Reflections on the road to
Thirteen years, one class at a time, but
who was counting?
Photo by Chris Myers
employee Rebecca Arrington (right) and her daughter,
walk the Lawn together May 16, both receiving their
By Rebecca Pace Arrington
in class, listening to my professor’s live rendition of a Charlie
Parker tune, I tapped my foot and marveled at the mastery of his performance.
Then I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows next to my desk in Old Cabell
and beheld the Lawn. I closed my eyes. It seemed like a dream. When the music
stopped, I returned my attention to the front of the room. My professor had
finished his daily musical intro to our “History of Jazz” course
and was beginning his lecture. I really was there.
From a young age, I wanted to go to college. When I was 12, I wanted to
be a veterinarian. At 15, it was a brain surgeon. (Actually, that was
idea. She said I had a deft touch with a scalpel.) And by 16, I was certain a
business degree was in my future — from a college near a beach. I would
be a corporate executive and live in a grand house. But somewhere between dissecting
rabbits, visions of soaking up knowledge and sun, and making millions, life happened.
I graduated from high school in 1978. A year later, I was married. A year
after that, I had a son, and two years after that, a daughter. It was 1982.
21. The economy, as well as my marriage, was in a recession. I got laid
a local manufacturing plant. To qualify for unemployment, I had to apply
for three jobs a week. I preferred being at home with my children. “Apply at
U.Va.,” I was told. “They never call back.” My daughter was
three months old when I started working here.
It was through my career at U.Va., and my children, Mark and Jennifer,
entering elementary school in the late 1980s, that my desire to attend
rekindled. I wanted to instill in them the importance of education, and
I wanted to achieve
for myself a long-held personal goal.
With the support of my parents, who provided evening childcare, and my
department, the Office of University Relations, I was able to take advantage
of the educational
benefits offered to U.Va. employees. I enrolled at Piedmont Virginia
Community College in 1988, and from then on Mark, Jen and I did our
at the kitchen table. Along with math, reading, science and spelling,
Mark and Jen
were exposed to what I — now a single parent — was learning: Spanish,
government, accounting, women’s studies. They may have been the only first-
and third-graders in their school to know about Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and
feminist pioneers Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth.
I transferred to U.Va. in the early 1990s as a part-time student in the
College of Arts & Sciences. Being accepted to the No. 1 public university in the
country was a dream come true. The first course I took was Alison Booth’s “Austen,
Eliot and Woolf.” It cemented my decision to major in English. I wouldn’t
Katherine Maus’ phenomenal lectures on Shakespeare would follow, as would
many others, including Sydney Blair’s “Expatriates in Paris: Hemingway,
Fitzgerald and Stein.” During one of her classes, professor emeritus and
state Poet Laureate George Garrett dropped in to lecture. There I was again,
sitting in class, pinching myself in awe of the company.
This same feeling washed over me every time I walked through the
corridors of Bryan Hall, home of the English department. The names
on the office
a Who’s Who of the literary world — Rita Dove, Charles Wright, Ann
Beattie, Stephen Cushman and Lisa Russ Spaar, to name a few.
It was in several other courses with Blair and Spaar, director
Creative Writing Program, that I experimented with fiction and poetry and discovered
a new love — the short story. But English courses weren’t all that
I took. Electives included “Music in Film” and “Elvis: A History
of Rock’n’Roll,” both taught by Stephan Prock, an animated
lecturer and gifted composer; the aforementioned “History of Jazz,” taught
by a talented teaching assistant and jazz artist, Jeff Decker; and the thought-provoking “21st
Century: War, Justice and Human Rights,” team-taught by politics professor
Michael Smith and religious studies professor James Childress.
I took the latter course at the urging of my daughter, also a
fourth-year student here. “You have to take Professor Childress before you graduate,” she
said of her adviser and mentor. So I did, along with an independent study with
Spaar on poetry and publishing.
Childress is an excellent professor, as is his colleague Smith.
The material for their course, however, was very disturbing.
articles that chronicled man’s inhumanity to man; grappled with moral and ethical
dilemmas and rationales, such as just-war criteria; and gave philosophers’ and
political framers’ views on how societies should be structured. My independent
study with Spaar was a much-needed antidote to the bleakness of the 21st Century
With Spaar’s guidance, I refined a children’s story I’d written
about palindromes and the importance of living by the Golden Rule, and explored
a number of publishing options for it. (I’m still getting very nice, hand-written
Being a nontraditional-age student, I didn’t share the normal undergraduate
experiences, such as pulling all-nighters at the library, 2 a.m. pizza runs,
or streaking the Lawn. But I did get to know my fellow students through the courses
I took, especially when group projects were required. For example, I’d
find myself in an apartment on JPA on a Sunday night, discussing ideas for set
designs and film shorts that we had to create for drama professor Thomas Bloom’s
course on digital design.
I even experienced Spring Break last March. My daughter
and I took a road trip to Ft. Lauderdale, cruised to
under palm trees. It was the first time either of us
had been so far from home.
Helping to guide me over the years with my academic endeavors
has been my adviser, English professor Stephen Arata.
Though I never
of his courses,
I did have the opportunity to write about his experiences
as a Fulbright Scholar in India several years ago through
work in the
Running parallel to my formal classroom education has
always been the informal education I receive on the
she was at my
office one day. Standing next to the drafting table,
admiring the scissors, tape,
Exacto knives and markers (used to layout Inside
UVA before the days of desktop publishing),
she said, “Mommy, you have the best job. You get to cut and paste and color.” She
was right, but not exactly for those reasons. Where else but at a university
can one hear Nobel Peace laureates speak; witness visits by world leaders, among
them thus far during my tenure three U.S. presidents — Carter, Reagan,
and the senior Bush, who hosted the historic Education Summit; and everyday have
entrée to meetings, classes and impromptu gatherings where knowledge is
shared, giving back to one’s community is practiced, and story ideas are
As I make my way down the Lawn May 16, I’m sure many more thoughts and
memories will fill my mind — music and weighty conversations drifting out
of Lawn rooms, dogs catching Frisbees, Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama sharing
a light moment, Groundskeepers mulching and discussing their stock options,
fog lifting on my way to early morning classes. But when I’m in the moment,
I will know that among the thousands of friends and family members gathered to
watch their loved ones complete this milestone will be my mother, brother and
son, the first in my family to graduate from college. My father, who passed away
in November, will be there in spirit. And walking beside me will be my daughter.