Kingsville, Texas — An Immersion Memoir

June 19, 2017

Coming Home

I arrived yesterday, checked in to the EconoLodge and hid in my room preparing for today’s workshop. I am in Kingsville, Texas, working with the English Department at Texas A&M University-Kingsville on an NEH sponsored workshop– “The Aesthetics of South Texas Artists and Writers.” This morning, I felt a rush as I walked on campus, past the old gym where I shared an office with other teaching assistants. I entered Fore Hall where the English Department offices and classes are still housed. My entire being reacted. I got goose bumps; I smelled the cigar smoke that one of the professors used to smoke. I could almost see the young inexperienced, scared, young woman I was walking the halls in her blue jeans and colorful cotton blouse, her future in her hands. Today I wore black, for it is only 5 months since my mother’s passing from this earth and I am observant of a dying tradition, el luto. I wear my nostalgia and my melancholy with pride. No regrets. No. But plenty of tears and sighs as I recall that summer so many years ago. I reach back into my past and reassure that skinny naïve youngster with a smile and a wink.

 

The summer of 1973, I moved to Kingsville to pursue a Master’s degree in English at what was then Texas A&I University. I was 26 and it was the very first time that I would live away from my family, away from the house that had been home for over 20 years at 104 E. San Carlos in Laredo, Texas. Away from friends and neighbors. Away from the border. I was terrified. My family too was scared for me. Feared that I was growing away from them. That I would never come back. And in a way, my father’s fears were prophetic as the person that returned to Laredo in 1980 was certainly not the one that left in 1973. Yes. My father feared for me, but his fears were allayed because I was not alone; two other students, Rosie and Lina, also from Laredo, joined me. They were working on their MAs in education, and they would return to their teaching positions in Laredo after the summer. We rented a small casita near campus. Every weekend, they returned to Laredo while I stayed alone in that small house that reminded me of a mountain cabin as it was made of wood: wooden floors, wood-paneled walls, even the ceiling—all made of the same warm, rich, honey-colored wood. I loved it! The wood must’ve been good insulation for although we had no air conditioning, I don’t remember it being particularly hot. Perhaps it was because I was gone for the hottest part of the day and spent hours at the library. I cooked my meals in an old gas stove, and in the early morning or late afternoon when the scorching heat was bearable, I read under an old mesquite tree in the yard we shared with 3 or 4 other similar casitas. I was in heaven!

How I got to Kingsville…

The previous spring, Dr. Orlan Sawey, the chair of the English Department at Texas A&I, was visiting Laredo and my mentor, Dr. Allen Briggs, scheduled a meeting so I could meet with him. Allen knew I had finished my student teaching, and I was ready to apply for certification by the state of Texas to become a high school English teacher. He also knew that the student teaching experience had not gone well as I became disillusioned and frustrated. I had shared with another English professor, Dr. Martha Thomas, that although I had wanted to be a teacher since I was in junior high school, I found myself in a quandary as I just knew that I didn’t want to be trapped in the high school classroom unable to teach what I wanted and unable to help my students. Unbeknownst to me, the chat with Dr. Sawey was an interview, and as we said good-bye, he offered me a teaching assistantship and accepted me into the MA program. I still had to apply and go through the process, but I was in! I was stunned. Of course, I jumped at the chance and became a teaching assistant teaching two sections of English Composition each semester for the next two years.  The assistantship paid my tuition for 9 credit hours each semester and offered enough of a stipend to rent a room in the back of a decrepit old house near campus and still manage to send some money home.

That summer, I enrolled in two graduate English classes: a British Literature class and another class I can’t recall.  I remember the Tennyson / Browning seminar because the professor, Dr. Hildegarde Schmallenbeck, would become my mentor, my champion as I faced the politics and culture of graduate school.

Today, as we introduced ourselves at the workshop, one of my former doctoral students who is now tenured Associate Professor here told the story of how were it not for me she would not be here. How one day when she was working at FedEx in Laredo, I walked in to mail a package and told her she should go on and get an MA degree. How later, when I was the advisor for the PhD in English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I found her finishing her MA in Corpus Christi, and insisted that she go on for the PhD.

When I arrived at the EconoLodge hotel last night, the young woman who checked me in told me she is from San Antonio and she is here studying for her MA in Counseling Psychology. Why don’t you go on for the PhD? I asked.

She explained that she didn’t have the funds.

Go for it, I said. If you get into a program, they will provide funding. Just apply!

Really? She asked incredulous.

Yes. I replied. That’s how I did it. Of course, it will be hard. But you can do it if you really want it.

She smiled and said thank you. Her eyes shone with possibility.

 

[TOMORROW I WILL TAKE PICTURES AND POST THEM]

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