Ethan had recently turned twenty-one and felt every bit of the arrogance that comes with the drinking age. He commuted thirty minutes to college and was realizing that life cannot be an avoidance of real responsibility. The previous two years were about stretching out and seeing what life away from home was like. The truth was that the only change for him was the lack of a curfew. He also had a roommate, but they didn’t travel in the same circles, so that wasn’t much of a change for Ethan. The lack of respect he held for his freedom left him walking across a floor or Milwaukee’s Best cans and sleeping through classes he had already passed in high school. Now he was sitting in summer classes, hoping to rehabilitate his GPA and finish college in a reasonable amount of time.
The thing about summer classes is that they are humiliating without the proper context. For Ethan, summer had been about freedom and being away from school. The days were for working and the nights were for getting into trouble. Summers always brought a party, but this one was going to be different for Ethan. The days would be about school and the nights were for working. He figured that being twenty-one, the nights could start whenever he got off work, but he was not excited about his first summer class, Human Relations. The class was about cooperative learning and problem solving. Small groups were formed to lead activities and to also provide lunch for the day. It was the kind of scenario that drove Ethan crazy. He didn’t want to go to class and talk. He wanted to sit in the back of the room, take notes, pass a test, and get the credits. The professor promised that this would not be that kind of class.
“Each day we will start in a circle and recite our Full Value Contract. Basically, you will be committing to being present, giving your best, and respecting others.” We will discuss different aspects of human relationships, such as trust, communication, problem-solving, and decision-making. In this room, we are all equal and have a duty to participate in all discussions. With that, my name is Virginia Squires. I’m a doctor, but if you would, please call me Virginia, I would be most appreciative.”
The course was already like nothing that Ethan had experienced in his college education so far. The professors had been distant, either by attitude or physical distance. Each course seemed to be a lesson of impersonal behavior, but this one, while not what Ethan wanted, felt different. Virginia was old, like retirement old. Her hair was white and she wore clothes better suited for Leave It To Beaver than Miami Vice. She spoke with the mixed up English and southern accent that is old-time Virginia, but she did so without the venom that so many southern debutantes can wield.
“One more thing,” she said, “we stop early and everyone must stay for lunch. We eat together for a reason. People eat with their friends, not their enemies.”
With that class began. There were no desks or chairs, only large pillows. The official name for the course was PSY 310 Human Relations, but everyone knew it as the pillow class. Ethan sat with his group and did the usual listening. He spoke briefly when it was his turn and quickly found himself drifting into a summer siesta.
“Ethan, are you okay?” asked Virginia. Her tone was sweet, but her eyes were sending a different message. She was making it clear that the pillows were to create a casual atmosphere and not to become a sleep aid. Before Ethan could answer she asked another question, “Ethan, what do you like to do for exercise?”
“Uh, I like to play basketball.”
“Great, tomorrow you will do our first biographical presentation. Make sure you mention something about basketball. May I ask where you are from?”
“Oh, do you know the Band Box?”
Everyone knew the Band Box. It was the coolest record shop around. The floors were wooden and creaked when walked across. Vinyl and cassettes filled every bin and cool rock star and black light posters covered the walls. Besides music, a person could get concert tickets and choose from a multitude of smoking tools. Ethan discovered Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, and The Clash there, although he never told his parents that he went there. His father forbade him from going to the store given the Band Box’s reputation as a head shop.
“I do. How do you know the store.”
“I love Led Zeppelin,” she said. Everyone started laughing at the thought of Mrs. Clever rocking out to Zep. “Actually, my son works there. He’s a music guy.”
She had made her point and done it in a way that spared Ethan the embarrassment of a scolding by a college professor. Still, though, she had let Ethan know that his near slumbering behavior was not without a consequence, he had been assigned to present about himself and basketball. Ethan was still a salty sort and not deft at massaging a delicate situation. He came from an athletic, Texas, military background that valued the certainty of making a point without feeling. Sports instilled a sense of competition where winning was the only goal. Being from Texas, Ethan carried that wild west defiance of the Lone Star state. His connection to the military through his grandfather had taught him that survival and destruction where the way of a soldier.
“She wants basketball, I’ll give her basketball,” thought Ethan.
The next day everyone milled around the room getting to know each other. Some people were drinking coffee, others eating their Egg McMuffins. Ethan sat alone working on his lines to let Virginia Squires know that she would not intimidate him no matter how proper and soft-spoken her attacks came. He would do his speech and then be done for the rest of the course. She would realize the error of her ways and maybe even apologize for being so passive with him yesterday. At least, that was the way it went when he had been taking to the steering wheel on the drive to class. Everything changed after the Full Value contract was said. Ethan lost every bit of anger and even felt a sense of guilt. Virginia was an old lady and had done nothing to Ethan. In fact, she had gone out of her way to be nice to him. It was Ethan who was creating the stress in the situation. All he had to do was talk about himself. There was no need to crush her. No need to win anything. No reason to make an ass of himself.
“Ethan, tell us about yourself.”
“First, Dr. Squires…”
“Virginia,” she said.
He started over, “First, Virginia, I would like to apologize for nearly falling asleep yesterday. As for me, I’m a transfer student from ODU and I’m working in Colonial Williamsburg. I like all kinds of sports, but especially basketball.”
“Have you ever been to a professional game?” asked Virginia.
“I saw the Rockets and Bullets play a preseason game a couple of years ago. When I was a little kid, I got to see Dr. J. and George Gervin play with…” Ethan hesitated and Virginia smiled. He realized that she knew what was coming and was okay with what he was about the say.
“…the Virginia Squires…” The class started laughing.
Virginia seized the floor, “Do you guys think I’ve ever heard that one before? Ethan, what do you like about basketball?”
“I like the movement and how each play is kind of a predetermined uncertainty.”
“What do you mean by that?” she asked.
“The offense knows where they want the ball to go, but they have to take what the defense gives them. They can’t force anything, they must take what they are given. To score is predetermined, at least in theory, but how they are going to do it is uncertain for the offense.”
Virginia thought for a moment, “Ethan, how is that like human relations?”
“Wow, I’ve never thought about it like that. I guess if we go into a situation thinking it’s going to be one way, then we might miss opportunities that could present themselves.”
“Exactly, flexibility is one key to our dealings with others. Thank you for introducing yourself today.”
With the grace of Julius soaring to the rim and the dexterity of George Gervin flipping his finger roll, Virginia Squires had snuck a lesson into Ethan’s presentation. For once in his life, he didn’t think of it as a threat that needed to be dealt with. Instead, he received the gift she gave him. She had presented Ethan with a seed, that while slow growing, would serve him well. The three weeks would pass quickly. The paper towers they built that were meant to symbolize creativity. The whisper down the lane games stressed the importance of clear communication. The friendly lunches broke barriers in Ethan that no other classes had been able to do. He started to see the value of teaching people social skills and the importance of problem-solving in every aspect of our lives. He even started talking to the people in his class and got to know some of them away from school. The course was more than credits. It was life changing.
Thank goodness for Dr. Virginia Squires.