I must send my old
of Scotland. But what?
Sometime in the early 1950s, a small boy looked up to the sky and watched bombs falling on his homelend. He wondered why they fell in an arc rather than straight down to earth.
Fast forward to the 1970s and the boy is a professor of physics at a small liberal arts college in the mid-west and I am an exchange student from Stirling University. He likes to tell that story. I am enthralled. I'm also an arts student taking a physics course; it could never happen back at Stirling. Despite its modern pretensions of semesters instead of terms and crossover courses between departments, it hasn't really broken any moulds if we exclude the infamous queen's visit. The administration and some of the academics are old school ex-army or failed Oxbridge and the course structure is predictable. Modern history started in 1789 and literature started with Beowulf; here endeth the lesson.
But here we have 'Contemporary Concepts' although the students call it 'Physics for Poets' which is surely a better name for this unique, mind-expanding delight of a course. And we have 'Athens and Jerusalem', run jointly by the professors of the classics and religious studies departments. It is an academic double act, a gladiatorial battle between faith and reason and how, out of all this turmoil, Christianity emerged.
On my home turf of the English department, I am equally challenged but this time I'm feeling a little gladiatorial myself. I'm told to write one page on significant themes in 'Great Expectations'. I object, with embarassing loftiness, that back home in Stirling we would write a minimum of 3,000 words and would be expected to submit significant work. How could I possibly write anything of merit on one page? I had to write my gnomic piece. It was difficult. Another lesson learned.
Do not think that this was an easy time. In Stirling, we would slope off to the students union most nights around 9.00pm and sometimes come home in the early hours. If an essay was due we would work all night but party all day just to make up for lost time. The workload in my small college in St Paul was a shock to me. Most nights were spent in the library until it closed at 11pm although I had a reputation for dragging my pals along to O'Gara's on Grand Avenue for a beer or several after that. Letters home became postcards and thoughts of travelling to see the big wide US of A were confined to term holidays.
I returned to Stirling clutching my ‘ Contemporary Concepts’ course book to show off to the physics department. I felt like Sir Walter Raleigh bringing home the first smoke. They were intrigued by the concept but it disappeared into their black hole. So did my book.
By the serendipity of the internet we fast forward again over 30 years later, my physics professor and I are back in touch. I like to think that he is as delighted as I am. He promises to send me another copy of his book and I insist that, in return, I must send him something of Scotland. He tells me that he is a Presbyterian and has always had a fondness for Scotland. And I probably now can guess the story behind his epic journey from Korea to Minnesota.
And so, what can I possibly send him? How can I tell him that he opened up the universe to me? How can I tell him that my country has become more inward looking than it was in the 1970s? That instead of looking at the sky, we look at each other and judge our level of 'Scottishness'? How can I tell him that I love my country but I am heartily sick of the expression 'the people of Scotland'? I am not for one minute comparing Scotland to Korea but the irony does not escape me.
What do I send in return for his gift? What are Scotland's Contemporary Concepts today? Alex Salmond's referendum bill? 'The Complete Works of Burns' with the rude bits redacted? 'The Complete Works of Celtic Connections', if it existed, would probably be my choice. Suggestions on a postcard please?
Anne Keenan lives in a remote part of the West Highlands. She writes for pleasure and to remind herself that there is a big world out there