On the first Wednesday of September, I walked towards the local Metra Station at about an hour and a half before sunrise. The air was cool and soft, the sky was black and star-lit, and the moon was full, sitting at about two o’clock in the west by northwest sky.
My old friend, the moon.
The bright full moon followed me along, just forward of my left shoulder, a fellow traveler. While I had my day’s errands in the city on my mind when I set out, the moon had gently nudged them out of the way, taking their place. And the moon whispered to me, it whispered about the past.
In the early 1980s, I was a student at Northeastern Illinois University on the far Northwest Side of the city, despite the fact that I lived on the far Southeast Side. After getting my associate’s degree at the old Loop College on Lake Street, just off of Michigan Avenue, I had gone searching for a school to finish my bachelor’s degree.
I eschewed the University of Illinois-Chicago, then still referred to as Circle Campus, as it was too big and impersonal. And I never even seriously considered the University of Chicago, as it was too expensive and too exclusive. I was just a former laborer in a steel mill with a rucksack, flannel shirt and a watch cap. But NEIU was small, intimate and quiet. And quite inexpensive compared to other choices.
Nearly every weekday morning, I would leave my home to catch one of the first northbound #30 South Chicago buses well before sunrise, the moon my companion, helping to set my compass heading to the Northwest Side.
Sometimes I’d transfer at 106th and Ewing Avenue to another bus that took me to the Red Line L Station at 95th and State, or I’d stay on my first bus all the way to the 69th Street L station. When the train arrived downtown (the Red Line ran above ground back then), I’d look ahead through the first car’s window to see if a Ravenswood train had made its turn onto the northbound tracks at Adams and Wabash.
The Ravenswood train would click ‘n clack its way north and then northwest, with neighborhoods new to me on either side of the tracks. Even then I saw, quite starkly, in black and white, the differences between the North and the South Sides of the city. Another type of education.
After the train left the Western Avenue elevated station, it slowly descended until it crossed the north branch of the Chicago River, after which it stayed at ground level. Up ahead, in late August or early September, the setting moon, if not full then just about full or just past full, would be hanging above the western horizon ahead of me. The moon would look huge and luminous and dusty orange in the early morning sunlight. When I saw my old friend, the moon, I knew that the new school year had begun, that there would be new books to read, ideas to consider, and arguments to be formed and defended.
While NEIU has never really enjoyed much of an academic reputation, I found my classes, the majority in English and History, to be demanding and stimulating. But I wasn’t surprised, as I had prudently picked up a copy of the school’s catalog soon after I transferred, and had looked up the names and academic backgrounds of my future instructors. Almost all had PhDs, and some from prestigious institutions; I was not in awe of them, but respectful. And they all taught me well, as they set the bar high, at least for those of us wanting to strive to meet their expectations.
Fall term is now underway, and classrooms are filling up with expectant students. Hopefully, each will have made the educational choices that are best for them. Education is what you make of it, no matter where you go to get it. You might attend the most ivy-covered of universities, yet emerge no more well educated than your counterpart from a public institution. Or less.
If you’ve concluded that I’m not overly impressed with distinguished institutions, you’re right. I’ve always been more impressed by what transpires on the streets, the buses, and the trains, and the neighborhoods they move through.
If I’m enchanted with anything, it’s with moonlight.
John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.
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