Crossing a decade-size gap to bond with new classmates

Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed when I bike to campus in the morning. The last leg of the journey takes me across a long drawbridge to the little island where the campus is located. On the bridge, my bicycle turns directly into the strong winds from the Gulf of Mexico. Some days it feels like pushing through chest-deep water. But the wind is invisible to passing drivers, whose vehicles are unaffected. I feel different - weakened and exposed.

At the beginning of the semester, the sense of pushing against the wind continued even after I locked the bike. I am what is politely referred to as a nontraditional student: a non-degree seeker with a BA from another college, making a move from the world of publishing to the world of science.

At 9 a.m. on the first day of class, my biology teacher looked out over the lecture hall of 207 students and asked how many of us were freshmen in our very first moments of a college class. About three-quarters of the students raised their hands.

A few months earlier, I had a company car, some savings, an imminent promotion, the respect of co-workers, stress. Some of the savings is still there. The stress may well return. But the rest of that life is gone for now, replaced with low-level science classes and classmates who were born about the time I started high school - who seem to have little in common with the person I was at their age and busy earning a BA.

One day I saw three porpoises while crossing the bridge. Their sides were touching as they rolled in unison, almost abreast, moving down the ship channel. I felt honored with this vision and yearned for that kind of companionship. I wondered if this year would always be so solitary. College for me - more than 10 years ago - had been joyful work, like a quilting bee or a barn raising: a shared experience of curiosity.

As part of my current studies, I'm doing an internship in a rainforest museum. I help take care of the birds - big macaws, flamingos, ducks, scarlet ibises. They are all amazing creatures. At my introduction to one macaw, our eyes locked on each other, primate and bird, our curiosity mutual and intense. We playfully tested each other. I sighed, thinking how I felt more connected to this bird than to my classmates.

But these young people have much to teach me, as well. While studying for a quiz, two chemistry classmates walked by, chatting and laughing easily. One turned and smiled. "Have you done problem 52 from the homework yet?"

Marta and Ellen sat down and we worked on ratios of ions in solution. Our obvious differences of age and background were accepted but not ignored, their curiosity unobtrusive. They reminded me that we are colleagues, and that I know little about them and where they come from. That overcoming solitude is work in itself.

I thought about this conversation on my ride home as I started across the drawbridge. I smiled. A long line of cars stretched in front of me. The center section was raised to allow a small freighter to pass underneath.

The Gulf wind still blew straight and strong, but now it pushed me like a hand at my back. The bike flew past the waiting cars and I reached the peak of the bridge just as the arms lifted to let me and the traffic through. The wind picked me up, and my work was joyful.

John Matthews received a BA in ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago in 1990. Currently he's taking undergraduate marine biology courses at Texas A&M University's Galveston branch, planning to apply to graduate school next year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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