The University of Texas at Austin and Me: A Short Autobiography

Living in Austin, the Capital of Texas as A Dude does, I regularly pass through this leading educational institution on my bicycle. I also tend to take it for granted. Now that I’ll be living closer to it, I expect to be seeing more of the sprawling place, especially on my daily walks. But my ties to UT (you tee) go back many years, before I was even born. I’ve been musing about this and if you don’t mind, I’ll share some thoughts with you here. Or even if you do mind. Go Longhorns!

At some point in the late 1930’s, my maternal grandparents both attended the school. They met somehow and fell in love, I suppose. My grandmother was studying in the pharmacy school, which was fairly progressive for a woman back then. My grandfather was learning to become a teacher. Grandmother (as my brother and I called her) became pregnant with my mother and dropped out to begin their family. Years later my mother (with my father’s contribution) had me. So I would literally not exist with the University.

My earliest memory of the place was because I played in of high school band. I practiced a lot, got a private teacher and a nice instrument, and became pretty good at it. At some point I became first chair of my section and was encouraged to try out for the University Interscholastic League competition. My teacher, who was also my accompanist, had me work relentlessly on a solo. We got invited to the UIL contest, which was held at UT Austin. It was a nerve-wracking but exhilarating experience.

As I recall, I was warming up in a musty old room somewhere in the music school, stomach full of butterflies. Then it was time to go before the judges. Somehow, I held it together and received a rating of 1, the highest. If memory serves, I was the first from my high school to get that rating. I also got a 2 on a duet with an oboe player. She was a year older and pretty cute. But she didn’t truck with an underclassman, so my rating with her was a 5.

It was always expected by my single mother that my brother and I would attend college. UT was the logical choice. When it came time to apply, I was accepted, but I had no idea what I wanted to study. I was still interested in music; I was good, but not great. Somehow, I had a notion that if I made it my career, I would end up hating it. Sort of like people working in pizza parlors grow to detest pizza.

Also, I had graduated high school a semester early and had gone through a rebellious phase. At UT, I realized that I would have been a small fish in a big sea of people. I was working, and figured I’d save money by staying at home, helping my mother by being a regular fish in a regular pond at community college. I think not pursuing a music degree may be the biggest regret of my life.

As a junior, I was accepted again, but wanted to continue my studies in French by going abroad, to France. But UT didn’t have a study abroad program there, so I went to another college. I have yet to make it to France, although I usually watch the epic bicycle race, the Tour de France. I moved to Austin for the first time in 1991, the same year the pivotal film Slacker came out, directed by Richard Linklater. Years later I found myself in the UT movie theater after a screening of something, and he was there. I asked him what time it was, but he said he didn’t wear a watch. I like to say that Richard Linklater would literally not give me the time of day.

Sophie in front of Dr. King statue at University of Texas at Austin on a Black History Tour, June 2020

There was always something happening on campus, so in addition to films, I attended various events like lectures, free music recitals and the occasional protest. I remember one time a crowd of thousands was assembled in front of the iconic clock tower listening to the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak. The civil rights icon who worked with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a wonderful orator. As a young, white, progressive American who had never been to an African-American gospel church, the experience was a revelation. I don’t remember why he was speaking, but I’ll never forget the ending of his speech. He had us all repeat, “I am somebody. I AM somebody. I AM SOMEBODY!” Try it sometime when you’re all alone. Now, imagine doing that with 5,000 other people. It was incredibly inspirational and uplifting.

At some point in the early 2000’s, I got a temporary office job on campus. It lasted a month and that was it. Sometime after that, I picked up my instrument again and found a friend of a friend who played piano. We used to sneak into the music building practice rooms to play. We weren’t the only ones and never displaced any students. I pass through campus regularly to go downtown. Nowadays, it’s got a lot less students due to the coronavirus pandemic, which is how I found the place to live that I did.

Now that I’ll be nearby, I wonder what role UT might play in my life. Maybe it’s time to play music again if the muse visits. I hope she does. It’s probably too late for a music degree at the Butler School of Music, but one never knows. The Michener Center for Writers is one of the premier programs in the US. Sometimes I’ve toyed with applying. But it only accepts 12 people per year, and bicycle memoir is not one of their categories, so my chances are slim. Or fat. Or both. What’s the difference between a slim and fat chance anyway?

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