The Alma Mater

Alma Mater is Latin for ‘kind mother’ and is often used in reference to the school or institute of higher learning that one has attended or graduated from. How does an education experience compare to a kind mother? Mother’s Day is around the corner, and since conscious learning is a large part of the author’s daily regimen, confluence of these two topics was perhaps a natural transpiration. Mothers need no introduction; everybody has one and knows what they are, yet no one can define them. Attempting definition would render this article boring and worthless to anybody but the writer. The purpose of this discourse is to contrast and compare—not substitute, Mother with Alma Mater.

As a child of alma mater the writer has been treated with nothing but highest regard by her since the first day. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible with enough administrative efforts and skilled personnel to closely replicate the home experience. The first real face a child of alma mater sees is the one shown by the Resident Assistant helping to move into a freshly painted dorm room in August. For many children, the RA is the first personal contact upon arrival—having made all preliminary arrangements by telephone and email. The RA’s formal written job description includes such things as communicating with the children of alma mater about their interests, background, goals, and academic progress, in addition to being available anytime for personal sharing and conflict resolution. RA’s are trained to dissolve roommate disputes and spot signs of depression and anxiety so common in first-year children of alma mater. It is the RA who will always stop and say hi and wave in passing.

The roommate is a sibling factor to be reckoned with. In small dorm quarters, there is little room for resentment. Various tactics for dealing with sibling differences exist, and opinions differ on whether a pacifist or aggressive stance is better to resolve conflicts. There is the trade-off approach: one will keep his or her shelf of the fridge cleaned up if the other does—shared salsa expects shared Oreos; the out-doing method: if one’s half of the room is messy, the other’s will be even messier to prove a point; and the trooper style: when one leaves dirty dishes in the sink, the other washes them. There are perhaps as many tactics as personalities—and sadly no one-way-fits-all approach to sibling harmony exists.

Another face is that of the assigned mentor. Mentors possess various skills, one of which is a computer system that allows them to relate on a first-name basis with dozens of new students and their diverse and complex backgrounds. Mentors are psychological wizards who always seem to know all the answers and—perhaps most importantly, are superb listeners. They are there to answer the late night email or channel a problem to the proper department within the for-profit conglomeration that is the alma mater. A mentor deals with emotional needs—an advisor manages academic progress. Each new child of alma mater is also assigned an advisor for the duration. Advisors quickly become invaluable as questions arise concerning the child’s field of study or academic difficulties. It is advisors that know the classes and ease the decision of choosing the right class out of the thousands available.

After adjustments have been made and the child’s new life is beginning to look somewhat manageable, they are sent out to professors to learn the bad and the good of the outside world. The professors do their best to teach and entertain them during 50 minute periods throughout the week. They are friendly and stern at the same time; but at the end of the day, grades and performance are what counts more than friendship. Even if a professor does not know a child by name, somehow they can sense whether the child is a slacker who only attends on exam days, or is one who is genuinely interested in the material being presented. By visiting the professor during his or her office hours a child gains a significant advantage in being able to better identify course objectives and understand directives when sitting alone in front of the now less-imposing lecturer. These authorities do not like B’s; only A’s or C’s will do. From early on it is essential that a child make the choice for success in alma mater’s house.

Healthy children must play. Alma mater provides plenty of options, from swimming and basketball, softball and paintball, painting and anime, biking and camping, cooking and sewing. There is the rec center, a toybox full of stuff like a running track, racquetball courts, weight room, and climbing wall. And the neighbor kids are always looking for help in a pick-me-up volleyball game. Some kids are poor sports, some winey, some experts, some newbies; these games are always open to all. The shy kids play hardest in midnight Frisbee games.

Food is never a problem, except when mother goes to visit the grandparents; suddenly there is nothing to eat even though the fridge is stuffed full of food. Dad and the children mope about the kitchen, pulling out celery and peanut butter, rummaging through the pantry, failing to find sustenance. So also when alma mater declares Spring Break; even starvation seems likely, life is uncomfortable—where will the next meal come from? The cafeteria meals, the in-between bagels and tacos, the coffee and mochas for when homework must be done—all these things are no more when alma mater deserts her children. The children happily anticipate the return of alma mater and welcome her back with cheerful words and bright faces.

And so life goes on. There comes a certain stability to the child’s life. Fear of failure, misgivings about the future—these all dissolve when alma mater is kind to her children. In turn, the children look up to her and give her their highest respect, even though they know she is at heart a lifeless profit machine.

There is a happy ending. When the children are grown up and feeble, they will remember those happy times spent around the grill eating s’mores on quiet fall evenings. News of alma mater’s football team will light up their faces as they recall the endless enthusiasm of youth and tailgate socializing at a time when they themselves are too frail to walk across a football field. There will be the homecoming visits, when the now grown up kids marvel at the current children of alma mater and attend a football game and buy things in the bookstore. They will wander among the now old and worn-out buildings and happily reminisce about unremarkable things that transpired within the halls. They will recall the childish faces of the homecoming king and queen, and forget that these children are now as old and feeble as themselves, instead remembering them riding triumphantly in the parade down Main Street—faces aglow with joy and youth. While reading newspapers, they will see the smiling young faces of children of alma mater receiving awards and scholarships and their eyes will get misty and they will reach for their checkbooks to gift the present-day children of alma mater.