My First University
University was my escape route from our small, marginal farm in Saskatchewan. It was a good place to go after high school. Both my parents were university graduates—my mother graduated in Home Economics from Guelph University in Ontario, and my father from the University of Manitoba in Agriculture. It was easy for me to sell the idea of going to Manitoba, and it would get me far enough away to rule out frequent trips home. What else could I do? I graduated at the top of my class but didn’t have a clue about jobs or careers or anything about the world. So, of course I went to the University of Manitoba. I invented plausible reasons to go to university in sunny Manitoba instead of bleak Saskatchewan without planning far enough ahead to realize that all the scholarships for which I could have applied were only available if I stayed in Manitoba. As I have said, I was good in school. I never said I was smart.
My first problem was to decide in what faculty I should enroll. Agriculture was not an option. I had not enjoyed my 16 years on the farm. Engineering was a bad idea because my brother was taking Engineering. The faculty of Arts was a possibility but it seemed to be a bit vague. I had nothing against Science, so it seemed like the best option. And thus did I choose my goal in life, or so I thought at the time. I gathered up what money I could, applied for every ‘teacher assistant’ job listed in the university information and headed off for life in the university residence. Residence provided food and lodging at a reasonable price and it was right there on the campus so it was convenient. Besides working in three science labs to make ends meet, I quickly discovered that my ability to play the euphonium was not only a saleable skill, but also one that was in considerable demand. I joined the Reserve Army Winnipeg Grenadiers as a member of their brass band and attended practices at the Minto Barracks once a week for a rather good monthly wage plus extra for parades. It more than paid my room and board. Fortunately there were no wars during that time or I might have found myself in Afghanistan playing with a rifle instead of a euphonium. Probably I should have checked into what could have been expected of me as a member to the Reserve Army. I suppose the uniform and drill parades should have been a clue. By the end of my first year I was also being paid to play in two other brass bands. Band practices and performances took up many evenings. I was spending three afternoons a week working in labs, evenings and weekends checking lab books. After my first year, I was on the student council as coordinator of musical programs in charge of reviving the defunct University Marching Band and promoting performances of the University Symphony Orchestra, student dances, and other musical activities. It was a busy life with no problems. I never did get the hang of going to classes. I didn’t learn well by listening and there didn’t seem to be all that much to learn anyway. A few hours in the library seemed to more than cover everything (except advanced Organic Chemistry—it always made my head go in circles). As long as I had a friend in the class to give me the assignments and to tell me when the exams were scheduled it was easy enough to get A’s. Once I misread the exam schedule and went to the wrong building. This shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but I somehow felt I was caught in the classic donkey between two bays of hay situation (except in my case, my choices were equally bad). As you probably know, the story is that a donkey was equidistant between two equally attractive bales of hay, and starved to death because he couldn’t decide which one to eat. I was caught between deciding whether to hustle over to the other building and go into the exam late (we had 30 minutes of leeway to enter the exam room) and face the disdain of my friends, or to go home and then have to write the exam another time. It wasn’t a big decision—maybe it was that the decisions were equally unimportant. Being somewhat more intelligent than a donkey, I didn’t just stand there until the clock made my decision for me. I went to the student coffee house to work out my situation. In effect, I had stepped away from the problem and could look at the big picture. Obviously, the only logical decision was to write the exam and not care if people made fun of me for being late. I wrote the exam, and finished earlier than most of the others even with my late start. My friends were impressed with my level of confidence in not worrying about getting to the exam on time. My biggest problem on exams was more from not knowing what the professors expected as answers, than in learning the actual material. For instance, I almost failed a Physics class in which the professor made errors in almost every proof he gave in class. I didn’t know that because I missed classes and unwittingly gave the correct proofs from the text when I wrote the exam. He marked them as being wrong because they weren’t what he had given in class. When I wrote the supplemental exam, I gave two proofs for each question clearly indicating one as what he gave in class and then the other as the correct proof. I assume he was not amused because I got exactly 50%. I guess he must have marked his proofs as correct and the text ones as wrong. Life in the university residence provided a ready pool of potential friends, some of them almost as naïve and unworldly as I was. Most of the foreign students stayed in residence at least for the first year and provided me with my first vista on the real world. My life in high school had been totally devoid of contact with people other than WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). When I started university I knew nothing of sexual behaviors, social behaviors (legal or otherwise), or typical teenager high jinks outside the classroom. Initially students in residence were arbitrarily assigned a roommate and then left to sort out the inevitable compatibility problems. It didn’t take long for Len and me to gravitate into becoming roommates, sharing a small room with a set of bunk beds and two small desks. We were probably an unlikely pair. He was an Engineering