled diligently as a hospital aide for the rest of the year.
The semester following my educational break, I managed to talk myself into the UW, thanks to an excellent reference from my boss. This time I meant business. I would finally buckle down, study every day, go to the library and become the student I knew I could be. Except, I had roommate trouble, I had to drop my Spanish classes because I couldn’t locate them, and the library was pretty close to the Kollege Klub, where my brother hung out. Oops, another flunk-out.
My furious mother decided to take matters into her own hands and, ignoring my protests, enrolled me in Edgewood College the following semester. Normally, I would not have qualified, but she knew the poet-in residence there which was apparently enough to get me in. I hated it, and Edgewood did not like me much, either. We parted company after that first semester, but this time, I hadn’t quite flunked out, and was able to negotiate a year’s leave with continued probation so I might have a way back in if I so chose.
I was getting pretty good, I felt, at breaking the news to my parents. This would be at least the fourth incident, maybe the fifth. I didn’t even feel particularly out of breath or sweaty, now, when I started my lame explanations. They did not seem terribly surprised, either. But just to be on the safe side, before dropping out this time, I applied for a job teaching Head Start. What a relief when I was hired, and able to tell my parents I was still eligible (barely) to return to Edgewood, which I could now pay for myself.
That year, I turned twenty-three, and over the winter, had met my future spouse. A couple of years of low-paying, difficult jobs, and the thought of actually having a future were the catalysts I needed to finally complete my degree. So, after fulfilling my contract with Head Start, I engineered my return to Edgewood. The final year was a tough slog since Edgewood and I did not share a religious or life philosophy. But I persevered, got married, student taught, and graduated, Class of 1971.
As I marched on stage in my cap and gown, fighting my customary stress-induced migraine, I glimpsed my parents standing next to my husband in the audience.
All of us were sporting expressions not of ebullience, but relief that this long, painful ordeal was finally over.
Actually, Mom and Dad looked older than I remembered.
© 2021 Faith Ellestad
Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.