A Western Relationship

My mother, Wendy Waldie, was an employee of Western for 38 years. She passed away Jan. 24 and the flag on University College was lowered in recognition of her many years of service. As we were sorting out some of her personal effects, I came across a short essay she wrote for Writing 102G in March 1998. In it, she documents her experiences at Western, beginning from 1969, leading up to then present day Western. She outlines the changes on campus, the feelings of being a student then and now (she was a student throughout her long employment with the university). She called it ‘A Western Relationship’ and referred to her love of the university and her commitment as akin to a marriage.

– Rebecca Waldie, second generation Western employee, Academic Program Coordinator, Schulich School of Medicine  Dentistry

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My love affair with Western began in the summer of 1969, when I took the city bus there with my boyfriend, who would be a first-year student that fall. I was very nervous, never having seen a university campus. After all, university was meant for children of wealthy families, and a poor girl like me could never hope to be a part of that life. My first impression was one of awe, the rich stone architecture evocative of movies filmed on British campuses. I could smell snobbery in the air, and I felt very much out of my element.

Indeed, I expected some faculty member to ask me to leave the hallowed ground.

However, the following year, I began my own studies as a full-time student at Western. Although the campus atmosphere still had a foreign scent, I tromped across the grounds, trying to identify the buildings of my classes. All the buildings looked alike to me, and I felt like a lost soul. The former boyfriend, then in second year, provided no help; I was left to fend for myself. After a few lonely months, I found a warm and friendly place to meet new people. The Alcove occupied a part of a large cafeteria in one of Western’s most beautiful buildings, Middlesex College, “the one with the clock.”

The Alcove could – and usually did – accommodate 60 or 70 students, all Caucasian and Anglo-Saxon, the Canadian equivalent of All-American boys and girls. Grey Formica tables with gold flecks filled the room, and each table was set with four turquoise vinyl chairs with steel legs. Opening into the larger part of the cafeteria, The Alcove had only two corners. Larger tables were accommodated in both corners, since turquoise vinyl benches were built into the walls. The flooring was institutional grey tile with black and white specks. The walls were bare and dingy, painted yellow concrete block, with the only adornment being the large industrial-style clock which ticked away the minutes until the next class.

The Alcove was the 1970s in all of its glory and with all of its warts. The room was smoke-filled, with no windows to provide any fresh air. Every table had at least one ashtray, for the students of the day were rebellious, and smoking was still socially acceptable in most places. Afternoons in The Alcove were very hazy; no studying occurred there. We all knew The Alcove was for talking, smoking, and playing bridge. We talked of Vietnam and the October Crisis; we exchanged views on Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix; we repeated the latest racist and sexist jokes; we arranged parties where sex and marijuana were widely experienced. The smell of vitality was everywhere. Yet for all of this, the students worked hard in their courses, struggling to complete their degrees so they could get jobs and hopefully change the world.

Except for me.

The atmosphere of The Alcove engulfed me completely. I would travel to school every morning, but rather than attending the Mathematics or Psychology class on my timetable, I would instead head straight to Middlesex College, for my fix of Sociology. I remained there until evening, when I would return home and pretend for my parents I had suffered through another tough day. Yes, The Alcove was a powerful place. Through the haze of smoke and french fries with gravy, I smelled freedom – the freedom of new relationships, where no one knew my past; the freedom of speech, where I could opine on the political events of the time; the freedom of youth, where I could try new things that every young person needs to try; the freedom to fail courses, where classes had been skipped for months.

The Alcove introduced me to the man I would later marry. He was in second year and, obviously, knew his way around. Although he attended classes as scheduled, he sometimes joined The Alcove Group during spare periods. He was an excellent bridge player, and our weekends included many hours at assorted card tables in assorted apartments and student residences.

I think of that year as a transition year in my life. Forced to withdraw from studies at Western because of poor grades, I accepted a staff position on campus, and my relationship with the university turned in a new direction. That was then; this is now.

I have worked at Western for more than 25 years, and the changes to the community have been nothing less than amazing. There are many new buildings, but they no longer intimidate me. Each building has its own individual flavour, its own smell. Each is different from the next, with faculty and students from various disciplines preferring to congregate with their own, creating a distinct environment in each location.

Smokers – few that there are – huddle in groups outside the buildings, for smoking was banned indoors long ago. The cafeterias still fill with students during the school year, but tables are used for studying and for eating. The student and faculty populations are international, providing a rich environment for all.

The Alcove is gone.

The former cafeteria in Middlesex College has been renovated, and the space is now occupied by a graduate student bar, undergraduate computing laboratories and student lockers. However, whenever I enter that building, the memories flood back, and I remember the music, conversations, and friends of the 1970s.

My romance with Western has endured almost 30 years. I register now for courses on a part-time basis, trying to recover grades lost in the follies of youth. My favourite season on campus is the fall, as students return from their families and summer jobs, anxious to re-unite with friends and, as first-year students arrive, eager to begin a new phase in their lives.

In the air, I can smell the excitement as well as the fears of the freshmen.

I smile as I direct lost souls to their buildings which, to newcomers, all look alike. The students still party, but some activities are less socially acceptable than in the past. Mostly the scholars attend Western to get ‘book-learning’ and the university degree that will allow them to compete in the workforce. In some ways, the students of today are wiser than I was. However, the lessons of my transition year were well-learned, though they did not occur in formal classrooms. I learned about life.

My office at Western now is small, but comfortable. I have the usual computing equipment on the usual wooden desk, with the usual black cloth armchairs for visitors. The walls are dingy, the usual off-white painted drywall, elegantly decorated with posters and photographs. I have only one small window, but it opens to allow in fresh air as desired, or I can use its venetian blinds to ensure my privacy when needed. The carpet is institutional blue-grey, badly worn and in need of repair. Aside from the evidence of lacking building maintenance, the office scarcely reminds of the physical appearance of The Alcove. However, the robust spirit conceived in that cafeteria lives on.

I am lucky to have good friends who work with me in a suite of small but comfortable offices. We talk not only of job-related topics, but also of Serbia and Jean Chrétien; we exchange views on Céline Dion and Our Lady Peace; we repeat the latest jokes – politically correct ones, of course; we share stories of our families. Yet for all of this, the staff work hard, struggling to retain their jobs, and hopefully contributing in some way to positive change at Western.

Some of my friends have said I am married to Western, and I understand what they mean. In a successful marriage, two individuals work in partnership towards the same goals. Both people mature over their united lives, growing and developing, separately and together. The partners maintain loyalty to each other, and keep the vows made on entering the marriage contract. They are mutually responsible for decisions, and they jointly share in the resulting successes and failures of their choices. These same axioms apply to my relationships with Western.

I sometimes wonder what the university will be like 30 years from now. Surely, there will be all kinds of changes and they will be nothing less than amazing. The buildings may be changed, and the students may look different, but I suspect the same smell will be evident: the smell of an academic community, where at least some of the mysteries and beauties of life can be revealed to those who hunger for knowledge. In the meantime, I anticipate the time when my own daughter might attend Western.

While I naturally wish her academic success, I also hope that she finds her own Alcove.

Wendy L. Waldie worked in Institutional Planning and Budgeting at Western.