SANDRA BILLINGSLEY pushed the door to the classroom and stood, staring in awe.
“Hey, why’d you stop?” A heavyset boy crashed into her back.
“Sorry.” She jumped to the side and let him pass.
The lecture hall was laid out as an amphitheater, with at least thirty rows of seats. Down at the bottom, where she was standing, a table with a View-graph projector sat next to a lectern. A graduate assistant was calibrating the projection of a test slide on the screen above the stage behind the table and lectern.
She climbed up the inside wall to a row with free seats. She wasn’t late, but she still found herself almost in the back of the room. Now I see what the rush is to get to this class early. By the time the older student finished setting up the projection equipment, freshmen and a few sophomores filled the room. Although she had been one of the tallest girls in high school, she felt tensely aware of how much older and more assured everyone else seemed. She was relieved that her sixteenth birthday had passed last Sunday. No one here needed to know how young she felt today.
Sandra had looked ahead in the textbook for University Writing, one of the required general education courses. She saw nothing unfamiliar. The style sheet for academic writing was a little different from the Associated Press guidebook she had used at the Madison Messenger, the local newspaper in London, Ohio. However, the principles of research and exposition were the same.
The graduate assistant went to the lectern and began the lecture for the day. She was glad that she had read ahead, because when he left the microphone to change slides on the projector, he kept talking, so only the front rows could hear him. After about twenty minutes, many students had taken out magazines. A few had fallen asleep.
Not sure that she could get away with such brazen inattention, Sandra forced herself to follow the lecture. The graduate student seemed to be following the textbook closely, so she took no notes the first day.
By the third week, she had figured out which classes would require that she take notes, and which consisted of lectures that regurgitated the textbooks. The graduate assistant at that first class turned out to be a published author in his first teaching experience. After the third meeting, he paid more attention to his presentation and developed a sense of his audience. By the time wet leaves made walking to class a treacherous adventure, she found herself enjoying all her classes.
Sandra lived with the Menendez family, long-time friends and neighbours of the Billingsleys when Sandra’s father played with the Army Field Band. Selena was a junior in high school, and the same age as Sandra. They had been best friends until the Billingsleys moved to Ohio when Sandra was in middle school. Selena’s room included a bunk bed from the days when she and her older brother shared a room.
Music reigned in the Menendez family. Arturo and Maria were respectively the lead bassoonist and clarinettist in the National Symphony, and Selena seemed headed for great things with her violin. She played first violin for her high school orchestra, but also worked with a local chamber quartet that was gaining a following in the DC metropolitan area. At sixteen, she had already cut two records with the group.
Sandra played viola but remained in awe of how much her friend had grown as a musician. Still, the duets coming from Selena’s room in the evenings told the two grownups that neither girl was holding the other back. The violist in Selena’s quartet occasionally played with the Richmond Symphony. When she was out of town, the quartet invited Sandra to sit in for their rehearsals.
A light snow, the first of the winter, covered the ground as Sandra crossed the sidewalk from the bus stop to Union Station. She watched the winter wonderland deepen as the National Limited carried her to Columbus, Ohio, on her first Christmas vacation. After eating the sandwich that she had packed, she took out the Amanda Cross mystery she brought with her.
Somewhere in the dark night, she nodded off. She dreamed of chasing Kate Fansler through the Berkshires, waking up the next day an hour from Columbus.
Stepping onto the platform, she looked for her parents, but saw no one she knew.
She whirled to the right to see Bill Southern’s messy brown hair over the crowd.
“Hi, Bill, what are you doing here?”
“You sent me the academic schedule. I figured you’d be coming in today, so I told your folks I would pick you up on my way home.” Bill attended Ohio State University in Columbus. He had graduated from Lincoln High School with Sandra the spring before. “Your dad is coming for Marty tomorrow, so he was grateful for the help.”
He took her suitcase from her hand and pointed to the rusty pickup truck at the far end of the parking lot. “It works just fine, but I can’t afford the bodywork.”
“I know.” She pulled herself into the passenger’s side while he tossed her suitcase in the bed. “We were never stranded on our dates.”
