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En Route to Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mom and Dad drove me out to Harvard the fall I transferred. I'd never been east of Ohio. Looking back now, I know I was frightened. That day it came out as sullenness. I was scared of being a small fish in a big pond, terrified of being looked down on as the hayseed from Indiana. I was convinced that once the Harvard and Radcliffe administrations actually saw me, they would tell me to go home.
I was looking forward to getting away from home. Not from my parents. I was itching to break away from small-town thinking from plainness, from flat land and houses that looked alike, from the constant interpreting, carrying out business transactions, acting as a go-between for my parents and a world that really didn't have much patience.
My head was filled with the aura, the stateliness of the Ivy League. Names resonated with import: Currier, Lowell, Winthrop. I could smell and hear things I'd never encountered, but in my imagination I knew they existed, and I felt sure that upon my arrival--if I wasn't sent home--wonderful happenings would occur. I wouldn't be burdened by timidity. No one would know of my mistakes unless I repeated them.
I'd just spent two years at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, with some vague idea that I wanted to be a teacher of the deaf. When the program turned out to be less than I expected, and when I didn't feel I was getting enough challenge in my other classes, I applied to four eastern colleges and was accepted. Harvard took very few transfers that year--the next year, none wereadmitted at all--and although the admission officers were very kind to me, all the literature they'd sent warned how difficult it was to switch colleges in midstream.
Now I looked up at the back of my parents' heads and I sank down low in the car's back seat. Filling out the application, I'd made prominent mention of the fact that they were deaf. The entrance essay, which was supposed to be about me, was actually about them. Many applicants use a father's or grandfather's degree to get them into the family alma mater, but neither of my parents had set foot in a college classroom. The irony that I was shamelessly using my deaf mother and, my deaf father to get into Harvard was not lost on me. Neither was the fact that although I'd willingly and openly tell people they were deaf and I would briefly answer questions, I just wasn't going to say anything else. It was all too complicated.
Most of the sixteen-hour trip to Cambridge I brooded over a freshman reading list, the kind given out to high school seniors that includes all the books they should have read by the time they matriculate. I'd read very little of what was on that list. When I'd received it in the mail, I had gone to the library, taken out Ulysses, and despaired. I understood nothing.
I sat in the back seat for hundreds of miles, worrying that I'd have nothing to discuss at the dining table. And every once in a while I'd look up to watch my parents' conversations.
When the highway was deserted, Dad could comfortably shift his eyes from the road to Mom's hands. When traffic got heavy, he would have to watch the road and then his glances were shorter. If he wanted to pass a car, he'd hold up an index finger at Mom, signaling her to suspend the conversation for a moment. It was always easier for the driver to do the talking, although that meant his signs were shortened and somewhat less graceful. He would use the steering wheel as a base, the way he normally used his left hand; his right hand did all the moving.
Curled up in the seat, chin dug into my chest, I noticed there was a lull in the conversation. Dad was a confident driver, but Mom was smoking more than usual.
"Something happened? That gas station?" Mom signed to me.
"No, nothing," I lied.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Everything is fine." Dad and I had gone in to pay and get directions. The man behind the counter had looked up, seen me signing and grunted, "Huh, I didn't think mutes were allowed to have driver's licenses." Long ago I'd gotten used to hearing those kinds of comments. But I never could get used to the way they made me chum inside.
Mom was studying me. Having relied on her visual powers all her life, she knew when I was hiding something. "Are you afraid of going so far away from home? Why don't you stay in Indiana? This distance. Why wasn't college in Indiana good enough?"
"Mom. No! Cut it out."
She turned and faced front again, then she tried to distract both of us by pointing out a hex symbol on a barn.
Dad hadn't seen exactly what either of us said, but he'd caught the speed and force of my signs from the rearview mirror, and he could feel the tension coming from behind him. Mom had struck several nerves in me. Not only was I stepping into foreign territory--I hadn't been able to afford to visit any of the schools to which I'd applied--but also, back home in Indiana, none of my relatives or high school friends had been enthusiastic about my going east. To Hoosiers, Harvard means highbrow and snotty, too good for everyone else. Before I had left, Grandma Wells, my mother's mother, had admonished me, not once but several times, "not to get too big for my britches."