student and I was in Science. not faculties that had a lot of love or outward respect for each other. According to Science students, Engineers learned how to do things but didn’t understand anything; according to Engineering students, Science students knew a lot of theory but needed experiments before accepting even obvious information and then didn’t know how to do anything with it once they had the information. Len’s view of academic achievement was that if you got anything more than a passing grade on an exam it meant you had been wasting time studying too much. My attitude was that if I got anything less than an B then there was something wrong somewhere because I could get an ‘A’ in almost anything if I wanted to, with a minimum of studying. We did have at least two things in common. We didn’t study much and we both liked cars. His family even owned a classic Studebaker—the one that looked the same going backward as forward. I assume his interest in cars was inherited. Len and I did share an abnormal interest in sports cars although his was in wanting to put a bigger engine into them (typical Engineer wanting more brute power) while I was more interested in the area of handling and racing abilities (the finer details). We also both found the residence meals to be unsatisfying and soon moved out into a small rented apartment. I learned to roast a chunk of beef tenderloin with vegetables around it, which became a weekly staple, and would last for several days. We still keep in touch even today. I did have one professor whose classes I always attended. He taught Chemistry, had an honorary degree in English, had published humorous books and had a realistic outlook on life. In particular, I liked his attitude toward compulsory attendance.
At the beginning of the year he announced, “I am required to take attendance regularly and I will . . . on the first class of each month.”
And he did. For most of his classes he would begin by asking if we wanted to discuss Chemistry or something else. Usually he discussed other topics we suggested. He maintained, as did I, that Chemistry could best be learned from a text, in front of a fireplace, in the evening, with good music, and with a cool drink. What we learned about life from him could not be learned from any book . . . unless it was one he had written.
There was another professor who earned my respect (but I rarely attended his classes). One time, a friend gave me the assignment from his class—due the next day by the time I got it. The assignment was to explain concisely what message the poet had been trying to convey by his rather long and convoluted poem. I’m not sure from where my inspiration came, but I found that if I took the last letter of each line and used it as the beginning letter of some appropriate word it would spell out sentences explaining his poem. I took this idea and expanded it with appropriate verbiage and handed it in. I was only hoping to get a passing grade on it and avoid a ‘black mark’ for not completing the assignment. I was amazed to get an ‘A’ with a comment I have never forgotten: “I don’t agree with a single thing you have said. But I would hate to try to argue against it.”
At last I felt I had found a kindred spirit who recognized that regurgitation of previously learned knowledge should not be the only goal of a university education. He accepted the journey as more important than the final result. I have sometimes had the passing thought that maybe a person could do the same thing with any poem, but I’ve never taken the time to try it. I prefer to think I had stumbled upon a secret message from the poet written just for me in my time of need.
At the end of my first year, my Physics professor talked me into taking Honors Physics. I think he was impressed that in solving problems I would always derive the equations on the exam (this was in the olden days when students were expected to have memorized the equations). Little did he know that I could never memorize them correctly, and so deriving them was the only way I would have them. I went for the combined Honors Physics and Math program mostly because I had no idea what else to do. There was only one course, Basic Concepts of Mathematical Analysis, which I totally didn’t understand. No one in the class knew what Dr. M. was trying to do, why he was doing it, or how he was doing it. He would walk into the class, glance up at us to see if there was anyone there, and then, without saying a word, pick up the chalk and begin filling the chalkboard with equations. He would add and subtract Greek letters purporting to prove something. The most disturbing thing about his lectures wasn’t that we had no idea what he was doing; it was that we never even knew when he was finished. Every day, about three-quarters of the way through the class time, he would put down the chalk and walk out of the classroom without comment (he hardly ever spoke). Sometimes he would return, pick up the chalk, and carry on from where he had left off. Sometimes he wouldn’t come back until the next day, in which case we would assume he was starting a new example. One of the students knew that Dr. M had a penchant for doing card tricks, and every day would put an open deck of cards on his desk. Day after day, Dr. M. would come in, glance around the room, look at the cards and launch into his furious chalk work on the board. Then one day, he picked up the chalk, then put it down, turned and picked up the deck of cards. He took a few cards in each hand, and without saying a single word he went through a long series of movements. He moved cards from one hand to the other, showed a card and then another, and dealt them into two piles on his desk. Then he would do the same thing again . . . and again. I couldn’t keep track of whether the cards he showed each time were the same each time or different. After a while he put the deck back on the desk and began writing symbols of the chalkboard. I couldn’t believe it. It was just like his lessons. I didn’t know what he was trying to do or whether he actually did it, let alone knowing how he did it. We never left a deck of cards on is desk again. His final exam began with the instruction, “Do not attempt more than 6 of the 8 questions.”
