In May 1963 I had to shave off my beard. Greg, who was three years old, stood on the toilet seat cover to watch. “Don’t cry, daddy.” I don’t think I was, but he may have seen something. He comforted me: “It’ll grow back.”
I shaved because I needed a job with a company that would hire someone without a college degree. After four years at Columbia’s School of General Studies, I was at least a year away from graduation. Probably more, because my wife Rose and I had two small children and no money. We were supplementing our diet with a precursor to food stamps: government surplus beans, rice, peanut butter, cheese, and lard in tins labeled “A Gift of the People of the United States.”
A McGraw-Hill publisher liked my college newspaper experience and beardless face and hired me as a trade magazine reporter. Five years later, I was secure enough in my job I regrew my beard during a vacation.
Twenty-five years later, I was again bearded, unemployed, now divorced and remarried, and still not a college graduate.
When I’d enrolled in GS, a bachelor’s degree required a reading year in a foreign language. Any foreign language. I wanted Japanese. In fact, I’d applied to GS because, at the time, it was one of the few colleges that offered Japanese. Why Japanese?
It had occurred to me when I was stationed in Japan during my Army tour that we think in a language. We comprehend (or create) reality through language. We perceive the world the way we do because of the words and grammar we use. I believed that if I could think in a language very different from English (say Japanese), I’d have another way to look at the world. Expand my consciousness. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I still think it’s a good idea.
I registered for Japanese every year I attended GS. I didn’t do well. I wasn’t thinking in Japanese. I wasn’t even passing vocabulary quizzes. To avoid failing, I dropped the class several times. After four years, I still had the reading year ahead of me. Without the language requirement, I couldn’t graduate. I was disappointed, but it was a situation I’d brought on myself so I could hardly be angry. (For what it may say about life patterns, my father didn’t graduate from Tufts because he never finished his language requirement either. His language was French.)
So when I had a chance, I reapplied to GS and the school readmitted me. To graduate I’d have to complete my major—two philosophy courses—and the language requirement. That now, however, was only four semesters of a language, any language. I could take two years of, say, Spanish or French or German (two more years!). Or take one semester of Japanese because I already had three semesters on my transcript. It seemed like an easy decision: one semester of a language with which I was (and am) still fascinated versus four semesters of a language in which I had little interest.
The speed bump in that logic was that the semester would be third-year Japanese. But you couldn’t just sign up for such advanced placement. You had to take a qualification test to be admitted. I hadn’t used any Japanese for over twenty years. I was apprehensive, but confident I could fill in any knowledge gaps.
To prep for the test, I registered for conversational Japanese at The Japan Society in Manhattan and at GS for one of the philosophy courses. As it happened, I’d had Professor Sidorsky for a philosophy class during my first stretch at GS, and happy to be in his class again. Watching the classroom fill, it occurred to me these other students had not been born the last time I was in Sidorsky’s class. It made me feel elderly.
At the class’s end, Sidorsky stopped me as the students were filing out. “I know you,” he said. “I’ve had you before.” I reminded him of my name. “That’s right,” he said, “The Columbia Owl.” I was astonished and pleased. How many students had passed through his classes? I took pleasure in Sidorsky’s lectures and aced the course.
I also aced the second required philosophy class, advanced several levels in the Japan Society language program, and, in the fall of 1986, sat for the qualification exam to enter third-year Japanese.
And failed. It might as well have been in Urdu.
To say I was crushed is too strong, but I was more than dismayed? Downhearted? Despondent? Dispirited? All of the above.
I needed help. Perhaps if I audited second-year Japanese, I’d be fit for third-year. One problem: the school did not permit you to audit if you’d already taken the class for credit. I went to the department head, Professor Paul Varley, and explained my situation. It probably helped that, like Varley, I was in my early 50s and, unlike most students, I’d read his book on the Onin War.
If the instructor approved, said Varley, I could audit her class. I sought her out, told her my story (omitting the Onin War) and when classes began I was sitting in the back of Mary Hue’s room, diligently making notes, taking the quizzes, turning in the homework.
