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Germ Bag

My Old School

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 11/13/2002

My man Marty adores his alma mater, can't pass up the opportunity to tour the University of Virginia whenever we're within 100 miles of it. Each time, he gets twinkly-eyed, reminding me that Thomas Jefferson designed the place, Edgar Allen Poe and Katie Couric went there, and William Faulkner was an artist in residence. And then he gleefully reminsces about the time he streaked across the campus's famous lawn.

I listen dutifully but I can't relate. It had never, ever occured to me to visit Loyola's campus when I go down to New Orleans. Because it's centrally located, I inevitably drive back in forth in front of the imposing, dark-brick institution teeming with Jesuits. But since graduating in the early 1990s, I've never been struck with the desire to go in. Not once.

That's because college didn't have the impact on me I think it was supposed to. Unlike Marty, I wasn't left feeling like my university experience was the be-all and end-all explosion of greatness that shaped me into the creature I am today. Instead, my four years (ok, maybe five) felt more like a protracted obligation I had to shoulder in order to move on to the next thing, whatever that was going to be.

I chose Loyola because they had nice catalogs -- I had zero guidance in high school. Once there, I didn't identify with the masses. I mocked the Greek system and never attended sports events (it helped that Loyola didn't have any teams). I'm not Catholic, so I didn't get into the folk masses. When, rarely, I reflect back on my days there, I think mostly of boyfriends I had (ok, just one), or bars I frequented in the French Quarter with my kooky roommates. Then my thoughts quickly switch to current day, such as what I'm going to have for lunch.

Last week, though, Marty and I were in New Orleans for a wedding and suddenly found ourselves wandering in a park across the street from Loyola with an hour and a half to kill. With very little enthusiasm, I looked over at Loyola's cathedral and figured, hey, well, why not?

So we ambled over. But once I set foot on the campus, a desire to immerse myself in the place spread across me like a fierce rash. Suddenly, inexplicably, I was excited. Next came shock. Why hadn't I given a crap until just this moment?

"Let's go in every building!" I said to Marty, giggling. He shot me a look of alarm.

"Ok, just a few," I added.

A giant banner strung across the university's most Gothic and beautiful building read, WELCOME ALUMNI! "Gosh, they must have liked me better than I liked them," I told Marty.

First we headed to the communications building, where I had spent most of my time once I'd worked up the balls to tell my dad I was switching my major from business to journalism. As we got dangerously close to the doors of the plain, utilitarian structure, I was stunned to see it looked exactly the same as it did in the mid-1980s, down to the cardkey devices used to get in at night. And inside, there they were: the same neutrally painted walls, nondescript astroturf-ish carpet, and the weird piece of art -- globs of blue goo with colorful wires poking out, all covered in plexiglass.

An outsized wad of memories -- though I thought I had none -- immediately wooshed back, a new surge washing over me with each step. I passed by the all-glass School of Communications office, remembering the Albert Finney-esque head of the communications department and how he snapped at me, when, as a sophomore, I told him I still wasn't sure whether to focus on print or broadcast (he was a hardline print guy). Next I channeled raw dread from 15 years ago when I saw that a glass case lining the hallway still offered little index cards announcing internships you either didn't want (COME WRITE FOR OIL & GAS QUARTERLY!) or weren't ever going to get (COME LEARN THE ROPES OF FEATURE WRITING ON THE TIMES-PICAYUNE'S LIVING SECTION!).

I passed by the exposed offices of the school newspaper, the Loyola Maroon, and saw myself in there as if I was watching a film, one made in the ridiculous late '80s. Lacking confidence in my writing, and being rather scattered and inconsistent, I contributed to the paper only a few times. The first piece -- on my favorite local bar, Miss Mae's -- the editors loved. The second -- on a Molly Ringwald movie about teenage pregnancy -- they never ran. I had my first taste of Crab Rangoon there when they ordered out one night.

Back then, the Maroon's star was one Hank Stuever. He had long, blond hair and his writing struck me then as the shining essence of all that was hilarious and insightful. It must have struck everyone else that way too as Hank was loved throughout the communications building and beyond. I remember attending a few editorial meetings at the paper and watching his sidekick -- Marla? Mabel? Myrtle? -- in action. He'd say something, even something innocuous, and she'd slap her thighs hard and yell, "Oh, Hank! Oh, Hank!" in a sycophantic gush. Now Hank is at the Washington Post. I don't know where Marla/Mabel/Myrtle is.

The Maroon was next to Loyola's tiny yearbook offices. A girl on my floor in junior year was the editor. Kathy, I think her name was. She hadn't bothered to take any pictures or assign any photographers to shoot anything, and come deadline time, she was in a panic. Having taken a buttwad of pictures that year with a new camera my dad gave me, I came to her rescue, lending her all my shots. She didn't give a rat's ass that they were all of me, my boyfriend and my suitemates. Hence, that year's yearbook was really nothing more than a big, hard-covered stroll through the life of Suz Redfearn.

I hit the bathroom next, not because I had to go but because I wanted to see where I had spent so much time primping and preening before my journalism classes. Then I visited the elevators. With a pang, I suddenly remembered being so neurotically self-conscious that I never took those elevators if it meant I'd be stuck in there with a professor or some classmates I didn't know very well. Looking out the window at the little-known staircase that hugged -- and still hugs -- the outside of the building, I remembered it being my chosen egress because it involved few other humans. Clearly, I could have used Paxil back then. How and when had I outgrown all that?

