Alma Mater

Husky Stadium

While I was home, I took a walk from the University of Washington health sciences center to the Museum of History and Industry, over the floating walkway to Foster Island, and into the Arboretum. Then I came back and followed the cut to the western end of campus and walked into the University District in search of food. Almost every place I’d visited regularly as a college student is vanished now.

I didn’t go to graduate school – I only went to the UW for undergraduate work – so I guess it is the upper campus that is my alma mater. Walking from the District through campus and down, though, was just transportation. I dimly recognized the buildings I’d actually had classes in, but except for a nod in the direction of the Burke Museum (no relation, and which I did not visit on this trip) I didn’t feel any strong pull as I walked past the quad through Red Square until I got to the Rainier Vista. This is the part of campus that marks the shift from humanities to sciences, from languages and literature (which I studied) to chemistry, physics, and biology, and further to medicine and genetics, which brought my mother to the U after she finished college.

That’s to the right. To the left is the drawbridge, the museum, and the path with the floating walkway, which takes you under a freeway and over to the Arboretum. That path is one of the limits of Union Bay, across which I could see where we lived when I was in grade school.

We lived in Union Bay Circle, a complex of student housing for families in which the head of household was a graduate student. My mother was getting her PhD, and every day on her way to the lab she crossed the Union Bay natural area – a former landfill that had only been closed and capped a few years before we arrived. Then it was divided into “management zones” defined by shrubs, woods, waterbird habitat, managed trails, and unmanaged land.

I played all over the nature area, sometimes on walks with my mother, sometimes after school with other children of graduate students, sometimes unattended. It was marshy near the water, and the open spaces smelled faintly of its not so distant past. I played in the Genetics wing, too, and rode my bike and walked all over campus long before I matriculated there. These are my strongest memories of the UW campus, perhaps of anything, and all are from well over 25 years ago.

The alumni association sends out questionnaires from time to time, building their database so they can identify and cultivate donor prospects. It’s been a long time since I opened one of those mailings, and my mother once asked me how I’d responded to one of the questions – something about how much of my success I felt I owed to the university. (It can’t have been worded so baldly, but that’s the sense that stuck with me.) I told her the question bothered me, that the answer was basically, “Nothing.” “That’s not what they want to hear,” she said. Certainly not, but the UW’s bid for my gratitude was lost to them long before I registered for classes there. I already had my soul mother in my real mother; the campus is just where she happened to raise me.

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