Six weeks into the semester, Ms. Hue stopped me after class: “Wood-san, I’m afraid your foundation is just too weak for this class.” She must have seen my disappointment—I may have looked as if I was going to cry—so she added, “Why don’t you audit my first-year class? You can audit second-year Japanese next summer, and begin third-year Japanese next fall just as you planned.”
Skip ahead to the summer of 1987 and second-year Japanese. In ten weeks, we covered everything two fifteen-week semesters ordinarily covered. Japanese on steroids. We were in class from nine until noon Monday through Friday. We wore headphones in an hour-long language lab twice a week. We had eight hours of homework every night. More on weekends. We were charged with memorizing almost a hundred characters every week. I cannot guess how much vocabulary, grammar, and verb forms we had to memorize.
I jettisoned all other activities for the Japanese. I listened to vocabulary tapes when I drove. Reviewed readings on the subway. I practiced writing characters until my hand ached. Tried to force my brain to accept and retain words, patterns, alien syntax.
The class included five graduate students. Michael, going for his masters in international affairs, had taught English in Japan and was married to a Japanese woman who became impatient with him to say, “I’m tired of talking in sixth grade Japanese.” I think he actually broke down because he did not appear for the final exam. Doctoral candidates Bruce and his wife Sally already read Chinese (they’d spent a year on Taiwan); they complained constantly about how much work we had to do, that this was the most difficult course they’d ever had in their lives, which, because they were professional students, was saying something. Miss Wan, a doctoral candidate from China, could write the characters easily but struggled with the English instruction, of which there was less and less as the summer broiled on. Helen, with whom I had lunch every day, was a doctoral candidate in religious studies, with a special interest in Japanese religion. Grant was a Columbia College freshman, pre-med, eighteen years old; he seemed to recall the sound, form, and meaning of every character after writing it once. I thought he was a freak and coveted his ability.
The weeks were, in some ways, more rigorous, more stressful than my Army infantry training, the only standard against which I can measure them. I did my absolute best, but if I’d taken the course for credit, I’d have flunked.
Nevertheless, the department allowed me to register for third-year Japanese. Professor Higashihara, who’d taught the second half of the summer and therefore knew how little I knew, said he’d admit me only if I promised not to register for the second semester. I just needed to pass the course to graduate and it sounded as if the teachers would do whatever they could to see that happen.
With all my requirements now nearly satisfied, I brought my paperwork to the dean of students for the mandatory pre-graduation conference. He looked it over and said, “I see back in 1959, we gave you six credits for serving in the Army when you were admitted . . . I’m not sure we still accept those credits.”
It was struggling up a mountain trail, expecting to savor the vista, only to find there’s more mountain.
The dean was not all grim news, however. “I see we also gave you credit for a University of Maryland English course. What was that?” I told him I’d taken UofM classes in Japan in the Army. “I don’t have that transcript and perhaps there’s something else on it we would accept.” We left it that he’d check into the credits for my Army service (which had never been good for anything else). I said I’d have the UofM send him my transcript.
When we met two weeks later, the dean had good news and better news: GS would still accept my six credits. And there was another course on my UofM transcript that, for some reason, GS had not accepted when I first applied for admission but was accepting now: One semester of Japanese.
Astonishingly, I had four semesters of a foreign language.
Because it was Columbia’s mistake, said the dean, I could drop third-year Japanese and the school would refund my tuition.
I didn’t have to suffer through the summer of second-year Japanese.
My diploma was in sight.
In fact, I’d been finished more than a year earlier when I completed the metaphysics course although I hadn’t known it at the time. Sitting in the dean’s office, I didn’t know what to say. In English or in Japanese. I settled on “Thank you.”
Because all my Japanese teachers had done so much for me, I felt an obligation to them. It would be ungrateful to drop the course. I continued, but without the pressure I’d felt since failing the qualification exam. I passed (barely), and obtained my Bachelor of Arts degree in January 1988. Twenty-nine years after I’d begun, I was a college graduate.
Causes Wally Wood Supports
SCORE, AARP Driver Safety, Habitat for Humanity