Registration for summer school at The University of Texas at Austin in June 1964, was held in the massive gymnasium on the south side of the campus. Large signs indicating course titles hung above long rows of tables staffed by professors who taught in the summer to make extra money. Students pushed and shoved and elbowed each other as they maneuvered for enrollment in classes they needed. To say that pandemonium reigned was an understatement.
I was eighteen years old, and I was overwhelmed.
My first-grade class in Richards, Texas, in the piney woods of Grimes County, had ten students. We shared a classroom with eight second graders and one teacher. Our school was a two-story red brick building with the first eight grades on the lower floor and the high school on the second floor.
When we moved to Brazoria, Texas, my eighth-grade class had forty-five students in two home rooms. By the time I graduated in May of 1964, my senior class at the West Columbia – Brazoria Consolidated Independent School District had ninety-two members. I was the valedictorian by a thin margin over Judy Keitel, so I had reason to believe that I was bright.
The scene before me as I gazed around the gym that first college registration day planted seeds of doubt. I was intimidated. This school had approximately nineteen thousand students, and several thousand were jostling for positions in classes for the first semester of summer school. A few of the girls on my hall in the dormitory had gone together, but I had opted to tackle this hurdle alone.
I began to see a few problems. First, I had no major. This placed me in the category of “Undecided.” All unfortunate “undecideds” automatically were assigned to the College of Arts and Sciences to be advised by one of their professors. I took my place at the end of the longest line. Evidently, many of us were up in the air when it came to academics.
When I finally reached the front of the line, a young man with a bald spot at the top of his skull and thick eyeglasses spoke to me without raising his head to look at me directly.
“Do you know what you need to take this summer?” he asked. He looked around me to see how many people were behind me.
“No,” I said. “I’m undecided.”
That appeared to irritate him.
“Of course, you are undecided. That’s why you’re in this line.” He paused and looked again at the line behind me. “Let’s see. You’ll need a foreign language regardless of your major. I think you should take German 101 for your first class. That happens to be a class I personally teach,” he added.
German 101? I had a panic attack. Was he joking?
“Uh, I really wasn’t thinking about taking German,” I said. “I had Spanish for two years in high school. Maybe I could try that?”
“No, definitely not,” he said. “Spanish isn’t offered in summer school. Let’s go ahead and sign you up for German. I need your name and social security number.”
This isn’t going well, I thought. I had a moment of clarity.
“Is there any college that doesn’t require a foreign language?” I asked.
He sighed heavily and nodded. “Just one,” he said. “College of Business Administration. But, you must have a major to enroll in their classes, and you are undecided.”
The boy behind me groaned. He tapped me on my shoulder and pointed to some signs three rows over. “Those are the courses for Business Admin.”
The first one alphabetically was Accounting. I liked bookkeeping in high school. Hm.
“I’m majoring in Accounting,” I said to the German professor. For the first time, he looked at me. He shook his head in disbelief and waved me away. I crossed a vast chasm and took my place in a much shorter line with other students who knew where they wanted to go and suspected money was the key to getting there.
This story was the first one in my second memoir Not Quite the Same published in 2009. Part One of that book, Leaving Home, explored the initial tentative steps I made to pursue a college degree that had been my goal since I was old enough to understand the concept of higher education explained by my parents who were the first generation of college graduates in their respective families. In our house there was no discussion about whether I would go to college – the big mystery was where and how to pay for it.
Nearly fifty years later in 2023 I can still feel the sense of being a very small fish in the very large pond that was college registration for summer school at the University of Texas in June of 1964. I marvel at the random nature of that choice to major in accounting because I didn’t want to take German with the young man trying to fill his classes. The destination of the College of Business Administration three rows over shaped my career for the next forty years. While the story makes me laugh, I admire the courage of that eighteen-year-old girl who stepped out of the “undecided” line.
Economics 101 was a requirement for my newfound degree plan, and I signed up for it that first semester of summer school. I was excited to see that Dr. Thompson, the Chair of the Economics Department, and the author of our textbook, would be my instructor. (I learned later to avoid at all costs classes taught by the author of the textbooks.) I was stunned to see that my classroom was shaped like an amphitheater with more seats (500) than the population (440) of my hometown. We were seated alphabetically, and our attendance was checked by a graduate assistant.
Dr. Thompson would stride in with an imperious air, move to the podium and take out his lecture notes. He was a small older man with a receding hairline and pointed facial features. His voice had a high pitch and unpleasant tone. When he read his notes, he peered over rimless eyeglasses. He looked like a caricature of himself.
