“I don’t know,” he said. “They look weird.”

“No, really. Try it. They’re great.” I said. “See, look, the cork molds to the bottom of your feet.”

“For $120 they should not only mold to my feet, they should get up and make me coffee.”

“Seriously. Just try it.”

We were in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2003 and I was attempting to convince Brian to buy (and I’ll refrain from the brand) an expensive pair of German, sandal-style shoes. The kind you wear with socks. Those shoes. Brian was resisting, and I was insisting. Why? I don’t know, because I had never owned or worn a pair of these in my life. Ever. But, I did see a lot of other people wearing and they always looked really happy in them.

I saw my first pair of “birks” when I transferred to Antioch College in September 1987. I was fresh from a private Jesuit college in New York State, and I pulled into campus and turned into a parking lot on Livermore Street and walked onto Antioch’s campus for the second time ever. The first time was a campus visit in May, after I had been accepted and after I had already left my last school. It had been a one-way, no going-back kind of transfer. I transferred to Antioch without actually knowing what the place looked like because all I knew was that I had to get out of where I was.

In 1986, I was at a “perfectly good” (thanks, Mom) Jesuit college in New York and everyone one I knew majored in finance. Everybody. And it was a big campus. How did I end up here? I wondered, as I wandered campus, aimlessly, disconnected from the things that bonded everyone else: parties, drinking, boys, girls. I sat in classes of 30 or 40 students and doodled in the edges of my notebooks. I opened books and closed them, unread. Something, I thought, is missing. Everyone else is perfectly content, but for me, there was something else I wanted, even if I didn’t know what it was.

In January, shortly after the beginning of my second term there, I bought a book on colleges and started looking. This particular book had a useful list in the back: “Non-traditional Colleges.” Hmm…what are those? Within in a week I had requested information from all of then, and college brochures started appearing in my mailbox like Christmas catalogs. I read them all. And I wish I could say, I could remember what it was that I saw in Antioch’s brochure that made me want to go. It would be helpful, especially right now as I’m trying to write engagingly about the experience. But, useful, potent memories escape me. Instead, I’m left with the idea that Antioch seemed right for me, because in the end, that’s where I went and where I graduated with a degree. And I thank the gods for it. If it hadn’t been for Antioch, I might not have ever graduated from college — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s been immensely useful to me since I, you know, teach in a college now.

My first day on campus, things were already in full swing. A barbecue of some sort had been organized and students gathered around tables with food, that, for me, was wholly unrecognizable. (Falafel, I learned later.) Food at Antioch is where I have my most memories of learning knew things. I saw my first box of soy milk at Antioch. Remember, it was 1987, not 2008. I have distinct memories of one student being fascinated with the way air puffed out of the box, when he cut off the corner with a pair of scissors. He would squeeze the box repeatedly to feel that puff off air against his eye. I remember that tofu and tamari and carob cake were served on the salad bar. (Ironically, all things I cook with now.) I remember cigarettes sold for 10 cents each at Connor House. I remember learning to eat hummus loaded with garlic, and to pull sprouts from the inside of my sandwiches and eat them a thread at at time.

My memory is faulty. I remember the tree in front of one of the dorms that turned bright yellow in Autumn and how students, would occasionally stop underneath it to peer up into its leaves. I remember that I learned how to spell differently there. For the first two weeks I couldn’t understand why “woman” and “women” were spelled incorrectly on all the posters. “Wimmin,” they said. Or, “womyn,”they said. Despite my confusion, the posters had done they’re work on me, and by the end of my first term I understood: oh, wo-man, wo-men …you got rid of “man”…oh, I get it!

I came to Antioch clueless. Really clueless. But, thankfully, I left Antioch more aware than when I arrived. I didn’t really understand how much I learned in college until 2000, when I stood in a crowd of students at a university, and protested for new programs for students. I stood there, in a crowd, chanting, and I finally understood. Oh, this is why I went to Antioch. It took ten years, but I finally learned all the lessons that Antioch tried to teach me in 1987, but for which I wasn’t quite ready. For me, at that moment, in the crowd chanting, I realized that lesson: it’s okay, go ahead, protest.

But, I was talking about shoes. Brian chose the closed toe style of shoe. “I don’t want people seeing my toes,” he said.

As he was checking out another memory of these shoes came to me about a student at Antioch who also had just started wearing birks. He was a conservatively dressed student, the only one on campus, as it happens. He wore striped rugby shirts and jeans while the rest of us wandered in a sea of patchouli oil and tie-dye. But, one day, he showed up wearing birks –the hippie shoe.

“Hey,” someone said. “Is he wearking birks?”

His best friend, passing by on his way into the dorm, nodded.

“Yep. He bought them, so he could make it with the earth women.”

(Note: Congratulations to Antioch for remaining open! I wrote in an earlier post that it had closed, but it’s been saved by alumni. So, thank you to everyone who made that possible. Maybe this year I’ll go to the reunion…)

Advertisements