The year – 1996
The music – “Killing Me Softly”, The Fugees
There is a special place in hell for people that ask interview questions like, “If you were a vegetable, what would you be?” Broccoli…of course. “What was the last book you read and how did it affect you?” I plucked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” right out of thin air. Oh, I had read the book, but it was about five years earlier in high school. My appetite for books wasn’t quite as voracious in college as it is now. I can honestly say that 22 years later, interview questions (and quite possibly my answers) have not improved much. “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” I love this question. You and I both know that we will look an interviewer square in the eye, grinning like a two-bit hooker with an expression that says, “What do you want my strengths and weaknesses to be, lover.” And then we will make up whatever answer will land the job. I mean, come on. Nevertheless, at the prompting of my best friend, Katherine, I applied to be an Orientation Leader at the University of Tennessee and these questions were part of the interview.
I should mention here that Katherine, was always doing this. Always prompting, always encouraging. We bonded over being stressed out, first-year resident assistants, and were inseparable from that point forward. On the outside, we were complete opposites. Katherine was tall, blonde and overwhelmingly sparkly. I was short, brunette and mostly walked around in a state of perpetual confusion. To this day, when I find a piece of glitter on my face that won’t budge, I know it’s Katherine. She would pull me kicking and screaming out of my shell on more than one occasion. “Ann-uh! Come on!” When she would become particularly frustrated with me because I wanted to introvert in my dorm room, the vein in the middle of her forehead would pop out, but she would relent and suggest that we just dye our hair instead. One Halloween, she walked around campus in a gorilla costume…I did not.
Katherine and I would go through yet another lengthy interview process, and find ourselves on the next rung of student leadership. It was a great honor really to be an OL (orientation leader), and I was shocked that I had been chosen particularly because I was such a clueless incoming freshman myself. I completely missed my own orientation.
As all good student leadership experiences do, we started with an overnight retreat at the 4-H camp in Crossville, TN. The cabins were musty and the running water was only cold. Lifelines were drawn on giant sheets of butcher paper, icebreakers were taught and perfected (what torture for an introverted soul) and a comradery was formed. I remember lying all over one another on the stage of the dining hall facility at that camp listening to someone’s life story. There were 21 of us lying there. A pile of flesh, sleeping bags and smelly clothes. One sunny afternoon that weekend, a friend and I were walking down a dusty path lined with big, tall pines and he came out to me. Just like that. I was one of the trusted few that he felt safe with. What an intimate privilege. I’ll never forget it. I’m often dumbfounded by these gifts we are handed in otherwise unrelated experiences. As will become an emerging theme for me, relationships will always rise to the top like sweet cream.
The following spring semester would be a deep dive into the history and inner workings of the university. We were privileged to work with so many knowledgeable faculty and staff, and it may have been the start of my affinity for institutions of public higher education. We would learn it all in OL class, and we would be tested on it. When was the university founded? 1794. What is a land grant institution? Land dedicated to an institution as set forth by the Morrill Act. Oldest building on campus? South College. Keep ‘em coming. For me, it would carve out a little nook in my heart for UT. Not for the infamous game day experiences and hype of that nature, but for the institution itself.
My dad finished his studies at UT on the G.I. bill. He would describe days of parking his car on what is now Circle Park, to study for statistics exams. Ass-dragging because the two little ones (my two eldest sisters) at home, were up late the night before. It took every bit of money, stamina and courage my parents could muster to get him through college. He often shared the story of going in to thank his advisor for all the guidance, and to say goodbye. He had taken all the stat courses he wanted, and he was off to claim his destiny. His advisor insisted that, “No! That’s not how it works. The degree is the key.” Dad would stay on, defiantly skipping the graduation ceremony to the chagrin of my mother and have his diploma mailed to him. The institution served as a means of communication for us. To fill awkward silences, and when there was nothing else to talk about, we could talk about our college experiences. I digress.
During the summer of 1996, our troop clad in UT orange would set about orienting incoming freshman. We started the day with singing and dancing our asses off to “Rocky Top”. Really. I strutted uncomfortably around that stage like it was my job. We gave walking tours, bus tours, performed in skits and talked with wide-eyed parents. In the evening, we would sit on our bed with a push button phone and show kids how they would register for classes the next day. Push button phones, I say!
On the weekends, we drank. A lot as I recall. Some of us more than others. There were hook-ups and break-ups. One sultry summer night, all of us (save the one of us that would later go into ministry) exhausted from so many choruses of “Rocky Top” and full of cheap liquor, jumped the fence of an apartment complex just off of Highland Ave., stripped down to nothin’ and went skinny dippin’ in their pool. I’m sure the residents were impressed. It’s just the stuff life is made of. And it was good. I am still proud of being an orientation leader, and I would reference that job often during my first interviews post-college.