Smile

I get excited at the thought of school and then the cold hard reality of what school means sets in: sitting in small seats in stuffy rooms, taking tests, writing papers, financial paperwork, and the other assorted sundry less positive aspects of academia. Such as grades. Especially grades.

Of course, this must be balanced against interesting discussions on fascinating topics with bright people, professors who inspire and challenge, and the encouragement, nay expectation, to explore the boundaries of one’s capability.

However, not all schools are the same, and if I were living in the Pacific Northwest again, there would be no difficulty in knowing where I would go to school — Evergreen State College. This college was recently listed among the 100 hidden college gems by Jay Mathews at the Washington Post, who wrote:

In keeping with the individualistic traditions of the Pacific Northwest, the 4,000 undergraduates are required to create their own course of study on this lovely campus. Dorothy Hay, a counselor at Liberty High School in Issaquah, near Seattle, said Evergreen State is famous for its refusal to give standard grade.

Years ago when I finished my first two years at the community college, I applied to and was accepted at Central Washington University, the University of Washington, and Evergreen. CWU was close to family, UW was big and had prestige, and then there was Evergreen — Washington’s experimental college.

With Evergreen, rather than sign up for courses, you sign up for a program. The programs for an undergraduate degree associated with writing might include ones as diverse as “Baseball: More than a Game” and “Image Conscious: The Emergence of Self in Early Modern Europe from Shakespeare to the Enlightment”. For instance, after taking a simple online survey, (try it for yourself), I was presented with several possible programs that most likely would be of interest to me, including:

Labyrinths
The Folk: Power of an Image
Nature, Nurture, Nonsense
Our Place in Nature
Perception
Recognition: The Politics of Human Exchange
Light

To give you an idea of what a program is like, the description for Light is:

This program is a two-quarter interdisciplinary study of light. We will explore light in art, art history, science and mythology. All students will work in the art studio and study how artists have thought about and expressed light in their work. They will also explore the interaction of light with matter in the classroom as well as in the laboratory, and explore the physiology of light in the human body. This integrated program is designed for students who are willing to explore both art and science.

Our weekly schedule will include studio and science labs, specific skill workshops, lectures and seminars.

During winter, we will focus on skill building in art and lab science and on library research methods. During spring, each student will have the opportunity to design an interdisciplinary individual or group project exploring a topic related to the theme of light.

A typical week for a student will consist equally between traditional lecture, hands on lab experience, group efforts, individual research and effort, and off-campus work at other colleges and businesses or out in the field. Classes are just as likely to be held in the forest or a coffee shop, as they are within a regular, traditional classroom.

Instead of following a preset academic plan, you must work with counselors to create your own. Students are expected to take responsibility in developing their course of study, and to actively participate in all of their programs. No passive sitting in the back of the class. No once a week meeting with a disinterested counselor where you show a bit of work.

Rather than a grade system, you’re evaluated according to the standards established at the beginning of the program, and this evaluation could come from members of the community as much as teachers and fellow students. There is no ‘grading on the curve’, and no advantage to the quick reader at Evergreen. If anything, you’re judged against your own expectations and efforts.

Of course, years ago, I was heady from obtaining High Honors in my two years at the community college and the thought of attending a university without a system that awarded academic excellence gave me pause. I wanted my Dean’s List. I wanted my magna cum laude. I liked the idea of competing with my other classmates for that thin line at the end of the bell curve. I was shallow. I was typical.

Still, I visited the campus before making my decision. I was married at the time, and since my husband had a job in a library in Yakima, the plan was that I would live in a dorm while attending college, coming home on weekends and holidays. Based on this, the school assigned me a student as a guide to dorm living when I came for my walk through.

The guide was a nice young woman who was serenely friendly, helpful, and informative. The afternoon in her company was very pleasant except for one thing: she had this Mona Lisa smile planted on her face the entire time she showed me around. It didn’t waver, for a moment; not to full toothy smile, or to no smile at all.

The campus did allow some caged pets such as fish, reptiles, and birds. I asked her if this would include my snake*. Oh yes, she said. Snakes were allowed.

“It’s a rather large snake”, I said.

Not a problem, as long as I didn’t let it loose in the rest of the dorm, I could have a snake as big as I wanted.

“Really? I mean my snake is a boa constrictor, and stretches at least six feet long”, I mentioned, my eyes glued to her face, waiting and watching for the least break in her composure.

Sure. As long as its cage could fit into my room, the school didn’t care.

“I have to feed it weekly.”

Smile.

“It only eats live food.”

Smile.

“I feed it small bunny rabbits and large rats.”

Smile.

Ultimately I retired, defeated. In the end I’m not sure if it was the lack of a traditional academic environment, or that guide’s smile that made me decide to attend CWU instead of Evergreen.

*In the interest of open disclosure, I did not have a snake. However, I once had an iguana named Horatio (after the Horatio Hornblower series), and a chameleon named Godzilla.

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