Being a Relation of How a Ninth Grade Dropout Was Admitted to a Research I University
Memoir Excerpt ©2019 Steve Russell
In Milwaukee, I hugged the fringes of the counterculture, but there were limits. How countercultural can you be when you work in a computer room in a downtown bank tower while collecting college credits at a community college? I wore a clip-on necktie at work, a bit of fakery that has been necessary all my life because I was never motivated to learn how to tie a real one. I had to have the first bank account of my life because my paycheck was deposited into the bank where I worked.
Between the insurance settlement from my accident in 1966 and having a good job, I had joined the middle class. That meant, by the standards of my childhood, I was rich. I accumulated stuff — at one time, I almost bought a sitar. Because there was a tiny crack in the kadu ka tumba, the lower of the gourds, it was dirt cheap and I would say it sounded just fine if I knew how it was supposed to sound.
I looked in every men’s clothing shop I could find for a Nehru shirt or jacket. They were stylish at the time and could never be sullied with a necktie, but I could never find one big enough. It was not these matters of fashion that would make me an Indophile, but I had yet to discover Gandhi’s writings.
When I returned to Austin, discovery was on my mind although I could not say exactly what I hoped to discover. The counterculture was attractive background noise. The principal of the high school I had escaped laughed in my face when I proposed college without finishing high school, and that focused me on the University of Texas at Austin — -my preference in the first place. My application had not been denied because I had not been allowed to submit it. Little had changed. I was a year older and I had a transcript showing two semesters at a community college.
I went all the way to San Antonio to add my Suzuki to the trailer moving my BSA. Coming back up the highway to Austin, I had the top down and my data processing credentials — certificates from three years of varied courses — in a file on the back seat. Just south of Austin, I heard a ruffle of paper and looked in the rearview mirror. My credentials, as well as some resumes I had printed, were sailing in a cloud behind my Karmann Ghia.
I stabbed the brakes once and then quickly decided to hell with it. I’m not going to be a computer nerd. I’m going to be a student at the University of Texas and this time I will not take no for an answer.
Finding a place to live in Austin topped my agenda. There was no way I would be able to park my car with the trailer behind it anywhere near the campus. I was looking after the Spring, 1969 semester had started, so I expected finding a place to live — -let alone park — -would not be easy. I was wrong. Just north of UT, I noticed a “room for rent” sign on the front of a big old white bungalow. Against an additional set of odds, there was an empty lot next to the house that was being used for parking.
I pulled into the vacant lot, set the brake, and walked up to knock on the front door, where I met an elderly gentleman who seemed skeptical of would-be renters. He cross-examined me for most of an hour, and I had to wing it a bit when he wanted to know my immediate plans. It did not seem politic to say I intended to kick the door down at UT.
He liked that I was older than most people wanting to rent that close to campus and it sealed the deal when I agreed to stay the semester and paid him four months of rent up front. He was dividing up the house to rent and I got an enclosed back porch on the second floor with a new bathroom. It was vacant because he had not gotten it ready in time for the beginning of the semester.
I spent the rest of the day hauling my stuff up to the second floor. I found a hardware store nearby and bought a heavy chain and a lock, with which I attached my trailer to a telephone pole in the lot next door, leaving both motorcycles locked to the trailer. Late the next morning, I circled the Drag until a parking place opened up. As I walked up the West Mall to the UT tower, it seemed like my previous attempt was days ago rather than months.
I am not sure if the woman behind the counter in the admissions office was the same one who sent me away the previous year. If so, she did not remember me, because we had the same conversation. In light of my veteran status, she was willing to take my application if I would send for whatever high school credits I had, a willingness that evaporated when I told her I had none. A year later, I had convinced myself that I had passed typing and probably speech, but I was not sure where the evidence was, and it was just too much trouble to chase down less than a year of credits.
This time, when she tried to shoo me away, I didn’t leave. I asked to speak with her supervisor.
“She’s gone to lunch.”
When the supervisor came back, she was friendlier and more sympathetic. Unlike the person at the front desk, she was willing to put in my application, but her opinion was that it would be futile, and she did not want to blow smoke.
I believed her, so I asked to see her supervisor.
