Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, February 3, 2017

Alone in the world

I arrived at Roanoke in late August 1970. With all my possessions from Trinidad in two suitcases, I reached my room in one of the smaller but more modern dorms. I entered a spacious room in which the only clear space was one of the two single beds, one desk and one of the large built-in closets. It was easy to see what I was expected to inhabit. My roommate was a big girl, filling the room with luggage and expansive gestures, from Pennsylvania. I made myself small and slept, empty of longing or hope or dreams. It was the start of a week, a month, a year, in which everything was new; in which I felt just born in an alien place and culture. Even the classes seemed to be delivered in a strange language, spoken in a way that I had to get my tongue around. Only time was constant, an hour still an hour, day day and night night.

I came to Hollins College, a liberal arts university in the mountains of Virginia, by scholarship from the Dean of the College, JP Wheeler, who had spent a year in Trinidad. Hollins College had admitted its first Afro-American student in 1960, and the process was slow and painful. Political scientist that he was,  he devised a plan that would bring Trinidadians and Caribbeans to show, rather than tell, how multi-ethnic tolerance works.

Jake (John Perry) Wheeler had come to Trinidad in 1965, on a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. He and his wife Trudy brought the whole family: Dan who later would tease the Trini girls with his pseudo-Trini accent, Cricket, Amy, Josh and Zach. Born and raised in the American South (Georgia) and a career professor at Hollins College in Virginia, Jake was impressed by the multi-ethnic harmony he found in the east-west corridor of Trinidad.

1970: Trini students at Hollins (l to r) Denise Cobham, Anne de Pass, Pat Wong Chong, Elizabeth Superville, Cheryl Deyalsingh

The Trinidadian students were enrolled from 1969, following Dean Wheeler's careful search and acceptance of "A" level graduates. When I arrived at Hollins in 1970, his Trini programme was in full flow: Denise Cobham with her Afro from BAHS; Cheryl Deyalsingh from SAGHS; Elizabeth Superville from St Joseph's Convent; together with Jamaicans, Afro-Chinese Jeanie, and Marcia; Mildred from Curacao; and girls from Iran, Hong Kong, Hawaii and Japan. In almost the same period, the college had gone from "dressing for meals" - tall socks and loafers, preppy box-pleated skirts and smart shirts - to college casual. Jeans were in, and it was more convenient to go from classroom to dining hall without a dress code.

I left Trinidad still under curfew from the 1970 Black Power disturbances. The first half of that year building up to the turmoil of bus strikes and "people power" marches abruptly truncated by the State of Emergency and a dusk to dawn curfew. When I left Trinidad at the end of August, the curfew was barely shortened; everyone had to be indoors by 9 pm.

The Hollins campus is nestled in a bowl in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The chapel, administration buildings, older dorms and traditional department offices surrounded a quadrangle. A few buildings straggled further up the hill:  barns and stables; the residences of a few members of staff; Rathaus a liming spot. Others meandered towards the I95 highway: the infirmary and brand new Babcock Auditorium, arts and science centre. Across the highway, the seniors' housing.  Ten or 15 minutes walk away were the 7/11, Kroger's grocery and Howard Johnson motel. It may have taken many moons to explore the entire domain of Hollins: from the cemetery that was the focus on Founders Day; to the quiet stream with bulrushes that was Tinker Creek; to the city of Roanoke.That first term, there was only the idea of spaces, roads and greenery, cold and wet. People passed. I stuck with a crowd of internationals, including the amazing Japanese dancer Haruki Fujimoto (who left Japan after the war with Shirley MacLaine), and lived in the moment.
Tinker Day assembly on the quad: it felt like Jouvay!
View of the world from Tinker Mountain

So many new experiences; some remembered because of books and papers, many more memorised by sound or smell, the tingle on my skin from fresh falling snow, feelings in the gut from unarticulated responses to what passed for normal in America. Adrift in an unknown sea, I gravitated towards dance, film, literature, feeling the security of math and science loosening. On Tinker Day (an autumn holiday declared in October) the whole school climbed to the top of Tinker Mountain, where a feast was laid out. At Thanksgiving, foreign students were taken to the old town of Williamsburg for re-enactments of early American life. On the way back, the VW that I travelled in skidded off the road to avoid collision with a camper-trailer. I emerged with an egg on my forehead that bled internally to my eyes for weeks after. That Christmas, I ventured alone by train from Roanoke to Cincinnati to meet an uncle who lived in Dayton.

The feelings of being in a strange new world only deepened the longer I spent abroad. Telephone calls were rare: I don't think I even called home about the accident, not wanting to alarm them. Letters yes, but those took up to two weeks to go or come. For the first time in my life, I was alone in the world.

It snowed from November through April in the mountains of Virginia!
Denise and I were BAHS alumnae

Cheryl and I on Tinker Mountain

Jeanie Chin (Jamaica), Lynette Sasaki (Hawaii) and Elizabeth Superville (TT)

Donia Scott (Jamaica)

Kim Williams, Anne de Pass and the "bright twins"