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A Rite of Passage
The theme of the quest in which a young protagonist ventures out into the world to pursue his dream through myriad adventures dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Sometime in the 27th century BC The Epic of Gilgamesh appeared in an oral tradition and was eventually inscribed (in cuneiform) on clay tablets and is believed to be the alpha of this literary genre, a genre that eventually made its way to Phoenicia, Egypt, the Greeks Isles, Rome, and Europe to the West, and as far as the ancient Middle Kingdom to the Far East. Voluminous rich oral and written traditions focusing on this theme have been disseminated from one culture to another and from one generation to the other.
While graduating from high school is a May/June rite of passage for millions of young Americans, August and September are the months associated with yet another post high school coast to coast rite of passage for tens of thousands of college-bound freshmen. For the past 41 years I have witnessed this rite of passage first hand.
In his 1890 oil canvas under the title Breaking Home Ties, artist Thomas Hovenden depicts the following scene: a young man, perhaps 16 or 17, is in the center of the canvas whose setting is a late 19th century rural American living/dining room. The young man is being embraced by his mother. Clad in her apron, the mother appears to be signaling her last words of wisdom to her departing son. To the far left is a fireplace above which is a large mantelpiece with period ornaments. A young woman, perhaps an older sibling, is sitting disconsolately with her back to the fireplace; while her left hand (perhaps grasping a handkerchief to wipe her tears) is on her lap, her right hand is positioned lovingly at the base of the family dog’s head. Aware that something out of the ordinary is transpiring, the dog is attentively poised as though he’s ready to spring into action. In the background is a cupboard with one door widely ajar to perhaps signify that a family treasure is about to depart. To the right and sitting at the table is a frail old woman, no doubt the boy’s grandmother, whose stooping frame is an emphatic juxtaposition to the young lad’s pulsating vibrancy. Behind the old woman is an adolescent girl, no doubt the youngest child, waiting her turn to bid her brother tender adieus. Looking in from outside this cozy embryonic setting from which the young man is about to be ejected is a gentleman who appears to be a family friend or the stagecoach driver (he appears to be holding a horse whip). Even though his back is to the viewer, the father, carrying his son’s valise, is perhaps the most important annotation and affirmation that this young man will be cutting his apron strings for good and will soon be catapulted into the adult world on a groundbreaking venture, a sort of archetypal trailblazing quest that one hopes would spearhead him into adulthood.
While it is likely that Hovenden’s composition is a statement on the dissolution of small family farms due to the proliferation of the Industrial Revolution in America and the burgeoning urbanization which began in 1820 and increased in crescendo in the late 1800’s, Norman Rockwell’s painting under the same title and with similar overtones, depicts a young lad, a farm boy, heading off to college.
In a 1960 statement Rockwell is quoted as having said that his three sons’ attending college and/or joining the military had inspired him to paint Breaking Home Ties in 1953-54, an oil canvas that became the illustration for the September 25, 1954 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. “My three boys had gone away and I had an empty feeling. It took me a while to adjust without them. This poignancy was what I wanted to get across in the picture,” he stated. Commenting about the father, Rockwell stated that “… the father couldn’t show how he felt about the boy’s leaving. The dog did.”
While a comparative analysis of the aforementioned compositions’ settings, persona, use of light, color, line, space, and the resonance of the tonal, emotional and historic perspectives are worthy of perusal, my intent is to fast-forward to my 1965 departure from Beirut, Lebanon, to attend college in far-off Arkansas and to draw a parallel between what I’ve been witnessing over the past 41 years when, in 1973, I embarked on an avocation in which I challenge my college students with the following aphorism ( printed at the top of my syllabi): “Some students drink at the fountain of knowledge, others just gargle,” to which I add: “Yet others choke. Which type of student are you?”