Looking into one of the beige, boring classrooms, I recalled the turtle-like priest everyone feared, but whom I really treasured because he got us to write revealing essays and then told us that everyone in the class was going to read and critique them. That one assignment got us -- well, me at least -- over the fear of exposure that often comes with writing about one's self. In a poof, I was cured. What a relief that was. Otherwise, it may have taken decades.

I looked into another bland classroom. Another key professor for me--one who was bald, lisping and hilarious--taught here. Others hated the fact that he ranted on about his experience as a reporter on New Orleans' depressed West Bank, then tested us on stuff from the book he never talked about. But I didn't care. The man was charismatic as hell. Naturally, I formed a giant crush on him, despite the fact that he was married and had a new baby. But I had no loyalty then, even to him. Turning to look at his former office door, I remembered with a pang how I went in there and lied and told him I was really upset about my dad's prostate cancer and therefore couldn't turn my story in that day. Yes, my dad did have prostate cancer, but I couldn't turn in my paper because I really couldn't be bothered with deadlines until Jazz Fest was over.

Down on the first floor, the music floor, memories of a different kind came flooding back. This is where my college boyfriend, Tim, and I courted. He was a musician. Absolutely nothing had changed about the rows of semi-sound-proof practice rooms there, except that now each bore a sign that read, "Absolutely no illicit behavior in the practice rooms!" I used to visit him here, wandering by each glass door until I spotted his trumpet and beat up jeans under florescent lights. Then we'd sit and talk about very little, but so much.

Passing by the bulletin board on that floor, I remembered scrawling HALEY'S COMET WILL KILL US ALL! on a piece of construction paper, complete with a drawing of a comet, and pinning it there. I thought was just trying to delight and intrigue the masses in an anonymous way, but really, I think I was just trying to enchant Tim.

I peered into the practice rooms' vending machine nook and had a flashback to a particular day in 1987, when my entire mass media class had just responded favorably to my first autobiographical piece, a melodramatic thing titled: "Black Potpourri." I sat near the Coke dispenser telling Tim of the day's giant triumph, somehow knowing he'd never understand. That set the course for about a decade during which I wandered around assuming no romantic interest of mine would ever understand my writing or the life of a writer.

Marty and I then meandered into the next building, Monroe Hall. I had my first experience with Vivrin here, popping some outside my astronomy class and sitting up all night studying with classmates. The professor had told us that if we bent down and looked at the planets through our legs, they appeared smaller. Also, there was another professor in that building who often had a wet stain on his crotch as he stood up at the board going off on a tangent about cosines.

Monroe Hall was the building that brought about my demise one semester. I made a deal with my dad: if I got straight A's, he'd buy me a Porsche. I made all As -- and one B+, courtesy of the computer-programming teacher in this building. I didn't get the Porsche. "A deal's a deal," said my dad. And one year, after I'd broken up with the musician boyfriend and he'd moved away, he sought me out here and wooed me anew though I swore I'd never have anything to do with him again.

Even after graduation, this building came in handy. I was trying to make it as a freelance writer, but had no computer, so I used to pack a lunch and steal back into Monroe Hall where I'd sit in the computer lab every day from 9 to 5 writing my stories. No one was ever the wiser, and I didn't stop until I figured out how to finance an $800 Macintosh of my own.

Next, Marty and I walked past the old library. I used to try to check out books by throwing them out the window into the bushes or tossing them over the sensor devices. I'd racked up some late fees, you see. Then, we breezed past the business school and I had no memories at all, even though I spent two years in business classes.

Passing through Marquette Hall toward the end of our visit, I remembered that at the very top of the building there was a zendo. Up there, a particularly kooky priest taught Zen. He had a Tibetan look about his face, but was very white and very big, like a linebacker. He was scary, too, all frenetic and immediate and unforgiving. He also put the syllable "ha" in front of things for no discernible reason. I began imitating that, for sheer self-amusement, and still catch myself calling my cat "ha-Poots" instead of just "Poots." Father Zen had us sit on pillows and meditate, tell revealing stories about ourselves (I dropped the class before it was my turn), and do t'ai chi outside near the Jesus statue. He said "fuck" and "shit" a lot. I'd never met a priest like this. I looked up at the third floor of Marquette and wondered if the mysterious, red zendo was still up there, or if my former Zen master was still alive. I was too scared to go see, though.

Soon it was time to get in our car and honor a dinner date, and Marty and I stepped off the campus and onto St. Charles Avenue, where an old streetcar rumbled by. I looked back at Loyola, its regal red-brick fading in the distance as I walked away. I realized I'd probably not return for another decade or so, but was glad that I'd come today, to see how things had stayed the same here, but changed so drastically within me.

Back in D.C. the next day, Marty pointed to the UVa sticker on the right bumper of our car. "Too bad we didn't buy a Loyola one. We could have put it on the left side," he said, being kind, being sweet, but still not able to empathize with my relative apathy about my college experience. Or maybe he realized that, with our visit, I'd actually managed to loofah some of the apathy, a thick layer of it coming off in one crusty sheet.

"You make a good point," I said. "I'll order one tomorrow."

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