The first problem is, we were poor. The second is, we were women. The third is, we were not the canny students who read the classics bulletin board and scribbled down information about summer scholarships at The American Academy in Rome.
Showing up for class after working the night shift: “Filled out your application?”
Stage direction: Burst into giggles.
There was nothing on that bulletin board for my friends and me. We could not afford Rome, even if we had won a scholarship. The irony is that the secretary might have found us other grants, since she was the only one who understood the system. But we stared blankly at the professor who told us to check out the bulletin board. He was well-meaning but clueless.
It was never going to happen.
Once a member of the middle class, I’d dropped a class or two in the struggle for independence. For a year, a toxic relative paid my tuition, grudging to the point that he did not reveal until my senior year that there was a college savings account for me. (He had spent most of it.) And so I worked part-time, as did most of my friends, to pay rent (for a tiny room in a house with a communal kitchen), tuition (eventually covered by loans and grants), food (a lot of Ramen noodles), and necessities (soap, shampoo, etc.).
I was too exhausted to think about Rome. Bizarrely, like the travel writer in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, I had little desire to travel. I had already attended dinner parties with Catullus in my head (“You will dine well if you bring your own”) and pondered the words of Horace (Epistle 1.11): “…They change their sky, not their spirit, who hurry across the sea.”
And I certainly would not have gone to Rome without my boyfriend. Was that being a woman? No, I was in love.
As I have said, I was not a bulletin board person. But a wonderful small thing happened there. A friend’s brilliant, charming parent showed up in front of the bulletin board and congratulated me on winning the Latin Prize.
I was so touched. In the end, it’s these little moments that make it possible to pursue our dreams. Professors are distant, friends care. I fondly remember the socialists, hippies, anarchists, poets, and others I met along the way. Just a word from the past to the future, now from the future to the past.