Last Day

March 18, 2008

The bus ride home on Saturday was relaxing. Earlier in the day we visited the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. It has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. It was very affecting, especially the extensive displays about all of the questions surrounding the real story behind Dr. King’s assassination. I had no idea that there were so many unanswered questions. I also did not know that Coretta Scott King and the King children do not believe that James Earl Ray was guilty.

Our group went to Neely’s Bar-B-Que for lunch. Chopped beef sandwich, cole slaw and about four glasses of sweet tea- that’s what I call lunch.

It’s a 7 hour drive from Memphis, TN to Dallas, TX. We watched Acts III and IV of When the Levees Broke. If I didn’t say this already, this is a must see for every American. Stop reading and go rent it now. We also watched two documentaries about the history of rock n’ roll, and most of Stomp the Yard– one of my favorite movies because it combines my interest in break dancing, attractive men (ha), and historically black colleges.

Earlier in the evening we quietly took up an offering on the bus, and presented it to Ray Jordan (our illustrious leader, an intern in the Chaplain’s office) as a big thank you for all of his hard work and planning. He truly thought of every detail and was both flexible and structured at all the right times. He should get some sort of award. But we did what we could to say thank you, even though he deserves much more, considering how much we all got out of the trip. Also, we took up a second collection for a “love offering” (as the older ladies called it) for the bus driver.

Our driver was an interesting man named David, who retired from the banking industry 3 years ago and wanted to have an adventure in his old age rather than sitting around at home. He only does long distance, and has driven the SMU civil rights group all four years.

During the ride I got a little reading done, and just relaxed. As we pulled into Dallas, Ray said a few closing words. Then Professor Simon and Professor Johnson spoke. Simon said that he has never had a group of students like the one on the trip- all so attentive and focused, and genuinely focused on the material. He said we had spoiled him for the last 8 days and that he didn’t know what he was going to do with his classes where only a third of the students are that way. I especially liked what Professor Johnson said: that this trip has been the best experience he has had during his 6 years at SMU.

I know that this trip has renewed my faith in the people of SMU. If there are people here like the ones that I have met on this trip, than this is a school I can be proud of. Interacting with my fellow travelers and with the truly amazing people that we have met along the way has renewed my faith in people in general. As much as I am off campus and as different as my life at home is from my life at SMU, I really do get stuck in the “bubble”. I read about things and forget what it means that the events really happened to someone. Someone real, that I can talk to and meet and even help. I forget that the world is wide and I live in all of it, not just this one small part.

This year’s trip was the fourth, and the last that is paid for by the grant that supports it. I believe that the Chaplain’s office is going to be searching for other means of funding in order to continue the trip. I have been thinking about writing an editorial in our school paper about this trip and what is has to offer. A school that struggles with diversity as SMU does should make sure to maintain these kinds of educational, active learning initiatives. Especially this one, since there are still (for a short while) survivors of the Movement alive and willing to speak to us.

After all, if Ole Miss, with all of it’s history, can have 14% of the student body be African-Americans, SMU can do better than 13% of any kind of minority (which is our current percentage).

I will have to see if I can find the right words to say.

(images: cherry blossom tree against the cloudy sky in Memphis, pansies in front of the capitol building in Montgomery)

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Spending and Studying

August 2, 2007

It’s Thursday, which means I only have one and a half days left here in Oxford. Tomorrow will be spent doing…well, a lot of stuff. We have our two final exams, each three hours long. We also have our convocation and “going-down” banquet, which I gather is a sort of mini graduation from the program. There is an hour for lunch in there somewhere, too. Unfortunately it looks like I will be using that hour to sell back my books at Blackwell’s. They only buy books back before 1pm.

