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I had been at school all day-- a girls Catholic institution across town. At 3:00, I had traveled back to a job answering the switchboard at a neighborhood seminary. By the time I had arrived home, all I wanted was to eat the dinner my mother had left wrapped in the oven, and to study for my French exam. Then I heard my name, and I went up.
My mother who I always recall as lovely and put together, sat in the corner Queen Anne chair. The room was dimly lit; she was smoking a cigarette and holding the catalog.
"Are you sure about this school?"
I had just been accepted early decision to Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine. The conversation went like this. "I don't want you to be lonely. I don't want you to be left out. If you're going that far, I think Amherst would be better. That's where Harold went."
Harold was the high school boyfriend of my mother's only sister and one of the first African-Americans in the 20th century to integrate the northern liberal arts schools. He was brilliant and handsome. My mother would attend Howard University--then known as the "Black Harvard." Her sister would go to American University. And Harold would go to Amherst--far away, up north in Massachusetts.
But it was too late, logistically and emotionally. I was in love with Bowdoin. I had pictured myself studying in the library as the snow fell. And I had accepted the early contract to go. Christmas had yet to arrive, and I was done.
Nonetheless, my mother's fears were legitimate. I was a city girl. Bowdoin was in a small rural Maine town. They received snow from as early as October until as late as April. The school had a history of churning out successful male leaders but had only been coed for a few years. I would be one of roughly eight black students in a class of 335 to matriculate.
Years later, after I graduated with high honors, my mother would deny recollection of our conversation. I think she wished she had not expressed those doubts. But I would tell her--so adamantly now-- I am glad she did. Two vital things happened that year. I mustered the will to go away to a place where I and my family knew no one, and my mother mustered the courage to let me go.
Sometimes I wonder about gumption and chutzpah and temerity and courage --where "it" all comes from-- why it breaks free. I think about my son Phillip sitting in a conference room at NIH, barely 18, surrounded by physicians and specialists examining patient case studies. He is giddy to be there--never once thinking, "I don't belong."
Gumption. These are our sky diving moments. We all must take them. Close your eyes. Let go.