The questions were of the type: “If (unintelligible mathematical letters and symbols), then prove (more of the same letters and symbols in a different but equally unintelligible order).”
I started writing the exam, adding and subtracting symbols and Greek letters as fast as I could. I gauged my time so I would have answers for 6 of the questions. I thought that quantity might offset lack of deep Mathematical insight. And yes, I did just as he did in class. I wrote symbols as fast as I could, and when the allotted time for a question was up I just quit right where I was and went on to the next question. Maybe I succeeded in breaking the code because I passed the course. Or maybe it was based strictly on quantity. I have no idea. After one year in the program I switched out of it because I discovered that it consisted of nothing but Mathematics and Physics. You’d think someone would have told me! Did I mention that I wasn’t very swift on picking up on subtle hints . . . like the name of the program? ‘Honors Math and Physics’ should have been a clue, but I missed it. I was told that while a lot of students dropped out of the program because it was too rigorous or difficult for them, I was probably the only one to leave the course with good marks. Several people told me I was crazy to drop out because it would lead to a good job. I didn’t dispute I was crazy, but I needed a wider variety of subject matter. I didn’t want to end up knowing nothing but Science and Math and I wasn’t enjoying the journey getting there. So I left the Honors Math/Science program and returned to the general Science program to pick up Arts subjects. I took Astronomy, Psychology, Chemistry, Philosophy, and English to complete my Science degree. I had way more Physics and Math credits than needed at the time, but I did find a way to use them many years later. Having got into a less time demanding program, I found myself on the student council as Science rep. I also had more time to embark on projects such as getting uniforms for the brass band and to enlist the services of a qualified, experienced conductor. He was a real lifesaver for the band and for me. The uniforms were in the university colors of brown and gold and had appropriate peaked caps, very much like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uniforms of that time. After I graduated, I took a teaching job at Swan River with a plan to make enough money so I could return to university for my master’s degree.
I really thought I knew where I was going.
~ No Prejudice Here ~
My friend Abby (Nigerian, I think) and I are trying to find a place for him to live other than the university residence.
Renter: “I’m sorry he can’t stay here.”
Me: “Why not? Are you prejudiced against him?”
Renter: “Oh, no. Not at all. I have no problem with your friend.”
Me: “Then what is the problem with renting him the room?”
Renter: “It’s the other people living here. They wouldn’t like it.”
Abby spent all his university years in residence.
~ Dress Up Time ~
I was driving myself and four other band members to a major concert event. As usual, we were late and I was hurrying. Suddenly there was a police cruiser pulling up beside me (they didn’t use sirens and flashing lights much in those days). Just as he pulled up beside me I put on my band hat. He took one look and then waved for me to follow him. We had a police escort (at an excessive speed) to our event. He probably knew we were university band members, but it made a better story to believe that he thought we were police officers in an unmarked car.
~ You Did Say “All” ~
The ad had said, “Winnipeg Symphony auditions, all instruments” so I presented myself, replete with euphonium, at the appointed time.
The examiner eyed the euphonium and me suspiciously. “Did you bring any music with you?”
“No,” I replied, “I know the symphony doesn’t normally use a euphonium, so I didn’t know what you might want to hear. Any music is fine. Trombone, baritone sax, trumpet . . . or violin is always good.”
I played the few assorted violin selections he handed me. He said some complimentary things about my musical ability and the fact they didn’t have any present use for a euphonium. I went away happy. He was impressed by my performance.
I hope he had enjoyed it as much as I had.