The wait was not as long, but the guy seemed to be busy. He had stacks of paper on his desk. Still, he gave me the first chance to tell the whole story about passing the GED but being deemed too young to get a high school equivalency certificate. He was not impressed by two part time semesters at Milwaukee Institute of Technology. Cutting to the chase, he asked me why I thought I could do the work at UT?
“Why do you think I can’t? Look, I’m just asking for a chance. If I can’t do the work, I’ll go away and never bother you again.”
“Bother me again?”
“You don’t think I’m going to give up if you turn me down, do you? You can have the police remove me and when I get out, I’ll be back here asking again.”
That appeared to amuse him. He spelled out an offer slowly.
He would order me admitted to the summer sessions. There were two of them, and I had to take a full load the whole summer — 12 semester hours. I would be admitted on academic probation.
I had to ask what that meant.
In the summer of 1969, I needed to take 12 hours, fail nothing, and finish with at least a C average, meaning that a D would have to be offset with a B. This did not sound like a big deal, since the GI Bill demanded that I be a full-time student. I thanked him profusely and left the Main Building and the next thing I knew I was at the Drag, having walked on air down the West Mall. I had four months before classes would start, but I felt like I became a University of Texas student right then.
On my transcript, it would say:
“Admission Record: Individual Approval.
Even a completely deficient UT student was still a UT student. I read over the catalog again and again, drooling over the choices I had to make. In addition to making choices, I had to get ready to be a full-time student for the first time.
I had gotten myself a data processing job in the evenings, but this “scholastic probation” stuff made me wonder if working full time was feasible. On one hand, I considered the University my one shot at the Promised Land and therefore my top priority; on the other, I had gotten accustomed to the middle-class life. That dilemma resolved itself when the supervisor of data processing where my boss rented computer time made some obnoxious comment about dope smokers. I took up for the dope smokers and won the argument on points but for the only time in my life, before or since, I got fired.
I cannot recommend getting fired even when it’s a firing like mine — for a silly reason and not at a time when I was desperate for income. I don’t hold with the notion that adversity builds character. Adversity is just adversity, and that’s how it felt in spite of the objective facts.
As much as I sustained a real ego-blow getting fired, the idea of keeping my mouth shut the next time somebody said something asinine never penetrated the fog of depression. I lack the STFU gene that makes things easier for those who have one. My inability to STFU would cause trouble for me that first summer at UT, but the unpleasant firing sprung me loose from a full-time job and forced me to think hard about looking for a less expensive place to stay and a job I could handle with my serious academic load.
My plan had been to take required courses to get them out of the way. That plan got sidetracked when I became entranced by a woman who took me seriously as UT student material but not as boyfriend material because she was paired up with a Chicano from South Texas named Candelario Saenz. Both were studying anthropology. I met Candy first and he introduced me to his girlfriend, Barbara Worley. They were as old as me but with much more academic credit, and the fact that the two of them both took me seriously was a delight beyond anything I expected.
I met them when my job search was dry and I got the idea of giving up possessions to fund my schooling. I put index cards describing both motorcycles on a bulletin board at a hippie dive called Alice’s Restaurant run by a fellow I came to know as Silent Jack, who ran a karate dojo in the back of the eatery.
Candy, the male half of the anthropology couple, bought the Suzuki, and the more I came to know him the more impressed I was with how intelligence met inquisitiveness in this small-town boy from South Texas. He and Barbara personified the virtues I expected to find at a university. We did a lot of student type stuff that was normal to them and thrilling to me.
One day, we were in my Karmann Ghia with the top down, Candy riding shotgun and Barbara in the jump seat. We rolled up on the guard post in front of the UT campus, known to students as “St. Peter’s Gate” because it was so hard to pass. I started to turn away to hunt for a parking space, but Candy told me to head into the campus “and watch her work.”
The guard signaled me to stop. I stopped, but before I could say a word Barbara stole away his eye contact and spun a tale as complicated as it was nonsensical. We had forgotten something in a particular building and needed it right then and couldn’t we just dash in and get it and we would be right back? It was my first observation of a Jedi mind trick practiced by an attractive young woman. The guard had no chance and this brand-new student got the rare privilege of cruising the inner campus drive during school hours.
One evening, they allowed me to tag along to a professor’s house. The prof had a large collection of student guests and he folded me right in. He grilled steaks while the students — me included — smoked dope from the professor’s stash to tune up our appetites. I would think of that evening years later, when I watched an Austin police officer explain to high school students why marijuana needed to be illegal.