For years now I have utilized Rockwell’s iconic Breaking Home Ties during the first week of my Freshman English composition and art appreciation classes. The discussions have focused on the role of and interplay amidst the strikingly rich differences between the animate and inanimate elements in the composition’s telescoping technique, including the father and son’s body language, their facial expressions, and a host of other features. Not only have the discussions served as ice breakers, but they have also contributed to animated discussions thus setting the stage for the first writing assignment the topic of which has been to compare their personal leaving-for-college-experiences to Rockwell’s young chap (an infinitely better topic than the worn out What I Did On My Summer Vacation theme). The framing of an abundance of visual elements in such a compacted space circumscribed by the barely-visible railroad tracks in the foreground, the trunk, lamp, and red bandana to the left, the ancient farm truck in the background, and the dog to the right renders this a forcefully-focused image in which past and future are juxtaposed in a father-son Kodak moment, a moment during which each persona knows that the umbilical cord is about to be permanently severed.
These discussions have meandered from one topic to the other and have included the following: How do the visuals help date the composition? Why did trains stop to pick up rural passengers? What time of the day/night is being depicted? Why the lamp and bandana? Is a ticket stub protruding from the suit pocket? What, if anything, do the hats represent (old vs. new; seasoned life experiences vs. youth and inexperience; rural values vs. urban values; educated vs. uneducated)? What about the dog’s demeanor as compared to the father’s blank gaze? Is there any significance to the fact that the father and son are staring in opposite directions (including the variance in their facial expressions)? The father and son’s hands are coarse and leathery; why? And, what will the son’s hands look like in a few short weeks? The lad is holding a delicately wrapped lunch box (with a pink ribbon) no doubt prepared by his loving mother. And finally, what about the father and son’s attires (worn out jeans and boots juxtaposed to an awkward-fitting Montgomery Ward or Sears suit, wing tip shoes and socks)?
With $300 in my pocket and all my worldly possessions packed into two suitcases and a carry on, 49 years ago this month I landed in New York City, spent a couple of days with a cousin, a week with my twin brother in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and on to Arkansas fo the longest bust trip in my life. After purchasing a $35 one-way bus ticket I had only $265 dollars left for books and spending money to last me for the entire year. Like many of my generation, a tuition scholarship and campus and off campus employment paid my living and personal expenses. And the dorm into which I moved, three to a room with one set of bunk beds (scarce closet space and a paucity of storage space) meant that learning to share tight quarters turned into learning the art of portioning and accommodation. Privacy in the small rooms and the communal bathroom (showers and toilets) was a rare commodity, for the latter had to be shared with scholar and non-scholar types, as well as rowdy baseball jocks. And the only phone, bolted to the wall, was frequently appropriated by a star pitcher who’d spend hours sweet talking a prospective paramour. The dorm’s front lobby was the communal living room in which scores of students congregated to watch the news and sports events on a small black and white screen. It was also the ideal venue to socialize and to cement life-long friendships. With a deepening involvement in Vietnam and annulled student deferments, students paid careful attention to Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Roger Mudd, and Walter Cronkites’ reporting on the unfolding carnage in Vietnam, the place where, we were repeatedly lied to, “was the place to stop communism before it came to our shores.” And the same old lies have been recycled, over and over again, with newly conjured monsters for enemies. Armed with nickels, dimes and quarters, the lobby phone booth served as the link to family and loved ones, an expensive luxury exercised only on rare occasions.