I am really going to miss this place. Life seems to move more slowly here. And there are endless amounts of things to see in Oxford. You could shop all day if you wanted to- and I have never seen so many great sales in one place. You can read, sleep, or picnic on Christ Church Meadow on every sunny day. Or you can tour any of Oxford University’s 32 colleges, or one of the old churches around here. You an go punting on the river, rent a bike and ride a few miles into the English countryside, or climb to the top of the mot at Oxford Castle. And a short bus ride will take you to any number of great places: London, Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle, the Cotswolds, Klemscot Manor.

I don’t know. I feel very unprepared for the busy semester ahead. On one hand I feel very motivated. I had a great chat with Prof. Bonnie Wheeler (affectionately known as “Bon-bon”) and she gave me some good insight into grad school and what kinds of classes I should be taking. She also reminded me that these four years of college (now just two!) are one of the only times in my life that I will be able to focus entirely on me. I should be expanding my mind, figuring out who I am and what I want, and all of that rather gown-up sounding stuff. Good point, though.

On the other hand, I will be working in the mornings before class for the first time and I will be the ARA for an all first-year hall. Among other things. And, let’s face it, I like to sit around and do nothing.

I have to study King Arthur and the 18th century for tomorrow, so I’m going to go get started. I finally finished all my souvenir and gift shopping and am hoping to escape without spending any more money at all. That would be so amazing! Budget-wise this whole trip (with it’s little side-trips) has been a great learning experience. I created a really cool Excel document to keep track of my spending. Before I even left I budgeted out how much I would spend on food, the Paris trip, the France, Belgium trip, and other stuff.

One of the things I am most proud of is my Paris budget. Christina and I did a lot of research and made a lot of phone calls to figure out how to get good deals on everything. We got a great, cheap hostel and did a lot of research to find good deals on the Eurostar. We finally settled on buying a package deal from an STATravel agent. We agreed to set a $500 budget for the whole weekend, including spending money- and my total for the weekend was $499.80. CRAZY!

Right now the coffers are getting kind of low, so I need to be careful. But fortunately (and I recommend this), I kept some U.S. money and didn’t exchange it. That way I know that I will have money for the trip home whether or not my bank account is empty (not that I am expecting that…). And if I don’t spend it I can just redeposit it. The plus side is that whatever is in my bank account stays there once I leave Oxford…I don’t have to make any more withdrawals. Which is nice since it gives the illusion of not spending any money. It would be great if I could amend my budget with a plus sign once I get home!

One other thing- did you know that you can’t exchange coins?? It makes me so angry, especially since there are no one or two pound bills or one or two Euro bills- only coins. Right now I have about 8 Euros in coins that I can’t exchange anywhere. So, word of advice: before you leave for the States convert as many of your coins into bills as you possibly can. Or spend them! Just don’t let them sit around making you feel all bitter.

Knowing myself as I do, I knew it would be a huge mistake to pass up a chance to visit numerous war memorials and cemeteries. This is one) because I love graveyards, two) because I love history, and three) because I am endlessly fascinated with the First and Second World Wars. So this weekend was dead on as far as my interests go.

I won’t say much about the details of the trip, mostly because the pictures are rather self-explanatory. I did lots of detailed captions, so please read them. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience and one I wish could have been longer. With that said, it was a rough night trying to get 90 pages of reading done for 8:45am class after getting in at 1am from a 3 hour bus ride.

The Wednesday and Thursday in London were great, too. The best part by far was the National Gallery, home to more famous stuff than you can imagine. And (very importantly) home to the best gift shop I have ever been in. I got some pretty fantastic stuff. A couple friends and I also spent some time goofing off in Trafalgar Square, where the pigeons love people and the people love pigeons. So there are some great pictures of all of those things, as well.

Pictures (and captions!):

London (Wednesday and Thursday) and France/Belgium (Friday and Saturday)

France/Belgium (Sunday)

I took many more pictures but just don’t think that a huge online album is quite the best place to appreciate them. Thank God for my wonderful little camera, and for lifeguarding last summer, which, though sweaty and tiring work, earned me enough to buy it.

