Fall 1998
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TCU Magazine "Purpectives"

Learning, learning, learning

By Robyn Ross '99

Life sort of imitating art. Seniors Robyn Ross, right, and Lesley Hilton do a reverse version of American Gothic, with Lesley's mother's shadow adding extra, uh, poignancy.

My friend Lesley came up with a song that had one word and one note. Without the expertise of a voice major or even the knowledge of how to read music, I can tell you how it sounds on paper: "We... are. . . learning learning learning learning. . . " are the words. Pick any key, any octave, and start a couple of notes higher than you want the rest of the song to be.

Let the "We. . . are. . . " descend by increments of one or two notes at a time and then keep the "learning learning learning" at the same beautiful monotone. Sing as long as you want, ideally in direct proportion to the amount of learning you've done recently.

Lesley came up with this song as she and a group of classmates were walking from one room to another during a theatre course. It caught on for a little while with them but soon faded like most fads. Lesley and I, however, and an elite group of friends in the know, have kept the learning alive. It's become a movement.

I don't wish to repeat what admissions brochures may tell us about how as much learning takes place outside of class as inside it. Or about how social opportunities help us learn about other kinds of people or extracurricular activities help us learn skills that will help us in the real world. That's all true, in a cute, sort of sweatshirt way. But "learning learning learning" is something that I stumbled upon at the end of my junior year.

Each year of high school,for the few weeks preceding graduation, I passed a small, smooth book with a pink-flowered cover among my senior friends for them to sign. Someone wrote, "I'm sure college will hold many more opportunities for you than high school." Seeing it there, in clear black handwriting between the lines of my book, with an unblemished 12-year academic career under my belt, I felt empowered. Yes, I thought, I will step out into the world with clean shoes and tied shoelaces and face what it's got to offer. And tap into it and make it mine.

It didn't work out that way, not at first. My freshman year, and even parts of the next one, were consumed largely with the kind of superficial learning that is fascinating in the classroom but stays there. Real learning, I have found, is learning for the sake of finding things out on my own, outside of class, outside of Habitat for Humanity, outside of anything but simply those personal discoveries that get us excited about life. Learning as in, let's go to the library and read those assorted articles that were referenced in the textbook and that sounded interesting. Let's go to a different church and see what the people are like. Let's write a screenplay just because we can, and then host a reading of it on campus.

Lesley and I have had late-night meetings and discussions that lasted into the tiny hours of the morning. We talked about what we'd seen and heard that day with the reckless abandon of two kids going to the local fire station for the first time, or watching Mr. Rogers' visit to the Crayola factory. We could ask people questions; we could find out how things worked. Lesley and I started to make it a point to go to virtually every on-campus event we could, even if we'd never considered the Parabola mathematics organization intriguing before. Major on-campus speakers who previously might not have seemed as important were now unthinkable to miss. Obscure lectures sponsored by the English department were suddenly an opportunity to expand our perspective on famous writers or morality in public education. When the Women's Symposium began, we met at my apartment and outlined all the lectures we wanted to attend, and when we could trade the knowledge gained from each one.

TCU has provided for me a palette on which to mix and blot my burgeoning interests, but being so buoyant it was impossible to drag me down. College, like that high school classmate wrote, did hold infinitely more opportunities than high school; they just had to be tackled with a water-resistant mentality.

Trying to explain what happens when you realize the world really is opening up to you the way you'd always thought it would is hard. Maybe it's easier to enumerate the visible consequences. I want to be a teacher now, at various levels, at various colleges and high schools and nations. I want to join the Peace Corps or Teach for America or both. I have ideas and excitement to impart, and sometimes it's incredibly urgent. As Lesley said, calling me from her hometown over the summer, "I woke up last night and couldn't go back to sleep because I had to be a high school teacher right then. I had so many ideas, and they couldn't wait." Youthful and idealistic, maybe, but isn't that what we need more of?

I hope "learning learning learning" sticks around. Once you've seen how much the world has to offer, how even simple ideas mean so much, how much complex scholarship you yourself can write, how many people you need to talk to because every one will change your world and you will make a nick in all of theirs, I don't see how it can close down. It's like now that I've allowed myself to see this flood of interest and mystery in life, and I've got some people who will carry it along with me, there are fewer reasons to be unhappy. Expanding with the curiosity is an almost spiritual connection with the miracle of daily events. It's like reading life as fiction, a reality as exciting as art. We become so amazed at long books that tell the intricate story of a family saga, with all its twists and tangles and romantic subplots, that we don't recognize where they came from: the life outside. I can't capture all the details that are folded into each day's path of existence. I catch a few, to write about, to ponder, to discuss, and the rest have to wash away. Like a saying that held enormous power when Lesley and I analyzed it: "Take what you want (or can) and leave the rest." We don't have to be overcome by everything. We can sort through the important stuff and learn to marvel at the details.

In the fall Lesley and I are going to London for the semester, to explore and get lost on ships and find strange flowers in strange gardens and walk into intricate buildings with miraculous people. Going different places has such a question-quenching quality but at the same time opens up even more ways to thirst. It's like walking into a library and finding the answer in the very book you came to look it up in, and then glancing behind you to the rows and rows of looming shelves where much of the world is caught between pages, waiting to spring up at you in tiny characters dripping with meaning. It's a rush, of words, of emotions, of how young you are yet how old you are and how much there is to get done just because it's an adventure. I can't walk away from it, not anymore.

Robyn Ross is a journalism and English senior from Marble Falls. You may write to her at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.