For supplemental income there were always glass Coke bottles redeemed for cash, there were lawns to be mowed, hamburgers to be flipped, pizza and fried chicken to be cooked and served at local fast food stores to hungry patrons from every walk of life. There was a summer job at a Ft. Worth boys’ camp and a 21-day float down the Brazos River; another job was selling a three-volume set of Bible commentaries in Charlotte, NC, a door-to-door sales job I quit in a couple of weeks only because I could not live with the thought that I was peddling spiritual promises for material gain to folks who were seduced by my scripted and dramatic sales pitches. The job at a Charlotte tire recapping company (in which temps went up to 130 degrees) taught me perseverance and patience and tested my physical endurance. While Jobs at a local saw mill and a boat factory during the school year were decent paying jobs, that took their toll on my energy, hence adversely affecting my grade point average. And the worst of these jobs was treating electric poles with creosote on back roads and bogs infested with ticks, mosquitoes, copperheads and water moccasins. And, after mastering a better than average barber’s skills, there were was a whole platoon of colleagues signing up for haircuts, especially on Monday and Wednesday nights, so as to be ready for the following day’s ROTC formation inspections. The best job of all was a three-week stint as a model for a boat factory promo brochure; the pay and benefits were great – I mean how many do people get paid for sitting in motor boats or canoes showing off with bikini-clad bodacious co-ed babes skimming the water at varied speeds? And in my senior year I would buy my first car, a high mileage 1961 two-tone white and green Chevrolet Impala (283 8-cylinder engine with a three on the tree stick transmission) whose front seat rocked back and forth because of a malfunctioning spring. At 18 and 20 cents per gallon of gasoline, the $150 invested in this jalopy plus hard work and perseverance helped set me up for the next phase of my life; marriage and graduate school.
A kaleidoscope of historic social and political changes and upheavals served as the backdrop for a life-long education beyond the secure and serene confines of our college campus. A deeper and wider involvement in Vietnam; the Watts, Los Angeles, six days of rioting, death and carnage; the Kent State shootings; anti-war demonstrations; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; campus sit-ins; the Civil Rights protests; the women’s movement as articulated by Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan’s voices; the Beatles; the counter culture with its draft-card burnings powered by peace signs and flower decals; Woodstock; and, with the landmark publication of Rachel Carson’s The World Around Us, a new awareness about the delicate balance between man and his environment emerged.
Which brings me to the following: today’s college students arrive on campus in a caravan of parent-driven monstrous SUVs and extended-cabin pick-up lorries loaded with “stuff.” They move into fancy condominium-style wall-to-wall carpeted bedrooms that flank spacious kitchenetted living areas . A whole morning or afternoon might be spent hauling refrigerators, super-sized flat screen tellies, an arsenal of electronic gadgetry (including — for sure — X-boxes), reclining chairs, fancy bed coverings with matching drapes, suitcases-full of attire in every color and style, including an assortment of shoes for every occasion and non-occasion, and sufficient worldly goods befitting a luxurious lifestyle such as no generation had previously fancied. Mothers and fathers accompany their children into dorm rooms and spend hours helping set things up for their progeny. Agonizing over their children’s breakaway from home some heretofore Soccer-Mom-empty- nesters might very well turn into helicopter moms. This is, after all, the American way. Parents seem to always want their children to have more than they did, such as brand new cars, credit and debit cards, plenty of cash on demand, and 24/7 phone, text, and Facebook communication detailing every moment of every hour, of every day, of every month — of the year.
And for social and political backdrops these young people live, for the most part, in an insular world removed from some very serious issues facing this nation. These include a stalemated impasse on resolving illegal immigration; an anemic economy; climate change; political corruption, especially at the national level; social unrest such as Ferguson, Missouri (not unlike the Watts riots); wars that are raging, unabated, in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe; droning entire families out of existence and justifying these attacks as an aberrant example of American exceptionalism; Big Brother’s monitoring our every move; militarized police forces; a polarized nation (and world) where ideology trumps good judgment and harmony; and a world in which corporations are bailed out for the sin of transgressing against the weak and are rewarded by having the Supremes declare them to be individuals, just like the rest of us common folk.
Each generation has met the challenges thrown at them by the inevitable and unforeseen forces. And, while I have faith this new generation will meet the challenges it will have to face by discovering new and hopefully better paradigms, I am certainly glad that my send-off into the real world occurred in August of 1965, 49 years ago to the day, the month, and the year.
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a peace activist, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org