It’s rather hard to fathom that five days from now, I will receive Fresno State’s distinguished alumna award. How this happened, I’m not exactly sure, but then again, the university has been my North Star for as long as I can recall.
While these columns usually capture a brief, “a-ha” moment in time, today’s encapsulates a longer, lingering period – 46 years, to be exact.
Deluging my brain, a flurry of memories shows up this morning, some bold and fluorescent, others pastel and muted, a few of them psychedelic – reminiscent of the times. The year, after all, was 1969. I was a flower child – desperately eager to bloom.
… Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
Closing my eyes, there I am, much younger and standing dazed and glassy-eyed in Fresno State’s North Gym. Walk-through registration, as it was called in those days, feels crowded and daunting – although the giddiness of being on campus trumps any inconvenience and claustrophobia of the morning’s student stampede.
With paperback schedule of courses in hand, inching my way to the front of lines, I am about to learn that the classes I have painstakingly highlighted have all been taken. Not to worry, a voice of authority promises, pointing me to other, less crowded lines. Sometime in the distant future, I will learn that none of this matters in the grand scheme of things. There are countless paths leading to my destination.
And for now – any road will get me there.
By the end of the day, I am hot, sweaty, head throbbing from nonstop, high-decibel student voices reverberating off wooden floors. Swamp coolers switch on then off like well-planned sound effects choreographed to signal a finish to the day. In the end, it’s official: I am a student in good standing with 15 units scattered inconveniently throughout the week – some classes beginning as early as 7 a.m., others lasting till 10 p.m.
And so begins the exhaustive search to find place and purpose in my new universe – one where I will more than once change majors, sporadically fall in and out of love and master the art of adding, then dropping classes.
Like many Valley students, I am first in my family to attend college. One of three daughters born into a low-income, ethnic family, I know from the get-go I will be working my way through school, one semester at a time.
While more affluent friends rush sororities, I rush to class, to work, then back to class again – cashiering on the Fulton Mall, selling clothes at the new Weinstock’s, baby-sitting on weekends and pulling all-nighters to finish homework assignments.
Looking back – this is paradise, and the most perfect time ever of life.
By the end of year four, holding my diploma, the outside world awaits me. It’s time to walk onto the real stage of life. In a moment of sheer panic, realizing my friends and I are about to part ways, we vow to meet up again – somewhere in time.
As years pass, we do exactly that, finding each other at City Hall, in grocery aisles and PTA meetings, doctors’ offices, any place where the pulse of life breathes. We waste no time renewing bonds and reminiscing our allegiance to this place that holds our hearts: Fresno State. Invariably someone mentions the Student Union, new in those days, and the hours spent sharing dreams, coffee, lecture notes – our lives.
Three decades later, at the age of 55, I find myself back on campus – this time to study writing, revive a shattered spirit and reinvent myself. The feeling is one of coming home, of never having left. In the end, I will author two books: “Griefland” and “My Name is Armen.”
In recent interviews, I am asked how it feels to be recipient of the Top Dog award. Pausing at first, I confess my initial reaction of disbelief and utter surprise, as if I should be presenting an award to my professors and the university that never gave up on me.
Home alone, I Google the list of previous recipients, only to learn they are all movers and shakers, leaders and visionaries.
I am a storyteller. A memory-keeper.
Fresno State keeps sharpening my pencil. Replenishing my paper supply. Fueling my passion.
I’ve walked the campus forward and backward, from dawn till dusk, at all ages and stages of life. Little did I know in 1969 exactly how my future might unfold or that the path would continue leading me to the northeast corner of Cedar and Shaw.
Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) and a collection of essays, “My Name is Armen: A Life in Column Inches.” Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @ArmenBacon.