His graduate assistant would nod to indicate when he was finished with taking attendance and then take his place on the front row at the feet of his master. I halfway expected him to bark.
I always arrived early for the class and began a conversation with a young man seated to my left, Mr. Morehead. He begged me to call him by his first name, but I assured him that I had been taught to call people “Mr.” or “Mrs.” out of respect. And, I added, Mr. Morehead was a Yale man, and for me that denoted utmost respect.
“But I’m here because I flunked this class at Yale,” he said. “And we’re almost the same age. You must call me by my first name. I insist. Besides, you got an A on the midterm. I got a C.”
He had me there, I thought. I was feeling cocky about that.
The lectures were boring, and I missed the class participation of my smaller high school classes. I felt class participation was necessary to bond with my teachers. It was a classic strategy that served me well in the past.
Everyone wrote furiously while Dr. Thompson spoke, but his presentations reminded me more of church sermons than school instruction. His questions were always rhetorical. One day, I decided to help him improve his teaching style. I raised my hand to answer. He seemed to sense something out of the ordinary and stopped.
“Dr. Thompson,” I said with my hand still in the air.
Pencils stopped in midair. Sleepy eyes popped open. Heads snapped to attention. The room grew deadly silent.
Dr. Thompson frowned. He lifted his head, too, and surveyed the room. Either he was blind, or he chose to ignore my raised hand. He gestured to his graduate assistant.
“Who is seated in chair number 228?” he asked.
“Uh, I think it is Miss Morris. Uh, yes, it is Miss Sheila Morris,” the assistant replied with a nervous twitch.
Dr. Thompson removed his glasses and set them on the podium. He squinted at me.
“Miss Morris,” he said slowly, drawing out each syllable. “Where are you from?”
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for teacher improvement, but I had gone too far. As Molly Ivins would later say, “The first rule of holes: when you’re in one, stop digging.”
“I’m from Brazoria, Texas, sir,” I said, and lowered my hand.
Mr. Morehead was nudging my leg with his foot. His expression was one of pure horror. This had been a mistake.
“Bra-zori-a, Texas,” Dr. Thompson said. Again, he pronounced each syllable distinctly.
I felt sick.
“I am curious about the educational system of rural Texas,” he continued. “Curious, and perplexed. Whatever possessed you to speak to me today?”
“I thought you might want an answer to your question,” I said faintly.
“And you presumed to know that answer?” he asked. “Well, we are all waiting on pins and needles for your thoughts. Please.”
I knew for sure that he didn’t want the answer, and by this time I didn’t even remember the question. So, I said nothing. I wanted to die.
He waited for an eternity before he spoke again.
“I see,” he said. He picked up his glasses and put them on. He looked at me with a snarl. “Since you are so eager to answer questions, I will make sure to ask you one from the readings every time this class meets for the remainder of the semester. I expect you to have the correct response. Do you understand, Miss Morris?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. It was way past time to stop digging.
I kept my A in Dr. Thompson’s class, and Mr. Morehead, whose first name I never knew, returned to Yale, never to be seen again. I memorized much in the three years I was successfully enrolled in college, but what I learned wasn’t in a textbook or classroom. I was a good student, and that created wonderful opportunities for me following graduation, but I was plagued with a fear of exposure of my personal life. Dorm life was exhilarating because I was surrounded with female sexual energy. Yet, that same closeness threatened me.
By the time I graduated with my degree in accounting, I had fallen in love with two sisters from Dallas and been rejected by both. I roamed the halls of my dormitory in the wee morning hours and stood many times outside locked doors with no courage to knock. I would turn away and try to concentrate harder on my studies.
My mind was filled with facts and figures, but my heart couldn’t compute. At least, I wasn’t trying to calculate in German.
This incident lives on in infamy in my memories to this day as I read it again fifteen years after I wrote about it in Not Quite the Same. Truly one of the most embarrassing moments in my life – whatever possessed me to raise my hand in a college lecture that first summer? I have no clue except that when my high school teachers asked a question in class, they looked favorably on students who attempted to answer. Mr. Morehead was kind to me that summer, and I was naïve about what transferring to UT from an Ivy League college to take economics meant. To me back then, Yale represented academic exclusivity at the highest level, regardless of his C in Econ 101. He had to be brilliant.
What we had in Econ 101 in 1964 was a failure to communicate.