The first day of higher education started for me with morning ablutions in my own private bathroom. I had one of the few single rooms on the dorm's fourth floor, and baths adjoined no other rooms. Mine came from luck of the draw, but you'd have insisted I had pull in the highest levels of the school's administration. I figured the other students would believe the same thing. The thought terrified me. They will razz me beyond anything I can take, I worried. Maybe they will rough me up.
On the drowsy trek to eight o'clock classes, I fell in behind a freshman football player named Marty who lived several doors down the hall from my room. He was muscular and mountainous, listed in the football program guide as six foot seven and 280 pounds. I could only look at him in awe. In the few days of orientation we already had spent on campus, it seemed that 50 percent of my all-male classmates wore letter sweaters to advertise they were athletes in high school. But here was the genuine article.
At 167 pounds, I had been able to play high school football, too. That was because the school I attended had a student body of 220. There were 17 students in our graduating class. The athletic teams needed every body they could get. Eight thousand students attended the university I now wanted to stick around for four years. On walks over the campus's lush green quads, I already had seen competition furrowed into every face. Most of it would morph from the athletic type to grade-point and social-clique types. But it was competition nonetheless, and I felt it with foreboding.
On this morning, football player Marty walked into the same Introduction to Philosophy class my printed class schedule directed me to do. He flopped, sprawling, into one of the classroom's small desks on the left side of the room, all but making it disappear. I found a seat that allowed me to hug the back wall. For the next hour, a slender middle-aged professor tried to immerse us into the origins of Greek philosophy. He kept harping on a particular saying that he claimed had been a springboard from religion to philosophy.
"The fox knows many things," goes the saying I would ponder for the next several weeks, "but the hedgehog one thing of great importance." As the professor recited it repeatedly with wide, knowing smiles, I noticed Marty incline his head back and roll his eyes. But another student, sitting up front, took keen interest and began holding forth on behalf of the fox. As the student spoke, he gesticulated vehemently and laughed with confidence. This guy, I ruminated in amazement, thinks he will outwit a professor who gives clear signals of being on the hedgehog's side. The professor allowed this to happen all too passively, I judged, wanting him to assert some authority.
Study sessions began in earnest that night on the dorm's fourth floor. The engineering students looked worried as they pored over their calculus assignments under bright table lamps. For now, the rest of us chalked it up to their being the most intellectual among us. The only residents who commanded more respect were the jocks we hoped would return us to the football reputation our university once had maintained.
In a room across the hall from my own, a small group had gathered to examine in awe a set of math homework problems. By ten o'clock the food cart was making its rounds, and everyone poured out to buy chocolate milk, sodas, and snacks. Footballer Marty and a smaller, 240-pound colleague of his appeared. They were laughing about holding, ten minutes earlier, "some egghead" over the stairwell at fourth-floor level to see if he would panic. Rumors had gone round that before school started, with football practice already in session, several players dangled someone out a fourth-floor window upside-down by his feet. Now everyone was yukking the stories up and slapping Marty and his friend on their backs.
Suddenly the conversation turned to my rare bathroom. One loudmouth shouted through a hillbilly guffaw, "How do you rate?" I felt my fears spike. Marty looked at me, recognizing me from class. With a conspiratorial smile, he said to me, "The fox knows many things. How does the rest of it go?" He signaled to his friend to follow him into my room. The two of them climbed onto my well-made bed, their combined 520 pounds jumping up and down until one corner of it smashed to the floor.
That night I slept on a broken-down, slanted bed. But it was the peaceful sleep of knowing that my bathroom had been atoned.