All my life I had been guarded and protected by a strict father and three brothers, whose intentions seemed to align with the work of wardens. Most important decisions had been made for me by my parents, so on my first day of college, I was like a felon ready to bolt from her cell. When they were satisfied that I had my campus bearings and was properly settled in my dorm room, my parents said tearful goodbyes to their sixteen-year-old baby girl whose heart and soul were chanting, “Free at last!” As my mother turned toward the parking lot, her shoulders shook as she sobbed into Daddy’s handkerchief. I couldn’t wait until the big green Chevy, like a tank in God’s army, rolled out of sight. I was ready to be independent of their conservative Southern Baptist constraints.
The campus of East Tennessee State University was beautiful. Tree-lined streets fronted historic buildings that welcomed scholars to academe. The fall semester of 1970 was an opportunity to make my own decisions, wise or otherwise, and finally have a social life. Surrounded by savvy Southern girls who smoked cigarettes, drank beer, cursed like sailors, and dyed their hair, I realized that I had much catching up to do. My dorm mates were more than willing to help with this startling transformation. I would no longer be a shy, mousy-haired, socially-inept preacher’s kid. I had a new persona, and I was anxious to own it!
I saw him in front of Clement Hall. He was exactly the type of boy my parents would disapprove of: a twenty-one-year-old Vietnam veteran with a full beard and long hair, straddling a chopped British Small Arms motorcycle with a rebel flag painted on the gas tank. As the bike’s engine played its siren song, my throat constricted tighter than the rubber band around his dirty-blonde ponytail. Moments later, I was seated behind him, arms wrapped firmly around his waist. Flapping below the helmet, my long hair waved goodbye to history, math, biology, and English. My scholarly journey had been mapped out, but he would take me elsewhere. Higher education could wait—he might not.
John introduced me to the hippie lifestyle, which I totally embraced. He schooled me on smoking marijuana and partying every night to psychedelic rock; I took delight in any activity that was contradictory to the values that had been instilled in me from childhood. John and I skipped classes to spend long hours together in his apartment or on his motorcycle. He added a sissy bar to the back of the bike, so I would be more comfortable as we rode around the hills of East Tennessee, enjoying freedom we could ill afford academically. He surprised me with a visit to meet his large family and then offered me an engagement ring.
My parents called often, pleading with me to come home on weekends, but I made up lame excuses about needing time to write research papers or study for exams. Though I never voiced it, I wanted to tell them that if they wished to see me, they could come to school and find me, if they could, for I would be on the back of a motorcycle.
John worked the late night shift as an audio engineer at a television station in Johnson City. Sometimes I went with him to work, and after all other employees left for the evening, we rolled his bike into the station, positioned it in front of the anchor desk, and took turns posing on it for photos while delivering our own brand of news.
He was my first true love, my whole world at the time, and I was willing to do anything for him…or so I thought. Eventually, John flunked out of school and lost his job because he refused to cut his hair or shave his beard. He decided to ride out to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to start a new life. He begged me to go with him, but my dream to become an educator was stronger than my passion for him. After he left Tennessee, I resolved to salvage my plummeting GPA. I had been enjoying a bohemian lifestyle on the fringe of the academic establishment, but it was time to be serious about my dreams of eventually standing in the front of a college classroom. Slowly, my GPA began to rebound. Then…
I saw him in front of Sherrod Library. Barefoot and dressed in a black turtleneck and bell-bottom jeans, I was sitting on a bench pretending to read a book when he drove by in his 1967 black Corvette. He circled back around the building, offered me a ride, lowered the rag top, and minutes later I was sitting in the black leather bucket seat beside him. He was also a newly-discharged veteran. There seemed to be a déjà vu controlling my life!
Dave had enrolled at ETSU several years earlier when he played on the varsity football team. However, when his overall GPA lowered to a 0.9, he lost his athletic scholarship and was suspended from the university. While sitting out that semester, Uncle Sam sent him a welcome letter. In a matter of months, the country boy who had rarely left his front porch found himself dressed in Army fatigues and air dropped in Pleiku, Vietnam. After a two-year stint, he returned to college, thankful for a second chance and determined to be successful.
Then he met me. A fast and heated romance ensued. We did attend classes most days, but instead of studying, our nights and weekends were spent listening to heavy metal and getting stoned. Some mornings we woke up in a daze and on the floor of a house we didn’t recognize. To try to cure the munchies, I often made a large pan of marijuana brownies. Unfortunately, we spent Dave’s GI Bill checks on items not intended for the government allotment.
Renewed scholarly pursuits were lost again in my social eddy, but I felt incapable of completely breaking the cycle. Somehow, I was able to keep my head above the undertow, and when my junior year approached, I knew it was time to become a committed scholar in order to graduate on time. My parents were both proud and relieved when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma.
Years later I earned several more degrees, in spite of the fact that my tarnished transcript followed me wherever I traveled. Good, bad, or ugly, I earned each grade on that document, and I’ve learned to own it too. Like that of Ulysses, my journey home was an arduous trek but well worth the lessons I learned along the way. Ultimately, I found my niche in a university classroom, where I now spend my days trying to teach literature to a generation of students who have their own ideas about resistance to authority. Ironically, I worry more about their grades and study habits than they do and much more than I did about my own. Occasionally I share with them epic tales of my hippie days, but they verbalize their doubts until I open my yearbook to reveal photos of a smiling, young blond on the back of a motorcycle.
Dave and I have been married for almost forty years and have reared two wonderful daughters. Along the way, I have become a mirror image of my conservative Southern Baptist parents. Dave and I tried using similar constraints on our children, but they didn’t work any better for us than they did for my parents, who still love to tell their friends the saga of how I earned a perfect 4.0 GPA majoring in rebellion!