The ride to the Billingsley farm flashed by as the two friends exchanged observations of their respective first semesters. They seemed to have the same list of required general courses before they could declare their majors. Bill planned to major in journalism, Sandra in Fine Art.
With a promise to go out the next day, Sandra jumped from the truck and pulled her suitcase from the truck bed. Bill sped off as her parents came to the porch. Sandra ran up the steps and hugged them both.
“Bill could have come in,” said Marcia.
“He’s running behind getting home. He’ll be here tomorrow.”
Her father took the suitcase and held the door. Sandra paused in the hall before taking off her shoes and coat.
“I’m glad I went away this semester, because it helped me understand how much I love this place.”
“Welcome home,” said Martin. He looked out the open door. “Here come James and Arnold. Be prepared to repeat everything tomorrow when Marty gets here.”
Sandra’s two younger brothers pounded up the steps and crashed into the house. Much hugging and slapping as they shed their coats and shoes.
It felt good to be home.
A week later, Sandra had a rare moment alone with her mother. They took mugs of hot coffee up to the studio, where they both enjoyed sitting among their paintings and looking out the large windows. Here Marcia, the art teacher at London High School, spent her few free hours each week. The walls and easels carried her work, but also a fair number of Sandra’s paintings, many of which were homework assignments. The young woman called them her “commissions.” It was a joke, but those paintings, along with her writing and sketching for the local newspaper, did win her a full scholarship to the George Washington University.
“I’m surprised that you haven’t been able to paint or draw since you left,” said Marcia, as they basked in the sunlight coming horizontally through the western window. “I guess I shouldn’t be, with all the foundation courses you need for a liberal arts degree.”
“That’s true. It’s also giving us a chance to observe what’s available before we have to declare a major.”
“Aren’t you going to take Fine Art?”
“Yes, but when I got there, I found out that they have three majors in the field: Fine Art, Art History, and both.”
“Sounds like one is art and the other is writing about it.”
“Not quite. The Art History still has a lot of hands-on painting, drawing, and even sculpture. But I think only the Fine Arts majors actually have to put on an exhibit; the Art History majors present theses and research.”
“Interesting.” She sipped her coffee. “Your friend Karen is doing very well, you know.”
“She loves your class best. I’m not surprised.”
“If she keeps excelling like this, I’ll recommend she apply for scholarships to some of the better programs.”
“Samara is hanging her pictures around the house along with hers.” Samara Majid, now Samara Monroe, was an acclaimed artist and formerly a professor at GWU.
Marcia glanced over Sandra’s head. “Look at that winter scene. It’s like another window in the wall on a day like this.” They stood to admire Sandra’s painting. “You didn’t do this one for class.”
“No, this was for me. What do you think?”
“Tell me about it.”
“It’s not a window, and that’s not our farm. But it was a day like this at the Marshall farm up the road.
“That’s Alice Marshall trudging home in the snow from the bus stop. I got this glimpse as the bus pulled away.”
“She seems broken, like she’s crying.”
“She was. Michael Anderson dumped her in a dramatic show at lunch that day. Called her a bunch of unkind things and waltzed out with that new girl from Louisiana on his arm. Louise Callafont.”
“I heard about that in the teacher’s lounge. It was pretty dramatic.”
“Yes. Alice was devastated. The teachers had to pull her out of the girl’s bathroom twice.”
Marcia peered closely then backed up. “Why are the footsteps in the snow like that? Her stride is lengthening. And are her hands clenched?”
“Yes. I’m glad you can see that. Her slump is coming up, but that’s harder to show in a snap moment like this. I was already imagining her rising from this. Alice was deeply in love – in thrall maybe – but she was no shrinking violet. After the shock wore off that night, she called me.
“When Michael the bozo gets over the flashy new girl, he’ll be sorry. Alice is her own girl.”
“Quite a story. It came true, you know.”
“By the time everyone came back from summer vacation, Louise was going with Zeke Armistead, who is captain of the basketball team now.”
While Sandra told her mother how the painting came to be, the sun set, leaving the room in darkness. Marcia turned on a table lamp.
“Sandra, sometimes, I think you like the stories better than the pictures.”
She walked downstairs to start supper.
Sandra felt a sudden emotion, but she was not sure what. Not hurt or even anything negative. An epiphany maybe. She stared at the painting for a while longer, then turned off the lamp and joined her mother in the kitchen.
