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From Chapter I, Only Great Changes
By Meredith Sue Willis
|Before I joined VISTA, I spent a year in college. That year is in my
memory black and white like the photographs in the college catalogues I
used to pore over. I scrutinized every square inch of those books: pictures
of lawns decorated with pretty co-eds, requirements for majors I had no
interest in, activities of sororities and fraternities didn't intend to
join. I was searching for a sign, for the exact quality of life at each
college— for the life I would have if I went there. At the same time it
never occurred to me that I would ever drop out, and Franklin State was
the least interesting of all the colleges to me. It had the thinnest catalouge
and the fewst photographs, but that didn't matter because I knew the campus
very well. I had been there for conferences, for high school journalism
day, and for my parents' reunion, because they both received teaching degrees
from there. I hated to give up any one of the colleges. I felt this terrifying
richness of potentiality before me— all the possible lives I might have,
each one governed by the college I chose. So I kept Franklin State in my
active pile, continued to examine its photographs for the thing I wanted,
the sudden throbbing or flash that would take my breath away and make me
say, That's it, that's the one. This is what my life will be. But I was
quite certain the thing was not at Franklin State, until the night the
man came to speak to our youth group at church.
It was a Sunday evening in March with a black, driving rain coming down over the mountains, but a good turnout because a lot of us were in the final throes of choosing a college, and this speaker was at least connected to a college. He was an assistant to the chaplain, although it wasn't clear whether or not he was a preacher himself. His name was Dave Rivers, and he was short and had a beard.
Our group met in the basement lounge, a sort of island of donated couches and easy chairs in the middle of an expanse of vinyl tile and painted cinderblock. It was an uneasy place, always like sitting in a spotlight on a stage, and that night I positioned myself in the shadows, on a folding chair behind the couch. I was keeping my distance, wondering if the speaker would notice me, or if he would pass his eyes over me as just another teenage girl with shiny hair and no obvious birth defects. At first, though, he didn't look at any of us. In fact, he broke every rule of public speaking my mother had ever drummed into me. He stood in front of us saying nothing for a long time, shifting his weight from foot to foot, clearing his throat, getting out a handkerchief and cleaning his glasses. There was an embarrassment among us, a shifting in our seats. I was glad I wasn't in the front row. I could raise an eyebrow, stare at the lack of coordination between his plaid flannel shirt and plaid sports jacket. He was wearing boots too, yellow leather lace-ups— clodhoppers! I had never seen a man wear a sports jacket with work boots, and it was those boots combined with the ginger-brown beard that gave me pause, made me think he might be worth listening to.
He finally finished cleaning his glasses and cleared his throat one last time, wiped his nose with the handkerchief he'd been using on the glasses, put it away and the glasses on. And then his eyes came at me. Magnified by the lenses, appearing perfectly round and rimmed with flamelike lashes, they seemed to be the source of the sudden flow of words, low and urgent. A speech about the Inner City, which I assumed for a while was symbolic like the Beautiful City of Zion. I'd heard that sort of thing from preachers all my life. But no, Dave Rivers was talking about New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh. Urban centers and ghettoes. Heroin in the bloodstream of America and apathy like a sleeping sickness. "The City," he said, "is a challenge to the Church that it can no longer sit on its ass." We all glanced at the youth leader when he said that, but the leader managed to retain his bland smile and occasional nod. Maybe he had not let himself hear it. "And let me tell you," said Dave Rivers, "let me tell you that you can waste yourselves on the uncommitted life just as surely as you can on a needleful of dope."
This, I thought, is the first Man. This is the first Man I've ever known.
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