It would destroy their motivation, he warned, and they would be unable to handle serious academic work or decent jobs. Most of the conversations I heard that night at the professor’s house were about academic subjects, and everybody seemed as fired up as their blunts. I was no exception. The professor was serving some very good weed, but my high from his party favors was nothing compared to my high from being accepted in that company as just another UT student and also from being able to follow most of the conversations.
I was not shocked about the marijuana. In those days, you could practically get a contact high walking up the West Mall. Among serious students, there was more dope smoking than drinking. I had seen more hard drinking in the Air Force than I would see at UT.
Being thrown into a back yard full of stoned anthropology students was so pleasant and I was so excited that I altered my summer plans slightly even though I did not know exactly what anthropology was. I remember a conversation with Barbara that veered off into primatology, but she reeled herself back in and explained that the major division in freshman course offerings was between cultural and physical anthropology. It was much later when I heard the wisecrack that physical anthropology is the study of human beings for people who cannot stand live human beings.
Becoming friends with Saenz and Worley was a random event that resulted in my first two classes at the University of Texas being introductions to anthropology, cultural and physical. Those two courses had profound influences on my conduct when I became a university professor.
The freshman required courses at a research university are normally taught by graduate students, and I was better off getting my introduction to university education from professors so I could see the clear distinctions from both high school and the community college.
Professors at a research university profess, and what they profess is tilted toward their research agenda. Since I was under the gun to pass my first twelve hours, I was motivated to search for what my profs had published. I expected to need every advantage I could get.
The cultural anthropology course was a lot of fun until we started talking about Indians. I was under the impression that I knew something about Indians because I am one, but I would not mention that because I was there to watch rather than to be watched.
The professor was an active volcano of what are called in these times microaggressions against Indians. Combining that with my lack of the STFU gene was a recipe for disaster. The friction between my identity and the professor’s view of his own cultural competence was played out in his grading, and he gave me the only C I would ever get as an undergraduate.
The physical anthropology course contained some material about racial differences I found hard to stomach but lacked the knowledge base to challenge. Like the cultural course, the format was readings followed by lectures that went far beyond anything in the readings and essay examinations written in “blue books,” sold for the purpose at the University Co-Op. I experienced the physical course as a harder slog than the cultural course, but quitting was not an option. Going into the final exam, I was on track to earn a B.
My research on the professor pointed me to an article he had recently published in a professional journal that dealt with something he mentioned in his lectures but was touched only lightly in the textbook. I became convinced that a question based on his article was highly likely. Based on other material I had absorbed in and out of the course, I became persuaded that the central point of his article was incorrect. At this time, I had not yet been hammered by the cultural anthropology professor.
I had never taken a blue book examination before that summer and I quickly decided that the challenge was not so much answering the question as composing a clear and concise essay with a topic sentence, discussion, and sum up at the end. Even for a born writer, that’s hard to accomplish on the fly.
So, I wrote out a succinct critique of the professor’s last article. I rewrote it a couple of times until it had polish beyond anything I had written in a blue book, which at that point was not saying much. The essay was short, and I committed it to memory.
I went into the final exam loaded for bear…and the bear did not appear. The prof did not ask the question I had anticipated and for which I had prepared. After calming down as much as I could, I did quick answers to the questions he did ask. At the end of the last answer, I printed in big letters: OVER. Then I turned the blue book around and wrote the essay I had prepared about the professor’s errors on the back of what I had written to his questions.
Since I had a B going into the final, I must have gotten an A on that exam, because I got an A for the course. I had been argumentative with both professors. One punished me, and one rewarded me.
In my own teaching, I have always been partial to students who care enough about the material to have original thoughts even if those thoughts run contrary to my own. I learned how I wanted to teach in my first semester at the University of Texas, a semester guided by two unlikely friends, both of whom went on to do dissertation research for their Columbia University Ph.Ds in Africa and to became professors of anthropology.
For the remainder of the summer of 1969, I reverted to my original plan and took a required English course and the first half of the required government course. Both of those classes were taught by graduate students and I got two more A grades, making my scorecard for the summer three A’s and a C. I had taken a full load, failed nothing, and had no grade below a C. I thought I was done with scholastic probation, a mistake that would give me a fright when it came time to graduate.