Oh, and I just picked up my pre-ordered British version of the latest Harry Potter. Adam, you still need to get the U.S. one, because this one doesn’t match!

Dusty the Porter

July 23, 2007

Just got in from France and Belgium for the weekend- what an amazing, educational trip. We went for the sole purpose of exploring WWI and WWII memorials, sites, and cemeteries. And boy, did we- we traveled an immense distance in just two and a half days. More on that to come. Boy, do I have a lot of blogging to catch up on! Now worries, tomorrow will be a lovely free afternoon. Plus, I probably won’t be doing any errands due to the immense amounts of flooding that happened here in Oxfordshire while we were gone.

Our trip was led not by one of our professors, as are all of our other activities, but by Dusty, the former head porter of University College. Porters are really important: they are in the lodge by the gate 24/7, answer all of your questions, sell stamps, report issues, guard the gate and are generally indispensable. Dusty, who is 66, became a night porter at Univ 12 years ago and eventually was promoted to Head Porter. He retired from that just this year.

I got a chance to talk to him while looking down at Omaha Beach from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (more on that amazing experience later). Apparently he became interested in WWI and WWII a few years after leaving the Royal Armed Forces. He set about doing some research on a great-uncle who had been a soldier and on his father, who died a few yards from where we spoke in the battles following the invasion on Normandy. He found out all about them and along the way became an expert on the wars- seriously, an expert. He was our guide and go-to answer guy for the whole weekend. He has done all of the research on his own through reading and visiting war sites.

One of the coolest things I learned is that he has taken his three weeks off each year for many years and traveled to different WWI and II sites around Europe. He never goes to the same one twice, except for when he leads this weekend trip for the SMU-in-Oxford program, which he has done for the last 12 years. How did this random guy, a porter no less, get asked by the professors to be completely in charge of a weekend trip?

One night during a summer soon after Dusty became a porter, Prof. Orlovsky was talking with him in the lodge and Dusty shared his plan to begin working on a book about all the students from Univ. who died in the two wars. One thing led to another and Orlovsky asked him to lead the first-ever SMU-in-Oxford trip to France and Belgium. The first year, 1995,  there were 8 students willing to go and according to Dusty it was quite an adventure, with several flat tires and one Pakistani student who was stopped at every border because of his bright green passport.

I had a chance to read a manuscript of Dusty’s book on the bus as we toured about. It’s at the printers now and will be out for sale in the fall. It’s great! The names of those Univ. men who died in the two wars are memorialized in huge plaques on the walls of the University chapel. Dusty basically went through the whole list and researched each man, his family, where he went to school, and his military history. He also found out how, when, and where each died. The coolest part of the book is that he went around to every British war memorial (which are all along the Western front), took a picture of it, and listed underneath the names of any Univ. men who are listed on that memorial. Fantastic.  He says that his second book will be “much more X-rated” because it will be about his own experiences, and that his third will be about his experiences at Univ. He was a porter when Clinton came around for a long visit with Hillary and Chelsea, so that will be included.

Despite my seasickness (lesson learned: Chunnel beats ferry every time), I had a chance to chat with Dusty on the ferry back to England tonight. Actually, I leaned over and asked, “So, what do you think of Gordon Brown?” Dusty (and his good friend, travel mate, and former Head Groundsman, Ian) are both Tories, and so hate any Labor party member. Too bad for them, I guess. I learned that Tories are for free enterprise while Labor is for state control. Wonder how accurate that analysis is from a Scottish nationalist (Ian) and an avowed Diana-hater and Royalist “through and through” (Dusty). Both also think that Bush is an “ass” and that he wouldn’t be nice to them if they met him. They met Clinton and thought he was very nice, so there you go. They both also hope the next President is a Democrat and made fun of Bush for his poor public speaking. It was nice to be among like-minded folk, let me tell you.

