Bonnie Lee Black
School of General Studies 1979
Following is a passage from my book, Somewhere Child (New York: Viking Press, 1981) regarding my experience as a 30+-year-old School of General Studies scholarship student, majoring in writing, in the late 1970s. In this chapter of my book, which is a memoir dealing with my daughter's abduction, I write about myself in the third person:
She was granted a full scholarship at Columbia, so she quit her magazine job to complete her degree full time. She found a small apartment of her own near school and a part-time editorial position in publishing, which paid barely enough to cover rent and food, and she tailored her lifestyle to fit her new life as a student. Everything that could be cut from her budget was cut: entertainment, new clothes and shoes, cigarettes, Valium. In old clothes, without crutches, working and studying without sufficient sleep or play, she soon found herself crawling on her hands and knees through a narrow, deep, subaqueous tunnel with no light at the end.
It was in the midst of this depression, when her writing class was given the assignment, "Why I Write," that she wrote:
"I want to live a normal life, but find I can't. Someone shot me in the back of the soul and made me a cripple from here, down. The dead legs of my heart dangle from the wheelchair, lifeless—See? I can no longer dance or make love. Only the hands of my heart can move. They move along the smooth paper, dragging a pencil, leaving a trail of jagged marks that spell: I AM STILL HERE. . . . I only write to prove that I was there."
She loved Columbia the way she loved snow-capped mountains, star-flecked skies, crashing waves, and African sunsets: distantly and reverentially. She thrilled at the old buildings with their marble staircases worn down by countless students' shoes, the professors with their esoteric specialties and their messianic drive to share their knowledge, her earnest classmates discussing the protagonists of novels the way doctors might discuss their best cases. But in most of her classes, she felt ill-equipped and overawed, scrambling to keep up with the lectures, trying to take careful notes, straining to make sense of it all. Often, she felt as if she were an interloper, a gate-crasher at a highbrow cocktail party.
It was only in her writing classes that she felt she belonged. There, sitting in dimly lit classrooms at conference tables where they offered up their lives like sacraments on platters of white bond, she and her classmates were comrades, bound by the same neurotic need to write. And there she was a scientist performing experiments on herself, trying to find the true origin of her problem and the cure for her pain. Why had her life turned out this way? Where had she gone wrong? She probed and examined her past as if it were lying in a Petri dish, and then she reported her findings in the form of short stories.
Through her microscope she saw the little girl who ran away from home but got only as far as the swing in the woods; her friend Ruthie who left her for a far better place; her friend Lindy who moved away; her brother reading comic books in a bar waiting for their father to finish his last beer and take them all to the promised lake; herself at 17, the summer before her grandmother retired, the summer before her parents' 23-year marriage was finally dissolved. . . . She wrote about her life as if it were fiction.