The cherry blossoms bloomed in a more brilliant display than any in the memory of most Washingtonians, attracting a bumper crop of tourists. Sandra breathed in the fresh air as she crossed E Street and entered the Corcoran School of Art.
Inside, she climbed to the office of her assigned undergraduate advisor. Professor Andrews had gotten to know the “farm girl from Ohio” rather better than her other charges, but she never seemed to mind a visit or a meeting with Sandra.
For her part, Sandra was delighted to have the thirty-something artist and scholar as her adviser. Known for breaking glass ceilings, Maureen Andrews was one the youngest tenured professors and one of the few women at the school. GWU was ahead of the curve on diversifying its faculty, but serious change was still in the future.
When Sandra asked to load up her second semester, Professor Andrews had supported her, and fought the men who thought that it was too much work for a freshman. The precocious sixteen-year-old reminded Maureen of herself, though she did not admit it. Now, Sandra’s Grade Point Average was proving her right.
“Professor Andrews, thank you for seeing me.”
“It’s office hours anyway, but it’s always a pleasure to see you. What can I help you with today?”
“Is there any reason I can’t declare my major this semester?”
“No, not really. You will have all the required general courses completed by May. I sort of expected something like this. Fine Arts, right?”
“Well, that’s a maybe. I am asking because the brochure for the second year in Rome notes that applicants must have a declared and accepted major.”
“Ah, you want to go to the American Academy.”
“Well, that’s right. We have just enough time to get you in a major.”
“About the Fine Arts major. I have been studying the course descriptions for all three majors, and I think I would do better in Art History.”
“Fine Arts and Art History?”
“No. Just Art History.”
“With your skill you could do the double one.”
“Maybe, but as my mother noted last Christmas, I enjoy the stories behind the pictures more. That sounds like art history to me.”
“I agree. And the way you write, I think you’ll be very good at it.” She opened a drawer in her desk and removed a form. “Shall we start the application process now?”
Sandra forced down the bubbles that wanted to escape her stomach as she handed her boarding pass to the flight attendant. She figured that she looked as pale as Susan and Ann ahead of her. This was their first flight, too.
On the other hand, Mary looked totally calm. Her parents had taken her to England last summer as a high school graduation present. Under the nonchalance, she shared the intense excitement of the other girls, embarking on their first adventure abroad without their families.
The four rising sophomores had been assigned an apartment in Rome together near the American Academy. For two semesters, they would walk to the American Academy overlooking the city from the Janiculum Hill across the Tiber.
Sandra would have had her first argument with her mother if the rates for long-distance phone calls had allowed it. Instead, she had written to her parents, to the editor of the Madison Messenger, to Samara Monroe, and completed scholarship application forms to a dozen donors. As a result, she had gathered enough support to pay for her room and board, and the plane ticket one-way. She was prepared to take a ship to return or find a job to save up the fare. She had learned that she could stay another year if necessary, while keeping her undergraduate enrollment at GWU.
The four young women had taken the train from Washington to New York to catch the nonstop Pan American flight to Rome. The other three girls had talked almost incessantly about the dreamy Italian men they expected to meet. Being two years younger and not having dated anyone but Bill Southern, Sandra contributed little to that conversation…
Sandra read the flight safety card carefully and listened attentively to the instructions from the flight crew. The descriptions of the correct brace positions and what to do if the oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling did nothing to settle her anxiety.
A half hour later, they let themselves relax in the incessant noise after the aircraft settled out at altitude. Sandra spent the first hour staring with wonder at the brilliant tops of the puffy clouds and the intensity of the blue sky. She tried to read for a while, but after the inflight dinner (much better than she expected), she fell asleep. When the aircraft banked into a turn she started awake, a panic rising in her throat.
Looking out the window, she saw a vast, dark green plain extending to the white coastline. Glistening in the morning sun, the Eternal City glowed in golden hues, and the EUR World Exhibition shone with white marble buildings.
Sandra gasped and held her breath. All she had read and studied had not prepared for the pull she felt.
Instantly, hopelessly, and forever, Sandra Billingsley fell in love.
© 2022, JT Hine