Interestingly enough, both favored Hillary for the next President because she “has backbone, that one”. Eh. Apologize for your vote for the Iraq war and maybe I’ll like you a little better. They weren’t too keen on that idea, though, saying that politicians should havea stiff upper lip and not apologize but just fix any mistake. Interesting notion of how politicians should act, you know?

What a cool guy, right? I mean, I got all of this from him (and Ian) just from asking. Goes to show you what you can learn. But it was just so curious that a former porter would be leading, teaching, and directing this entire (very complicated and minutely planned) operation. After 12 years of doing it, and after many more years of teaching himself about it, I have to say that there was no better man for the job. What an amazing story.

The Way This Works

July 9, 2007

As my mom will attest I spent a large part of the five weeks before arriving here bumming around in bed, in front of the TV, or in front of the computer watching endless episodes of high quality pirated television shows. My boredom made me irritable and, since I could not imagine that anything would ever be fun again, nervous about coming to Oxford. I should have saved myself the worry.

After spending a week here, I am really surprised at how well-run and well-established the program is. SMU-in-Oxford is twenty-something years old. The same professors have been running it the whole time, which means that they have all sorts of great “connegshuns”. Everything is thought of way ahead of time.

Monday through Thursday I wake up around 6:30 and get ready for the day. This includes packing a raincoat and umbrella even on the clearest of mornings. It had rained almost everyday here, though when it isn’t raining it is beautiful, crisp, and cool outside. What you wear is important because classes are indoors and there is no air conditioning anywhere in the college (and in the majority of stores and restaurants in Oxford). Layers are key.

Coffee is key, too, and it is served at both dinner and breakfast. There are many, many coffee shops in Oxford, with varying degrees of goodness. The coffee here is super strong- every drink is made with 2 shots of espresso no matter what. Oxford also has the oldest coffee shop in the world, Queen’s Lane Coffee. I went there yesterday for tea. I had “Cream Tea” which is basically the house tea with two intensely delicious and warm scones, butter, and jam. Oh man. Talk about melt in your mouth.

At 8:45, we all get up from breakfast in the Harry-Potter like dining hall (picture to come soon) and wander off in an attempt to find our classrooms. There are no straight hallways at Univ and all the separate “buildings” are connected by multiple doors and staircases. To get to my first class from the main quad I have to walk up no less than three flights of stairs and open six doors.

At 10, we all go to the common room for afternoon tea, an Oxford tradition. Everyone gathers around for thirty minutes or so and drinks more coffee or tea and eats lots of great “biscuits”. Avoid the “digestive biscuits”- I am not convinced they have any digestive value and they taste just like you’d expect something with such an appetizing name to taste. After tea we return to our first class. These classes are taught by SMU professors who came with us. They are super involved and committed.

Our Oxford tutorial is next. Mondays everyone in the class meets together in a 300 year old room and we can ask our tutor anything about England that we like. Everyone competes to think of the most intelligent question. Sometime I win. On Tuesdays, my small class meets. This is where a group of five students meets with the tutor to read their papers out loud and discuss the topic if the week. So we only have tutorial twice a week. But believe me, there is enough reading to last the whole week in between!

After tutorial time, lunch, again served in the Great Hall. Then we usually have the day to do with as we like. Some days we have something called “OxfordCORE”. This is one the day before we take a program trip. This past Friday we went to London, so on Thursday afternoon our professors each lectured about the sights we would be seeing. This is super valuable, and a very good idea. You never know what kind of tour guide you’ll get and most people don’t read all the plaques anyway. Plus our professors are geniuses and really know quite a lot.

Dinner is served on weekday nights, and afterwards once again we have the night to ourselves. For me this usually means checking email and reading, which I still am not on track with. Bedtime is usually around midnight. I am still constantly tired, but thankfully I usually don’t realize this until I am laying down. I take naps when I can…the walking, learning, and reading can really get to you!

The days are full and busy, but I wouldn’t want anything else- I have to see as much of this great place as I can!